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Three Things We Learned: Title Game

An OL in distress, the resiliency of the defense, and a storybook ending rewritten

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Washington at Michigan Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

1. Show Me (Joe) Moore

During the back half of the season there was a constant refrain from analysts that the Arizona State game held the blueprint to stopping Michael Penix Jr. All it takes is consisting and unrelenting pressure in his face from multiple rushers while UW has reshuffled their interior offensive line, Penix has the flu, it’s raining, and the defense gets multiple turnovers off fumbles and tipped passes at the line. Easy peasy.

Texas had one player, Byron Murphy II, who got consistent pressure inside but Penix was almost always able to sidestep him and still have a stable pocket to step up into in order to find an open receiver. Against Michigan? Not so much.

All year Penix was so good about shrugging off pressure and being able to either throw the ball away or throw a jump ball to one of UW’s great receivers that they usually win. That didn’t happen against the Wolverines. Washington’s offensive line gave up 16 pressures on 53 dropbacks per Pro Football Focus. That’s actually less than Penix faced against Texas and on 14 fewer dropbacks.

The big difference was the speed with which Michigan was able to get pressure. Penix had a time to throw of 2.45 seconds, his 3rd lowest of the season (the lowest was in that ASU game at 2.4 seconds). Against Texas his time to throw was 2.93 seconds, tied for his 3rd highest. The ability for Michigan to get pressure despite the fact that Washington was getting the ball out so quickly completely changed the math for the offense.

The right side of the line in particular was caved in all night. Roger Rosengarten and Julius Buelow were each credited with 6 pressures surrendered per PFF. Rosengarten was flagged for a pair of holds although I’m sure Husky fans will disagree about the first one which negated a 32-yard completion to Odunze. Buelow in fact had the rare pass blocking Blutarsky, receiving a 0.0 grade from PFF.

The overall numbers under pressure were horrific. Penix finished 3 of 15 for 14 yards with both interceptions (plus the one touchdown). A 0.9 yards per attempt figure when pressured is absolutely not going to get it done. Especially when he only averaged 6.7 yards when kept clean.

It was always clear that Penix’s brilliance in this offense helped the offensive line look better than they were. We knew it probably wasn’t actually the best line in the country. But against the best defensive front the Huskies saw all season they needed to at least be able to hold their own to give the Dawgs a chance, and unfortunately they weren’t up for it.

2. Resilient to the End

There was many a fan that likely thought the Huskies were completely toast after Michigan got out to a 17-3 lead by early in the 2nd quarter with 3 carries of 40+ yards. It wasn’t an unreasonable position to hold. It certainly looked like Michigan would be able to run the ball at will and grind the Dawgs into a fine powder.

Except, if you’ve watched this team all season you know that the defense is very capable of looking terrible to start a game and then suddenly find itself getting stops any way necessary as the game progresses. Michigan gained at least 65 yards on each of their first 3 drives while averaging nearly 15 yards per play. That’s better than you’ll see many teams do against overmatched FCS competition.

From that point on though the defense gradually figured it out. Michigan had fewer than 30 yards on 6 of their next 7 drives and their only score in that time was a field goal on a drive in which they gained 12 yards. The final score looks like a blowout at 34-13 but 10 Michigan points came on possessions where the defense gave up 12 or fewer yards thanks to interceptions thrown by Penix.

The Husky defense played best when their backs were against the wall all season. It’s fair to wonder why they can’t just play that way all game but in the biggest moments they have stepped up. Michigan looked like they were going to run away and hide but the defense gave Washington’s offense chance after chance to get them back into the game. Every other opponent faced this season that would’ve been enough. In the biggest contest of the season, it wasn’t.

3. Dreams Don’t Always Come True

There were times throughout the year when it looked like Washington was destined for a fairy tale season. How else can you process so many close wins. So many clutch moments. So many dazzling 4th down stands by the defense and Michael Penix Jr. javelins.

Everything seemed to be setting up for Penix to lose out on the individual Heisman award but find the ultimate team success with a national championship. Instead, he came up just short for both of them.

This entire Husky team believed they had what it took to win a national title. They believed that Michael Penix Jr. had what it takes to get them there. When he chose to return it helped make that decision a simple one for Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, and Bralen Trice. It’s hard to tell them that they were wrong.

Michigan was the better team. It’s pretty hard to deny that. They had more yards per play, a higher success rate, and fewer turnovers. But midway through the 3rd quarter the Huskies were still within striking distance. There was still a chance for their late game magic to come to the forefront one last time.

But it didn’t. The offense had their first big play of the game wiped out on an offensive holding call and the defense finally gave up a big play in the passing game to let Michigan get back into scoring position for the clinching touchdown. A team that relied on bend but don’t break all season broke only once the pressure of the game state became truly insurmountable.

This team never broke though. Dillon Johnson sprained his left ankle, the one good body part he had left. Michael Penix Jr. was bruised and battered and visibly in pain while finishing out the game on the final few drives. Those are the extra details that make the miraculous comeback in your favorite sports movie really hit home. We didn’t get to see that movie though.

What we got was an impossibly entertaining team for four and a half months. This team may not go down as the undisputed best in program history but it will certainly be right in the conversation. Michael Penix Jr. will go down as the greatest quarterback in Husky history even if he didn’t have the length of career of some of the other starts in Washington lore. Rome Odunze will go down along with Mario Bailey and Reggie Williams as one of the all-time great Husky receivers.

In a perfect world, they all would’ve been rewarded with a 15-0 season and a national championship. They’ll have to settle for 2nd place and a place in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives. It’s only disappointing because we were 60 minutes away from an even better result. But a thank you is in order to every player, coach, and staffer associated with this team.

Next year will be one filled with change. A new conference. A new quarterback. A new playoff format. This season was the end of an era in many ways. But oh what an end it was.