UW Huskies coach, players gear up for national title showdown

Jan 3, 2024, 8:28 PM | Updated: 8:30 pm

Image: Bralen Trice, left, and Michael Penix Jr. of the Washington Huskies hold their individual aw...

Bralen Trice, left, and Michael Penix Jr. of the Washington Huskies hold their individual awards and celebrate after their team's 37-31 victory over the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 2024. (Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

(Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

For the University of Washington (UW) Huskies, close games have been a hallmark of their historic season.

Each time, the team has pulled out a victory, including a heart-pounding win against Texas in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day that saw the Huskies hang on against a late surge from the Longhorns.

In fact, the Huskies have won 10 consecutive games by 10 points or less. It’s their fifth win in a row by one score.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. expects the championship game against Michigan Monday to be no different.

“That’s a good team over there. They are coached very well,” Penix Jr. said Wednesday. “But we’re going to be ready for the challenge.”

More from Seattle Sports: Coverage of the UW Huskies

Washington has won one national championship win in its history, a victory in 1991 it shares with Miami (Florida). But they have yet to clinch a title since the creation of the College Football Playoff. They made the playoff in 2016, but lost to Alabama at the Peach Bowl.

‘The bond and the connection’

The team has silenced many naysayers over the course of the season, owning college football’s longest unbeaten streak — 21 consecutive victories. Penix Jr, who transferred to UW from Indiana in 2022, says it has been a multiyear process to get the program to a successful place. But he believes it’s there and ready to perform on college football’s biggest stage.

“The biggest thing is the bond and the connection that we have within the team. This team, we truly have love for each other, and we want to see each other, do great,” he told reporters during a media availability session Wednesday.

Huskies defensive end and Sugar Bowl Defensive Player of the Game Bralen Trice agrees the team’s mental fortitude is what has given them an edge—and this shot at a national title.

“We see teams that can’t perform in clutch moments like that, because they hang their heads down and they start to get mad at each other, and they start fighting within their groups and within their units.”

But that hasn’t been the case for the Huskies. Time after time, the team has shown resilience on the field.

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Penix Jr. expects it will continue — even with the stakes so high.

“We’re just going to continue to prepare the same way that we do each and every week. And we know that we have what it takes to be able to come out with the W.”

Coach Kalen DeBoer on the Pac-12, Penix and Johnson

The UW quarterback and 2023 Heisman Trophy runner-up has faced Michigan before. In 2020, he led Indiana to its first victory over Michigan in more than three decades. Indiana and Michigan both are members of the Big Ten conference—which the University of Washington is set to join next season after announcing its departure from the Pac-12 last year.

When asked if he has given any thought to future showdowns against Michigan, Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer says the team’s focus is on the here and now.

“This is all about us representing the Pac-12. And going to win a national championship for our program and finishing off this season for this group of guys that have worked really hard.”

That includes Penix Jr, who is expected to be taken high in the NFL draft this spring. DeBoer says his quarterback shows leadership both on and off the field.

“Who he is as a person—he’s got a skill set that I think it makes him the best player in the country.”

UW is facing some uncertainty about star running back Dillon Johnson—who left the field late in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl with a foot injury. DeBoer says Johnson has been working through the issue for a couple of months—and despite a short seven-day turnaround—he remains optimistic on Johnson’s availability for the title game.

“(Johnson is) going to do everything he could to be on that football field.”

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A ‘completely different vibe’

Win or lose, both Penix Jr. and Trice said what the Huskies have built is something special.

“Everybody sees the gameplay and the stats and the scores,” says Trice. “But when you’re behind the scenes, you really see how much heart and drive goes into this. This team in the weight room, on the practice field, even in the locker room. It’s a completely different vibe than teams I’ve been on in the past. And I think that plays a big role in why we’re at where we’re at now.”

They know all eyes will be on the Dawgs — or rather — the underdogs, as few expected UW to make it this far. But despite that, Penix Jr. says he’s keeping his eyes off the headline and centered on the field at NRG Stadium in Houston.

“I’m just always so in the moment, you know, at that time, you know, during the game,” he said. “I’m always confident in myself and this team, and the preparation our coaches give us to go into each game.”

Washington and Michigan face off in the College Football Playoff National Championship game on Monday in Houston. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. You can listen to all the action live on Seattle Sports, either on AM 710, online or the Seattle Sports app.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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