At USC, UW Huskies’ Michael Penix Jr. has Heisman opportunity

Nov 3, 2023, 10:43 AM

UW Huskies Michael Penix Jr....

The UW Huskies' Michael Penix Jr. takes the field at Husky Stadium on Sept. 23, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Presumably, the group chat does not involve schematic discussion or screen shots from the USC game plan. If it did, UW Huskies linebacker Ralen Goforth might have received the boot about 11 months ago, when he chose to leave USC and enter the transfer portal.

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But he’s not the only ex-Trojan still exchanging messages with former teammates within a chat that, he guesses, might include 50 or so people.

“The dudes who transferred out, went to the league — Jordan Addison, everybody — we’re still in there,” Goforth, now a senior linebacker for the UW Huskies, said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, it’s a brotherhood, too.”

The only former teammate he’s interacted with this week, Goforth said, was Max Williams, a senior safety and fellow 2019 signee, who texted him a simple message after Washington’s victory over Stanford: “See you at the Coli.”

That’s shorthand, of course, for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the site of No. 5 Washington’s pivotal showdown Saturday with No. 20 USC, a game marked long ago as one of the most important in the Pac-12 this season.

It still is, but maybe more so for the Huskies, who are unbeaten through eight games and can further burnish their College Football Playoff resume by beating the Trojans. USC has not similarly delivered upon its preseason hype, losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Utah — before allowing 49 points in a one-point victory at California last week — to mostly recede from CFP contention, even if a conference championship remains within reach.

There are personal matters at stake, too. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is as viable of a Heisman Trophy candidate as the school has ever seen. UW’s current lull — an accurate description, even if the Huskies did defeat both Arizona State and Stanford — has diminished Penix’s status as overwhelming Heisman frontrunner, but not irreparably. The nation’s leading passer is still a top candidate, and could re-establish himself as the clear favorite by leading UW to victory with a big statistical performance.

That would be true against any USC team, in any era, the Trojans and the Coliseum providing a platform few other regular UW opponents can rival. But it might be especially true because USC’s quarterback, Caleb Williams, is the reigning Heisman winner, and outplaying him before a large television audience — with ABC’s A-team of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Holly Rowe calling the action — could give Penix the boost needed to move back ahead of the pack.

The idea of a quarterback duel is always sort of amusing — and silly — because of course the players don’t actually face one another, and their respective performances are most influenced by the quality of the opposing defense. Voters are at least wise enough not to discount an impressive performance in defeat — like, say, Williams against Utah in last year’s Pac-12 championship game — but there’s probably no scenario where Washington wins this game without Penix putting forth some Heisman-esque feats along the way.

That’s partially due to the number of points expected — Vegas sets the total around 76.5 — which corresponds to relatively low expectations for each team’s defense. But that’s probably most true for the Trojans, who have allowed 32.6 points per game (113th in FBS), gave up 49 last week and rank 94th nationally in yards per play allowed.

Washington has been a little better — 34th in scoring defense, 46th in yards per play allowed — but last week gave up 367 yards passing and several positive scrambles to a quarterback who will not receive any Heisman votes this season. If Saturday’s winning score winds up south of 40, consider it an upset.

USC’s defensive struggles aside, Williams presents a challenge unlike any UW has seen. He’s tied for the FBS lead in touchdown passes, and is top-10 in FBS in yards per attempt and passer rating. His 136 total rushing yards — a figure reduced by the 24 sacks he’s taken — belie how dangerous Williams can be with his legs, whether by extending pass plays or finishing drives; yardage aside, he’s rushed for nine touchdowns this season, including two last week.

Penix said he met Williams this summer, at the Elite 11 camp, though he doesn’t know him well. “I just know he’s a good guy and a good quarterback,” Penix said.

In response to a question about the two of them facing each other, Penix remarked that he was most looking forward to Washington vs. USC. “We’re not the only people on the field,” he said.

Goforth joked this spring about being in the rare position of having played with the reigning Heisman winner, and now going against a different Heisman hopeful in practice. He marveled at Penix then: “He’s making throws that I haven’t seen — throws that I’ve only seen from one other person, if that. He’s the real deal.”

I asked Goforth this week what he’s learned about Penix in the months since.

“Behind closed doors, he does a lot for this team,” Goforth said. “He’ll sit down with the whole front, whether it’s the o-line, tight ends or running backs, going over blitz protections and stuff like that. Stuff that you don’t see. The coaches aren’t even in the room. He organizes that.”

Similarly, described Williams as “a player’s quarterback” who was easy to get along with.

“Everybody gels with him,” Goforth said. “You can go over to his house any time you want. You can watch the NFL Draft at his house. He was a guy all the players loved.”

As for defending him?

“Stay on your man, if you’re in man coverage,” Goforth said with a smile. “You’ve got to be disciplined when you’re going against a guy like that, going against an offense like that. Any game comes down to execution. Going up against that kind of offense, who can let it rip at any moment in time, you have to be able to execute at a high level. You’ve got to be able to dominate up front, and you’ve got to be able to plaster receivers when he gets to scrambling.”

That’s where Williams and Penix most differ. Penix navigates the pocket well, but almost never tucks the ball and runs; he has just 12 rushing attempts this season, four of which were scrambles, and five of which were sacks.

“(Williams) escapes in a more aggressive style. I think Mike’s a little bit more stoic, in terms of his pocket presence,” said UW linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. “He’ll really stay in there a lot longer than usual. They can really both throw it wherever they want to. If I wanted to pick them in a race, I’d pick my Jamaican friend (Penix).”

He should be closer to full health, after playing through illness the past two weeks. Penix said there was never a chance he’d sit out either of those games — “I’ve been out long enough in my career,” he said — and that he felt better throughout the victory at Stanford.

He finished with 369 yards passing and four touchdowns.

He says only one number matters against the Trojans.

“It’s a big opportunity, because it’s the next game, another opportunity to put another win in our column,” Penix said. “That’s what it’s about for us. That’s what we’re striving to do.”

Also: “I’m just hoping to go undefeated and win a national championship. That’s what I’m hoping for. The Heisman, that stuff can come. It is what it is. (Williams is) a good quarterback. He earned it last year. I’m not worried about who’s going to win it this year, because right now, I’ve got to worry about helping my team win a football game, and that starts this week.”

More on the UW Huskies

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• AP Top 25: Where are UW Huskies as Oregon haunts them again?
• Caple’s Takeaways: UW Huskies hold on 42-33 vs Stanford

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