CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple’s Takeaways: UW Huskies are Pac-12 champs, CFP-bound

Dec 1, 2023, 10:54 PM | Updated: 11:06 pm

UW Huskies Pac-12 championship Dillon Johnson...

Dillon Johnson of the UW Huskies holds the Pac-12 Championship trophy on December 1, 2023. (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

(Ian Maule/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The No. 3 UW Huskies clinched a College Football Playoff berth and won the final Pac-12 Championship with a 34-31 victory over No. 5 Oregon on Friday at Allegiant Stadium.

Pac-12 Championship – UW Huskies 34, Oregon 31: Recap | Box score

Here’s what to know.

One for the books

Not only did the Huskies and Ducks put forth (another) all-time classic chapter in their bitter rivalry, but Washington did something no UW team ever has done: the Huskies are 13-0.

Only six teams in UW history have won 11 games, and prior to this season, only two had ever won 12. And of course, only one — the unbeaten, 1991 co-national champions — had ever gone 12-0.

Washington ended the Pac-12 era by winning its third conference championship game in eight years, and by virtually ensuring itself no worse than the No. 3 seed in this year’s College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 era will end with a conference team making the field only three times, and the Huskies will own two of those appearances (and the final two).

Now, UW will await the results of Saturday’s SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 championship games to determine who they will face in the CFP semifinals. The Huskies will play in either the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., or the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Both semifinal games will be played Jan. 1.

Running to win

The Huskies’ offense under coach Kalen DeBoer is known for its passing game, but Washington now has a 1,000-yard rusher, too — and they needed every last one of Dillon Johnson’s 152 yards to close this one out.

Johnson finished with a career-high 28 carries, the Huskies establishing him early while putting together methodical drives. Their offensive line played one of its best games of the season, knocking open big creases for Johnson to run through.

And on third-and-9 in the fourth quarter with UW needing a first down to ice the game, it was Johnson who burst through the line for an 18-yard gain before sliding down, victory assured.

The Mississippi State transfer’s performance pushed his season rushing total to 1,113, most for a Husky since Myles Gaskin rushed for 1,147 in 2018.

UW Huskies’ receivers step up

If someone had told you in the third week of the season that Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk would play important roles in any UW conference championship, you’d have believed it easily; both players were excellent last year, and entered 2023 as important weapons.

For different reasons, though, their combined contributions on Friday — 17 catches for 233 yards — might not have been predicted by many. McMillan missed significant time this season due to a knee injury, and while he returned to full-time action two weeks ago, he had yet to see the kind of target share that he did during last year’s 1,098-yard season.

On Friday, Michael Penix Jr. targeted him 13 times, and McMillan caught nine of those for 131 yards, including gains of 45 and 31. The latter came on the final play of the third quarter, and helped key the scoring drive that put UW back ahead, 27-24.

Polk had stepped up in McMillan’s absence, totaling 943 receiving yards through UW’s first 10 games. But he struggled to catch the ball in the rain at Oregon State, then had a drop and was held without a catch in the Apple Cup.

He rebounded Friday, though, to catch five of six targets for 57 yards, including receptions of 25 and 19 yards on the Huskies’ final touchdown drive.

Polk finished the game with exactly 1,000 receiving yards this season.

Penix for Heisman?

Washington’s star quarterback was voted game MVP after completing 27 of 39 passes for 319 yards and a touchdown (with one interception). His 2-yard toss to tight end Quentin Moore in the fourth quarter proved the difference in the game.

Penix certainly will be invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, but was his Friday performance enough to win the award? The result likely eliminated Oregon quarterback Bo Nix from contention, but the dual-threat abilities (and statistics) of LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels will make him a strong contender. Penix had been a distant third in recent betting odds behind Nix and Daniels.

Voting ends Monday. Expect UW to do what it can to push Penix for the award until then.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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