CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies notes: Winning the Joe Moore, Penix’s ‘catchable’ passes

Dec 22, 2023, 1:57 PM | Updated: Dec 24, 2023, 2:12 pm

UW Huskies...

Michael Penix Jr. of the Washington Huskies attempts a pass on Dec, 1, 2023. (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

(Ian Maule/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — A 7-foot, 800-plus-pound guest attended Washington’s practice on Thursday. The UW Huskies’ offensive line even got to pose for a photo with it.

UW Huskies RB Dillon Johnson has checked off 3 goals, with 2 in sight

The gargantuan trophy presented to the winners of the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s top O-line group, will reside at UW through the end of next season. A nine-person voting committee chose the UW Huskies over fellow finalists Georgia, LSU and Oregon; Michigan won it each of the past two seasons.

Washington’s 13-0 record has predictably yielded ample recognition during awards season.

Michael Penix Jr. was a Heisman Trophy finalist and won the Maxwell Award. Rome Odunze was one of three Biletnikoff Award finalists. Edefuan Ulofoshio was a finalist for the Butkus Award. And coach Kalen DeBoer has been named National Coach of the Year by numerous outlets.

Considering the state of UW’s program a mere two years ago, though, there might not be a more satisfying honor for the Huskies than winning the Joe Moore Award.

UW’s offensive line struggled under the pro-style, power-running scheme favored by former coach Jimmy Lake and coordinator John Donovan. UW averaged only 3.19 yards per rush that season — 120th in FBS — while finishing 4-8. It was a disappointing outcome for a group that Lake believed to be the Pac-12’s best.

Yet DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb chose to retain O-line coach Scott Huff, believing the 2021 season to be an aberration, and Huff has more than proven them right. UW’s offensive line allowed only seven sacks last season and has given up just 11 this year, tied for fourth-fewest in FBS. And while Penix has been afforded enough time to throw to again lead FBS in passing yards per game, the Huskies also have their first 1,000-yard rusher in four years — Dillon Johnson, who has rushed for 767 yards and nine touchdowns in UW’s last six games.

Perhaps even more impressive is that Washington’s offensive line doesn’t look the way coaches thought it would at the start of the season.

Sixth-year senior center Matteo Mele, for example, sustained a season-ending arm injury in Week 2, forcing 275-pound redshirt freshman Parker Brailsford to move from right guard to center. A pair of fifth-year juniors, Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow, have cemented as the starting guards, though Buelow missed two games due to injury, which required fourth-year sophomore Geirean Hatchett and his younger brother, Landen, a true freshman, to step in for a time.

And that was after UW lost all three of its 2022 interior O-line starters — Jaxson Kirkland, Corey Luciano and Henry Bainivalu — to graduation.

But Brailsford was a revelation at center, earning second-team all-conference recognition. Left tackle Troy Fautanu, the star of the unit, was a first-teamer — and received a third-team All-America nod from the AP — and right tackle Roger Rosengarten did not allow a sack this season, per Pro Football Focus.

It wasn’t always perfect. Arizona State successfully pressured Penix by bringing consistent pressure up the middle, and the Huskies rushed for only 13 yards on 13 carries that night. They also struggled to run the ball in a tough win at Oregon State.

UW’s O-line seemed to play its best when challenged, though, and Grubb was never afraid to gameplan around the running game — even in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Johnson carried 28 times for 152 yards in UW’s 34-31 victory, including nine rushes for 52 yards and a touchdown on the Huskies’ first two possessions.

“Especially the first half, I thought the O-line was knocking them off the ball a little bit, controlling the line of scrimmage, and we just had good presence,” Grubb said after that game. “It wasn’t always, like, 10-yard hits, but the presence and (consistency) in the run game gave us a lot of confidence.”

Against a Utah defense that ranks 15th in FBS in yards per rush allowed, Johnson ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. He ran through gaping holes at USC, compiling 199 of his 256 rushing yards before contact, a figure noted in the Joe Moore Award’s official release. And while the Huskies weren’t happy with their run-blocking in that 22-20 win in Corvallis, Penix wasn’t sacked or hit by a defense that ranks 12th in FBS in total sacks.

At the conclusion of his postgame TV interview that night, Penix said: “Shout out to my O-line, man. I didn’t get touched all day.”

That statement is largely representative of his two-year UW tenure.

Huff earned a big raise, to an annual salary of $850,000, after last season’s bounceback performance by UW’s offensive line. He would seem to have ample leverage with which to seek another bump this year, though the Huskies’ biggest challenge of the season — blocking Texas defensive tackles T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II — awaits in the College Football Playoff.

Michael Penix Jr.’s “catchable” passes

On the surface, it might feel somewhat silly to describe passes thrown by a successful quarterback as “catchable.” A ball thrown accurately to its intended target is inherently catchable, right?

Yet it’s a word that I’ve regularly seen used to explain what sets Penix apart — that in addition to having a strong arm and a confident rapport with his receivers, his passes are simply easier to catch than the average quarterback’s.

What does that mean, exactly?

I asked a few guys who would know.

“It’s always friendly, whether it’s the angle of it or the touch of it,” said Odunze, who has caught 81 of those friendly passes for 1,428 yards this season. “If you’re 5 yards away, he’s not firing it on you, he’s giving you a little dump pass. (If) it’s a deep ball and he needs to put it outside because the defender is close, that’s where he’s going to put it. Or if the defender is far away, he’s just going to put it on you.”

This is how senior tight end Devin Culp put it: “The common term these days in our football world — the guy throws dots. He puts it right on the money every time, right where you need it. You see it all the time with deep crossers, where he’ll get it right over the linebacker’s head, but right in front of the safety, right into somebody’s hands, perfectly. We’ve seen it in practice 1,000 times. We’ve seen it in games repped out.”

And tight end Jack Westover: “He throws one of the more cozy balls. It’s just, like, friendly. It’s always a tight spiral. If you’re 5 yards away, it’s a throw from 5 yards away, it’s not just a heater. That’s why you see so many crazy catches from all our teammates, because it’s such an easy ball to catch.”

Pac-12 litigation ends

With a one-sentence statement, the 12 current members of the Pac-12 put an end to their legal squabble over who should control the league’s assets.

Washington’s Supreme Court declined last week to review a preliminary injunction granted by a Whitman County Superior Court judge, which gave remaining members Washington State and Oregon State control of the Pac-12’s board.

A statement issued Thursday and attributed to all 12 schools read: “We are pleased to have reached an agreement in principle that ends litigation.”

OSU and WSU issued a joint statement that indicated the other 10 schools, including UW, “have agreed to forfeit a portion of distributions over the remainder of the 2023-2024 year and provide specific guarantees against potential future liabilities. The conference retains its assets and all future revenues.”

It’s another big win for the Cougars and Beavers, who continue to chart their future as the other 10 schools prepare to depart for other leagues. It remains to be seen how this news might impact UW’s budget, which still is recovering from the pandemic but should benefit from an increase in ticket sales resulting from the Huskies’ successful 2023 football season.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

More on the UW Huskies

Damon Huard: UW Huskies’ Michael Penix ‘is ready for the NFL’
• Chris Petersen’s keys to a UW Huskies win over Texas in CFP
• 247Sports’ Huffman: Where UW Huskies’ 2024 recruiting class stands
• Brock & Damon’s Playoff Preview: Greg McElroy on how UW and Texas compare
• Kalen DeBoer is AP coach of the year after leading UW Huskies to CFP

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UW Huskies notes: Winning the Joe Moore, Penix’s ‘catchable’ passes