CHRISTIAN CAPLE

10 most memorable moments from UW Huskies’ unforgettable 2023

Mar 17, 2024, 12:29 PM | Updated: 12:30 pm

UW Huskies Michael Penix Jr. Rome Odunze...

UW Huskies WR Rome Odunze and QB Michael Penix Jr. celebrate a TD in the 2023 Apple Cup. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

It isn’t just that the UW Huskies won 14 games and a Pac-12 championship and played for a national title. Washington’s 2023 season also developed as if scripted for the big screen, with distinct turning points, clutch plays and tense moments seemingly every week.

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Here, we recount the 10 most memorable moments from what became an unforgettable season.

10. Penix to Odunze at Oregon State

It’s third-and-three, 1:58 left in the game, Washington leading 22-20, Oregon State out of timeouts. A first down clinches victory and an 11-0 record. Turn and hand to Dillon Johnson? Hmm. Not this time. Instead, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb empties the backfield and calls for a two-way pass play — a screen to Germie Bernard developing on the right side of the formation, and Rome Odunze isolated against a cornerback on the left side.

Michael Penix Jr.’s 19-yard, back-shoulder throw is complete, the Huskies win, and Odunze has another clutch reception to put on the mantle. (Play starts at 2:38 in the video below)

“I feel like the whole stadium knew where I was going with the ball,” Penix said. “I don’t know why they didn’t give safety help.”

9. The pick-six that wasn’t

Alphonzo Tuputala likely doesn’t want to spend much time reliving his 76-yard interception return against Utah, because it should have been a 77-yard interception return. The fact that it wasn’t — because Tuputala dropped the ball in celebration at the 1-yard line, before entering the end zone — became instant blooper-reel fodder and cost the Huskies seven points.

Or did it only cost five? Utah recovered the ball at its 1-yard line, and Tuli Letuligasenoa penetrated to force a safety on the next play, pushing the Huskies’ lead to 35-28. That wasn’t as ideal as taking a 40-28 lead, which Tuputala could have assured by merely carrying the ball another yard before dropping it. But the long interception return still flipped the field and put UW in position to build on its lead, even if the Huskies ultimately didn’t; 35-28 was the final.

Tuputala’s teammates offered words of encouragement.

“That’s our brother,” cornerback Jabbar Muhammad said. “We got him up, told him, ‘next play,’ and hey, the safety happened.”

8. A score for Quentin Moore

A fifth-year junior last season, Moore functioned mostly as a blocker behind co-starters Jack Westover and Devin Culp. Facing third-and-goal from Oregon’s 2-yard line with less than three minutes remaining in the Pac-12 championship game, Grubb called a play designed for Moore to make just his second catch of the season — and the first touchdown of his career.

It put the Huskies ahead, 34-24, with 2:44 to play. They held on to win 34-31.

UW installed the play in practice that week and repped it several times, Grubb said. Moore lined up tight on the right side, momentarily faked as if he intended to pass-block, then released into the flat before Penix found him for an easy score.

7. Zion Tupuola-Fetui at USC

His late-second-quarter strip sack changed the game, forcing USC to play from behind when it had been Washington trying to keep pace throughout a frenetic first half. Afterward, Tupuola-Fetui, always willing to give you something just a little bit extra, mentioned with a grin that UW’s scouting report indicated that Caleb Williams, the Trojans’ Heisman-winning quarterback, tended to play loose with the ball. Tupuola-Fetui took advantage, swiping it from Wiliams’ hands on a dropback deep in USC territory. Bralen Trice fell on the fumble, and the Huskies scored three plays later to lead 35-28 at halftime.

ZTF’s night at the Coliseum also will be remembered for an emotional postgame scene. Tupuola-Fetui’s father, Molia, had died of an illness seven days prior. After the game, TV cameras captured coach Kalen DeBoer embracing ZTF and speaking into his ear: “This team loves you.”

“He would have loved this game,” Tupuola-Fetui said of his father. “He would have loved to be in the Coliseum, and to have watched us winning, that performance I was able to put on today. Yeah, this week was rough, but knowing it’s what he would have wanted helped me out a little bit more.”

6. Penix to Culp

You knew instantly that if Washington did manage to win its game at USC, Penix’s second-quarter touchdown to Devin Culp would be remembered as one of the season’s defining plays.

Facing third-and-18 after a bizarre penalty against Troy Fautanu for continuing to play after his helmet came off, Penix spun out of a sack attempt, rolled left and seemed as if he’d just heave the ball out of bounds. Instead, he saw Culp in the end zone, threw it to the perfect spot, and the sixth-year senior tight end somehow clutched it with a defender draped on him as he fell out of bounds.

As the NFL Draft nears, you’re seeing this play crop up across social media as evidence of Penix’s brilliance. It also must have felt redemptive for Culp, who struggled with drops throughout his career but made some enormous catches for the Huskies in 2023.

5. Four plays in the fourth quarter vs. Oregon

OK, so we’re stretching the definition of a “moment” on this one, but I’m guessing you know which four plays we’re referencing: Oregon’s third- and fourth-down snaps before Penix’s completions to Ja’Lynn Polk and Odunze.

Sure, the 18-yard touchdown to Odunze will go down as the iconic play, but it doesn’t happen without Penix’s 35-yard throw to Polk, and none of it happens if Bo Nix doesn’t throw incomplete on fourth-and-three … which wouldn’t have happened if not for Ulumoo Ale’s penetration to stuff Jordan James on third-and-two. The latter is among the most underrated plays of the season.

Don’t forget, either, about Mishael Powell’s perfect coverage on the fourth-down incompletion. Nix sprinted out left and essentially had nowhere to throw it.

There was some question about whether UW should have run more clock before Penix’s pass to Odunze. But the quarterback saw his top target with single coverage — a receiver screen developed to the other side of the formation — and didn’t want to wait any longer to get him the ball.

4. Mishael Powell’s pick-six

How might Washington’s fortunes have changed — both on the field in 2023 and beyond — if Powell hadn’t intercepted Trenton Bourguet’s fourth-quarter pass and returned it 89 yards for a go-ahead touchdown? Would the Huskies have found a way to win, anyway?

If they hadn’t, would they have gathered themselves well enough to win out and still claim a Pac-12 title? Would that loss have kept them out of the College Football Playoff? Would DeBoer still be UW’s head coach?

The Huskies’ offense never did put the ball in the end zone that night, though Grady Gross did add three field goals in UW’s 15-7 victory. It was later revealed that Penix was battling illness, and some injuries to the interior offensive line made the Huskies vulnerable against ASU’s aggressive pressure schemes.

Powell said he felt like ASU was trying to “lull me to sleep” by motioning a receiver to his side throughout the game, but never throwing that way. He thought the receiver in this instance, Melquan Stovall, was moving with a little more gusto, which prompted him to lock in and jump the route.

3. The Swat

Washington’s entire coaching staff and first-string offense have turned over, and several key defensive players have moved on, too. But if there is one remaining connection to a 2023 highlight, it’s cornerback Elijah Jackson. The fifth-year junior started every game with uneven results. He tackled well at times and finished the season with six pass breakups and two forced fumbles, but also struggled in coverage. With one second on the clock in the Sugar Bowl, though, and Texas poised to take one last shot into the end zone from UW’s 13-yard line, the Huskies needed Jackson to make the biggest play of his life to extend their season into the national championship game.

He did, of course, playing the fade before leaping to emphatically swat away Quinn Ewers’ pass to Adonai Mitchell.

“Every guy on the field wanted to get the last play, you know what I mean?” Jackson told me afterward. “They wanted to put it on them. That’s the type of culture we have. It’s contagious. Everybody wants to make the game-winning play. Everybody wants to be that guy. I just felt like it was my turn.

“I saw it go up, and I knew it was all or nothing, so I had to make the play. There was no choice.”

2. Camden Lewis, wide right

The missed 43-yard field goal clinched Washington’s 36-33 victory over Oregon, yes, but it also makes this list for what happened afterward: a wild, field-storming celebration which marked one of UW’s best, most memorable victories ever at Husky Stadium.

Prince’s “Purple Rain” played over the speakers. Penix gave an emotional postgame interview to ABC’s Holly Rowe before finding his family. Later, he waited at the end of the tunnel to greet each of his teammates as they finally made their way off the field. Grubb shed tears of joy as he celebrated. DeBoer was so amped that he interrupted Penix’s postgame interview to congratulate him.

1. Apple Cup, fourth down

For all the receiving yards and touchdowns he accumulated during his All-America career, it’s a rushing play for which Odunze might be remembered most. It’s No. 1 on this list for what it meant in the context of the game and season, but also because it best captures the aggressive style favored by the 2023 Huskies, and the reliance on stars like Odunze to step up in big moments.

Facing fourth-and-one from their own 29-yard line, the score tied 21-21 with 1:15 to play, DeBoer opted to go for it rather than punt the ball back to the Cougars.

Penix faked to Johnson, who plunged into the line of scrimmage as the defensive interior collapsed to stop him. Ball still in hand, Penix turned and pitched to Odunze, who began his right-to-left motion at the snap, and the star receiver gained 23 yards to move the chains.

Grady Gross eventually knocked through a 42-yard field goal at the buzzer to clinch a fraught rivalry victory — and the first 12-0 regular season in school history.

Explaining the fourth-and-one call at his Monday press conference, Grubb credited quality control assistant Mitch Dahlen for finding the play, and said DeBoer was “like 75 percent” sold on going for it when he suggested it over the headset.

“He gave the, ‘are you sure?’” Grubb said, “and I said yes.”

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.

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