He was just the transfer when he first arrived at Washington before this season. Saturday, he was transformational.
He was simply the starter a week and a half prior to the Huskies’ opener. Now, he is the undisputed star.
A good chunk of the nation likely tuned into ABC thinking No. 11 Michigan State was going to embarrass unranked UW on its home field. But viewers didn’t watch a drubbing by Sparty — they watched the Michael Penix Jr. coming-out party.
One of the principal rules of column writing is to not let the moment lure you into hyperbole. Consider that rule noted. Because it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Washington quarterback launched himself into the Heisman race in his team’s 39-28 win Saturday. And it’s equally accurate to say his performance instantly turned the Huskies (3-0) into Pac-12 championship contenders.
Penix was half maestro, half magician against Michigan State — slashing surgically through the Spartans’ defense in certain moments and dropping NFL-caliber dimes in others. The final stat line read as follows: 24 of 40 passing for 397 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. The fifth-year junior would have had a fifth TD had Jalen McMillan — who had a stellar game with seven catches for 94 yards — not dropped a pass in the end zone.
Penix’s injury history is well-documented, with ACL tears and a shoulder separation derailing previous seasons. His back seems just fine, though — he carried the Huskies on it Saturday.
“We already knew that was Mike. Before he even got here we were like ‘yes!'” said Washington safety Alex Cook, remembering the time Penix led Indiana to a win over Ohio State when he played for the Hoosiers. “Once we got that man we knew this team was going to be special. And that’s what we showed. That’s what we’re showing.”
It would be difficult to imagine a more assertive introduction than the one Penix gave the country on his first drive of the night. He completed all three of his throws, including a 47-yard bull’s eye to McMiIllan before finding Ja’Lynn Polk on an eight-yard TD pass.
Two drives later, he hit Jack Westover on a 27-yard toss to Michigan State’s 3 en route to a TD. He started the next drive with a 37-yard completion to Polk, and finished it with a 19-yard scoring pass to running back Wayne Taualapapa. And when MSU scored with 1:22 left in the first half to make it 22-8, Penix led a 65-yard drive that ended with another TD pass to Polk that put UW up by 21.
It seemed the only time the Huskies struggled is when they asked Penix not to throw. Four straight runs kept Washington out of the end zone from first-and-goal from the 1 in the first half, just as four straight runs kept them out of the end zone from first-and-2 in the second.
In other words, had the field been 99 yards long instead of 100, the Penix-led offense would have scored seven touchdowns Saturday.
“One of the biggest testaments to his character is the ability to continue to move plays and continue to extend plays,” Taualapapa said. “It’s easy to follow a leader like that. Of course, he’s always going to be humble and what not, but we know he’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever grace an offense.”
Indeed, Penix is going to remain humble. He went out of his way to praise teammates Saturday — particularly his offensive line — noting that the Spartans recorded no sacks. Even when asked directly to comment on his own performance, he refused, saying “I know you’re trying to say it’s about me, but it’s not about me.”
Well, it’s not all about Penix. The Huskies used each phase of the game to establish themselves as a national threat Saturday, taking a 39-14 lead before two late Michigan State touchdowns elicited a modest scare. The defense held the Spartans to 42 rushing yards, and Polk tallied 153 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. But the QB was the main course on the Montlake menu.
This didn’t look like a fluke game for Penix, who compiled 682 passing yards and six touchdowns against one pick in his first two outings of the year. His ability to stay healthy may still linger (he has never played more than six games in any of his previous four collegiate seasons) but his ability to produce seems firmly established.
As Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer said: “You got a guy you can win football games with, not a guy who can just manage a game.”
Polk took it a step further when asked about his quarterback: “I don’t think nobody has seen anything just yet.”
No, they definitely saw something. Something special. The best may be yet to come for Penix — but that was the best this program has seen in years.