PULLMAN — It was a family reunion, away from home.
After Washington’s 51-33 Apple Cup win, Michael Penix Jr. hugged his grandmother and kissed her forehead as Husky fans gradually poured into Gesa Field. Cheryl Penix had flown from Tampa, Florida – 2,800 miles – for her grandson’s coronation.
For his first — and last? — Apple cup.
For the culmination of a season his family will never forget.
“It means the world. I’m so happy for him! Cheryl Penix screamed, donning a gold UW beanie, through streaming tears. “He just had so many injuries, so much of everything. For him to win this…”
The words stopped and she gasped – overwhelmed – as the tears returned.
“I am so happy for him. I’m so happy for this year. God bless him! It was his year. Oh my God!”
It has, indeed, been the year of Penix.
For proof: see Saturday.
And two shots (admittedly tired).
It’s a game of thumbs…and fortune favors the daring.
Thumbs were everything for Cougars kicker Dean Janikowski, who fired a 50-yard field goal that hit the top of the crossbar and then rebounded to give WSU a short-lived 3-0 lead. That was true for WSU quarterback Cameron Ward, too, as the embodied word transfer twice dodged sacks by agonizing thumbs to deliver touchdowns in the first half – via a 13-yard run and a 34-yard pass on fourth-and-10 shorted wide receiver Robert Ferrel.
In his first Apple Cup, Ward completed 33 of 52 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for a score, and went overtime for life.
But the thumbs also helped the Huskies.
After WSU cut the deficit to 35-33 via a 4-yard TD from Nakia Watson with 4:36 left in the third quarter, the Cougs unsurprisingly went for two. Ward took a snap of his fingers, pulled himself out of a Jayvon Parker sack and beat UW edge Jeremiah Martin to the pylon.
But he forgot to lay the pigskin in the end zone.
It could have been an insurmountable mistake…but the Washington quarterback responded with one of his own. UW’s nine-play, 64-yard run came to an abrupt end when Penix threw an interception past Rome Odunze and into the waiting arms of corner Derrick Langford Jr. in the westcourt.
Still, like in UW’s 37-34 win over rival Oregon, Penix followed up an interception in the end zone with a quick buyout. After the UW defense forced a punt, Penix loopered Ja’Lynn Polk for a 41-yard gain. Odunze took a late game for a 5-yard touchdown a play later to take a 41-33 lead.
“He keeps fighting, keeps playing,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of his quarterback. “And I know there’s probably a pitch he’d like to get back, and that’s part of it. But you can see the response, and he continues to do so over and over, throughout the season. He is one of the best in the country. There is so much conviction on the side of the team. He was the one who cracked us up at the start of the fourth quarter, and it was so passionate. You can tell he gives his all every game.”
The Huskies could have — should have — made it a two-run game, but kicker Peyton Henry hit the ensuing extra run from the left post.
He missed by a few centimeters.
But there was enough redemption for everyone.
After UW forced its third punt of the second half — a dramatic improvement — the Huskies amassed a 15-play, 94-yard walk, which eventually stalled at the 3-yard line. Henry – the hero against Oregon – netted a 20-yard field goal to extend the lead to 44-33. Wayne Taulapapa’s 40-yard touchdown run in time ended the game for good, as Washington amassed 703 total yards and went 11-for-13 on third down.
And, when it comes to the tired snap No. 2, Cougs coach Jake Dickert probably knew he’d need some bold shots to beat Washington.
In this case, Dickert delivered.
Trailing 10-7 midway through the first quarter, Dickert dialed in an effective fake punt – as punter Nick Haberer caught the snap and found linebacker Daiyan Henley fleeing down the middle for a 36-yard gain. The Cougs scored (after another fourth conversion) via the aforementioned Ward almost sack scramble seven games later.
WSU, in fact, went just 8-for-20 on third down Saturday…and 4-for-5 on fourth down.
But when it comes to boldness, UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb isn’t easily outdone.
Leading 17-14 with 9:52 left in the second quarter, Penix took a shotgun blast and threw a lateral to wide receiver Jalen McMillan. The sophomore took a few short steps, turned around and brought it back to Penix – who maneuvered through the blockers for a 30-yard score.
“We practiced it all week,” Penix said of the elaborate score. “We knew whenever we got the right look, we were going to call it, and we knew we were going to execute it. We had no doubt in our mind that we were going to execute it. I told Coach Grubb all week that I was going to score on it, so I had to make sure I was in the end zone.
Penix — who leads the nation in passing — completed 25 of 43 passes for 485 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, while adding 34 rushing yards and two other scores. The assault included a 47-yard rainbow touchdown to Odunze, a 75-yard strike to McMillan on the first play of the second half and a 26-yard laser to Polk (who needed every available inch to transport it).
Incidentally, Odunze and McMillan both passed 1,000 receiving yards on Saturday, becoming the first Husky teammates to do so in the same season. McMillan had six catches for 150 yards and a touchdown, while Odunze added five catches for 157 yards and two more scores. Polk added four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown as well.
“For a 1-2 punch… I don’t know who’s ‘2’ and who’s ‘1’, but they’re special,” DeBoer said of Odunze and McMillan. “They started at the start, not just at the start of the season but at the start of the year, to be the best in the conference. They must be one of the best combos in the country.
When the Apple Cup ended, the party began. Huddled in front of the group, the Huskies circled the Apple Cup shouting “Say Who!” inside Martin Stadium. Jaxson Kirkland – the UW’s sixth-year senior left guard – said: “That’s all we decided to do after last year – to right the wrongs. I just feel like UW is back in order. i like to call [WSU] little brother, and we proved it tonight.
Speaking of: More than one family reunion has taken place in Pullman. Five days after signing a two-year extension, DeBoer smiled for photos with his family — his wife, Nicole, and daughters Alexis and Avery.
“It’s the first game they’ve been able to attend on the road, just with activities for children. So that means a lot,” DeBoer said. “At some point you sit down and realize what happened.
“But I’ve pointed out to the players – since the start of the week, and I even talked about it last week – how hard it is to win 10 games. Even in the tradition and history of our great program, there have only been a few teams selected in the over 100 years [who have won 10 games]. We did it. It’s been a special year. There are ups and downs and the woulda, coulda, shouldas somewhere, probably, but we’re in a different place right now.
This is true, literally and figuratively, for the Penix family.
It’s his year.
And it’s not over.
“I feel like I’m playing like a kid again, man,” Penix said. “At this time last year I was at home. This time during the four years of college I was at home [injured]watching my guys, or on the sidelines.
“So I’m just blessed to be in this position. I must give praise to the highest. So I’m delighted to be here.
THE SCORE OF THE BOX
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