PULLMAN – It was a family reunion far from home.
After Washington’s 51-33 Apple Cup win, Michael Penix Jr. hugged his grandmother and kissed her forehead as Husky fans gradually flocked to Gesa Field. Cheryl Penix had flown in from Tampa, Fla. – 2,800 miles – for her grandson’s coronation.
For his first – and last? — apple cup.
For the climax of a season his family will never forget.
“It means the world. I’m just so happy for him!” Cheryl Penix screamed, pulling a gold UW cap through dripping 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’m just so happy for him. I’m so happy for this year. God bless him! This was his year. Oh dear God!”
It was indeed the year of Penix.
For proof: see Saturday.
And two (admittedly tired) clichés.
It’s a game of inches… and luck favors the brave.
The inches were everything for Cougars kicker Dean Janikowski, who hit a 50-yard field goal that hit the top of the crossbar, then jumped over to give WSU a short-lived 3-0 lead. So did WSU quarterback Cameron Ward, as the Incarnate Word transfer twice avoided sacks by agonizingly struggling for inches to score first-half touchdowns — via a 13-yard scramble and a 34-yard -Pass to fourth and ten uncovered wide receiver Robert Ferrel.
In his first Apple Cup, Ward completed 33 of 52 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns, rushed to score and stretched plays forever.
But customs also helped the huskies.
After WSU narrowed the deficit to 35-33 with a 4-yard Nakia Watson TD at 4:36 in the third quarter, the Cougs unsurprisingly went two. Ward snapped, wiggling out of a Jayvon Parker sack and punching UW Edge Jeremiah Martin to the pylon.
But he forgot to extend the pigskin into the end zone.
That could have been an insurmountable mistake…but Washington’s quarterback responded with one of his own. UW’s nine-game 64-yard drive ended abruptly when Penix threw an interception past Rome Odunze and into the waiting arms of cornerer Derrick Langford Jr. in the West End Zone.
Still, just like in UW’s 37-34 win over rival Oregon, Penix followed an end zone interception with a quick release. After the UW defense forced a punt, Penix fired a looper at Ja’Lynn Polk for a 41-yard gain. Odunze made an end around for a 5-yard touchdown a game later to take a 41-33 lead.
“He just keeps fighting, keeps playing,” UW coach Kalen DeBoer said of his quarterback. “And I know there’s probably one litter he’d like to have back and that’s part of it. But you can see the reaction, and he does it over and over again throughout the season. He’s one of the best in the country. There’s just so much trust on the team’s side. He’s the one who broke us before the fourth quarter and it was so passionate. You can tell he’s giving everything he’s got on every piece.”
The Huskies could have — should have — made it a two-point game, but kicker Peyton Henry hit the following extra point from the left post.
It missed it by inches.
But there was enough redemption to go around.
After UW forced their third punt of the second half — a dramatic improvement — the Huskies rallied a 15-play 94-yard march that eventually faltered at the 3-yard line. Henry – the hero against Oregon – drilled a 20-yard field goal to extend the lead to 44-33. Wayne Taulapapa’s 40-yard touchdown rush in garbage time ended the game for good as Washington mustered 703 total yards and went 11-for-13 in third.
And as for the tired No. 2 cliché, Cougs coach Jake Dickert probably knew it would take brave punches to beat Washington.
In this case, Dickert delivered.
Midway through the first quarter, Dickert was down 10-7 and chose an efficient fake punt — when punter Nick Haberer caught the snap and linebacker Daiyan Henley licked over the middle for a 36-yard gain. The Cougs scored (after another fourth down conversion) seven games later via the aforementioned ward near sack scramble.
In fact, on Saturday, WSU was down just 8-20 in third place… and 4-5 in fourth place.
But when it comes to boldness, UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb doesn’t come easy.
Trailing 17-14, 9:52 in the second quarter, Penix snapped a shotgun and threw a lateral to wide receiver Jalen McMillan. The second wideout took a few short steps, turned, and threw it back at Penix – who maneuvered through blockers for a 30-yard score.
“We practiced it all week,” Penix said of the elaborate score. “We knew whenever we had the right look, we would call it, and we knew we would execute it. We had no doubt that we would do it. I’ve been telling coach Grubb all week that I’ll score with it, so I had to make sure I got to the end zone.”
Penix — who leads the nation in passing — completed 25 of 43 passes for 485 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while adding 34 rushing yards and two more points. The attack included a 47-yard rainbow touchdown on Odunze, a 75-yard smash on McMillan in the first game of the second half, and a 26-yard laser on Polk (who needed every available inch to catch him).
Incidentally, Odunze and McMillan both exceeded 1,000 receiving yards on Saturday — becoming the first Husky teammates to do so in the same season. McMillan accumulated six catches for 150 yards and a touchdown while Odunze added five catches for 157 yards and two more points. Polk added four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown.
“For a 1-2 punch … I don’t know who the ‘2’ is and who the ‘1’ is, but they’re special,” DeBoer said of Odunze and McMillan. “They set out from the start, not just at the start of the season but at the start of the year, to be the best there is 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 band, the huskies walked around the apple cup and yelled “Sag wer!” at Martin Stadium. Jaxson Kirkland – UW’s senior legacy left guard in sixth year – said: “That’s all we’ve set out to do after last year – to right the wrongs. I just feel like UW is okay again. I like to call [WSU] little brother, and we proved that tonight.”
Speaking of which, more than one family reunion took place at 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 get to on the go, just with activities for the kids. So it means a lot,” DeBoer said. “At some point you sit back and realize what happened.
“But I pointed this out to players earlier this week, and even pointed out last week, that winning 10 games isn’t easy. Even in the tradition and history of our great program, there have been few select teams over the 100+ years [who have won 10 games]. We did. It was a special year. There’s the ups and downs and the woulda, coulda, shouldas in there, probably, but we’re in a different place right now.”
This applies literally and figuratively to the Penix family.
It’s his year.
And it’s not over yet.
“It feels like I’m playing like a kid again, man,” Penix said. “I was at home this time last year. This time I was home for the full four years of college [injured]watch my boys, or on the sidelines.
“So I’m just blessed to be in this position. I must praise the highest. That’s why I’m just happy to be here.”