The Huskies’ most reliable asset never appeared in the national title game

HOUSTON – What will make the dream harder, what will haunt at times, is that the Huskies know they could have won this game. Despite Michigan’s onslaught in the first quarter, when the Wolverines piled up 174 rushing yards in those first 15 minutes, Washington had a chance to win the whole damn thing.

His defense had adjusted – amazingly – and put on a masterclass in the second and third quarters, along with the early part of the fourth. But the Dawgs’ most reliable asset — that top-ranked aerial attack in the country that has propelled them to 21 straight wins — just never showed up Monday against Michigan in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

That’s why they are not national champions.

It’s hard to be too critical of a team that just put together one of the most exciting seasons in Seattle sports history. En route to Monday’s national title game, where Michigan handed them a 34-13 loss, the Huskies have won 10 straight games by 10 points or fewer.

No team in college football had shown more poise in the tightest situations. And more pertinently, no team has scored more passing yards this season, with UW averaging over 350 of them per game.

The main driver in all of this was quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a Heisman Trophy runner-up who had the best game of his career a week earlier against Texas. But as majestic as he was in the Sugar Bowl, he was a mere mortal in the natty.

Example #1: With Washington trailing 17-3 early in the second quarter, Huskies coach Cullen DeBoer decided to go for it on fourth-and-7 from the Wolverines’ 47-yard line. A touchdown probably would have followed had Penix hit a wide open Rome Odunze, but he threw it well past his target en route to an incompletion.

Example #2: With Washington trailing 17-10, Penix threw an interception at his own 32-yard line on the first play of the second half. The turnover allowed Michigan to go up by 10 points.

There were a few rejections of Ja’Lynn Polk as well. And then that interception after Michigan was up 14 late in the fourth. Before that, though, there were three straight punts in which Washington was forced to punt while trailing 20-13.

That key play — which the Huskies (14-1) have provided all season — never came. And the quarterback knows it.

“On the offensive side of the ball, we missed a lot of opportunities where we needed to execute to put our team in a better position to win this game,” said Penix, who finished 27 of 51 for 255 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. “We beat ourselves.”

Three quick things. 1. Penix is ​​a Husky legend. He might be the best player in program history, and there’s no way his team would have gotten to this point if he wasn’t consistently impressive. 2. He looked like he was playing hurt. 3. Monday’s offensive shortcomings don’t fall directly on him.

There were some drops — including one by Will Nixon on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter that would have moved the chains for the Huskies. There were some demoralizing penalties — most notably an offensive holding flag on right tackle Roger Rosengarten that returned a 32-yard completion to Odunze in the fourth quarter when Washington trailed by seven.

And the fact that Washington had so many opportunities to tie the game all night was borderline shocking based on what Michigan did early on.

By the end of the first quarter, the Wolverines had 229 yards to Washington’s 74. They had scored touchdowns on their first two drives, needing just 12 plays to do so. It looked like a rout in the making — then Michigan went eight straight possessions without finding the end zone.

It was the defensive adjustment of the season for UW. “O” just didn’t follow suit.

“We couldn’t get over the hump,” said DeBoer, whose team didn’t have a gain of more than 20 yards with 6:04 remaining. “We just couldn’t get him to play here or there.”

To be fair, Michigan (15-0) entered the game with the No. 1 defense in the country. The Wolverines put pressure on Penix in a way that no other Huskies opponent has done all season.

But the Huskies didn’t lose that game because there were no chances. They lost because they didn’t take advantage of them.

All told, you won’t find many — if any — Washington fans complaining this season. The Huskies were 4-8 two years ago and played for the national title on Monday night. A pair of three-point wins over archrival Oregon, a playoff win over Texas in the semifinals, a Heisman campaign. It doesn’t get much better.

But it could be a little better.

UW had a shot on Monday. It was a miracle season for these Huskies, but they will also wonder what could have been.

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