Arizona State tasked with stopping Heisman favorite Michael Penix Jr., Washington

Oct 18, 2023, 9:15 AM

Michael Penix Jr, Washington...

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. warms up ahead of Arizona State vs. Washington on Oct. 8, 2022. (Jeremy Schnell / Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell / Arizona Sports)

TEMPE – Coming off a bye week, Arizona State will have to face perhaps its toughest task this season.

The Sun Devils (1-5) travel to Seattle to face Heisman favorite Michael Penix Jr. and No. 5 Washington (6-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Penix, a sixth-year senior, has thrown for 2,301 yards, 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He is completing 72.1% of his passes.

This past Saturday, in Washington’s 36-33 victory over then-No. 8 Oregon, Penix connected on 22 of 37 throws for 302 yards, four touchdowns and one pick. He completed an 18-yard touchdown pass with 1:38 left that ended up being the game-winner.

“His release is incredible,” Arizona State head coach Kenny Dillingham said Monday. “The ability for him to get the ball out to somewhere he’s not looking — I mean he had a throw this Saturday throwing the ball to his left on a third down where he was looking to his right and there was a free hitter on his left. And he got the ball from the moment that he wanted to release the ball into the receiver’s hands who was 12 yards away down the field for a first down.

“I could have sworn it was 2 seconds. It was throw, catch. … He has a strong arm, he’s got a quick release and I think that’s one of his greatest skills is he doesn’t get sacked.”

Dillingham lauded Penix’s comfort in the Huskies’ system and called the standout quarterback a “freakish talent.”

Washington is No. 3 in the nation in total offense (543.7 yards per game) and No. 1 in the country in yards per play (8.49).

The Huskies have scored 34 touchdowns, which is tied for fourth in the country.

Outside of Penix, Washington has received strong production from senior running back Dillon Johnson.

The Mississippi State transfer has rushed for 340 yards, scored five touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt in 2023 in five games. He had his first 100-yard game of the season against Oregon, carrying the ball 20 times for 100 yards and a score.

The Huskies also feature a three-headed monster at wide receiver. Rome Odunze, who hauled in the game-winning score against the Ducks, has 40 receptions, 736 yards and six touchdowns. He’s not alone.

Ja’Lynn Polk has 32 catches, 586 yards and five scores. Jalen McMillan has put up 20 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns despite missing two games with an injury he re-aggravated in the Oregon game. His status is unclear for Saturday but Odunze and Polk alone still make up a dynamic duo.

“This is one of the rare teams that has difficult scheme with good players, great quarterback,” Dillingham said. “And not many times do you have to play all three. Usually, you get to play a simple scheme and we’re going to beat you through our players and then they have better players. Very rarely do you have to play a team that is super well-coached with great players that use advantage plays, which is kudos to them.”

A wrinkle in this matchup is that the Sun Devils are the last team to beat the Huskies.

On Oct. 8, 2022, ASU shocked No. 21 Washington, 45-38, behind quarterback Trenton Bourguet, who came in in relief of injured starter Emory Jones to complete 15 of 21 passes for 182 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

A crucial play in the game was a pick-six by defensive back Jordan Clark to give the Sun Devils a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter. Dillingham was offensive coordinator for the Ducks last season but pointed to the play as the reason for the victory. He is stressing to his team how important big plays like Clark’s will be on Saturday.

“You look at that game and I told the guys today it was the pick-six,” Dillingham said. “If you want to win games like this, you have to be the team that has the pick-six on your side. … I challenged our guys that we got to have those explosive plays not just on offense. We got to have those explosive plays on defense and special teams to put us in position to win the football game.”

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