Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze celebrates his touchdown catch against UCLA during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif. Washington opens their season at home against Boise State on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze celebrates his touchdown catch against UCLA during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif. Washington opens their season at home against Boise State on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

No. 10 UW begins last season in Pac-12 as a contender for league title

Heisman hopeful Michael Penix Jr. leads the Huskies’ potent offense.

By Tim Booth / Associated Press

SEATTLE — Washington’s first season with both coach Kalen DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was a magical ride that put the Huskies back on the national stage.

Their second season comes with a straightforward goal — win the Pac-12 one last time before Washington takes up residence in the Big Ten.

“That would be big. That would definitely be something that would be remembered for a long time,” Penix said. “It’s just a blessing to be here. This conference is amazing.”

One of the original members of the Pacific Coast Conference more than a century ago, the 10th-ranked Huskies will begin their final season as part of the premier conference on the West Coast with a legitimate chance at a conference title. If the defense can show significant improvement from last season, the Huskies could find themselves in the College Football Playoff conversation.

It starts with Penix, who should be in the Heisman Trophy discussion from the start of the season after returning for a second year with the Huskies. Penix threw for 4,641 yards and 31 touchdowns last season as Washington went 11-2 and capped its season with a win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

Combined with one of the deepest wide receiver groups in the country, led by Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, there’s the chance Penix could again put up eye-popping numbers. Washington’s offense averaged nearly 40 points per game last season.

“We know that (Penix’s) got the reads. He’s understood the offense now because it’s been really the same system since 2019 when he was at Indiana and was introduced to it at that time,” DeBoer said. “The reads, the progressions, the checks, it changes from week to week and the game plan, so forth. He understands it inside and out. Now it’s just a matter of him leading.”

Whether Washington can become a playoff contender will depend on its defense getting more stops and giving up less points. The Huskies feature two of the best edge rushers in the conference in Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Oklahoma State transfer Jabbar Muhammad should instantly help the secondary.

HEISMAN HOPES

Washington started its Heisman campaign last season for Penix too late to gain any traction and he finished eighth in the voting. The school has never had a Heisman winner but believes Penix has the chance at a season worthy of consideration.

He should get early opportunities to put up big numbers, but it’ll be what Penix does later in the year in marquee games against Oregon, USC and Utah that’ll likely determine the seriousness of his candidacy.

Having his top pass catchers back in Odunze, McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk will help. Also helping will be an improved run game that should benefit from the arrival of Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson.

DEFENSIVE FRONT

The strength of Washington’s defense should be up front with Trice and Tupuola-Fetui providing pressure off the edge and Faatui Tuitele and Tuli Letuligasenoa on the interior. Trice was a preseason all-Pac-12 selection and led Washington with nine sacks last season.

But the Huskies allowed 30 or more points to their opponents five times in the final eight regular season games last season.

SECONDARY CONCERN

The Huskies got a boost with the addition of Muhammad after he appeared in 12 games last season and had 48 tackles for Oklahoma State. The rest of Washington’s secondary is a bit of a question. Elijah Jackson will likely be the other cornerback, with Asa Turner, Dominique Hampton and Mishael Powell filling the other spots in the secondary. All have starting experience but only Turner is returning as a starter at the same position as last year after some major offseason shuffling.

FINAL SEASON

Washington opens the season hosting Mountain West favorite Boise State and Tulsa before its big nonconference matchup at Michigan State — a school that’ll be a conference opponent starting in 2024. The big challenge for the Huskies arrives at midseason when No. 15 Oregon pays a visit on Oct. 14 and November is a brutal run that starts on the road at No. 6 USC, followed by No. 14 Utah at home, at No. 18 Oregon State and the final Apple Cup against Washington State as conference opponents.

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