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Texas Longhorns Face Season's Biggest Challenge In Washington's Michael Penix Jr. At Sugar Bowl

Texas has yet to a face a quarterback of Michael Penx Jr.'s pedigree in 2023.

Before Texas can dream of a rematch against Alabama on college football's biggest stage or a showdown against Big Ten bully Michigan, it must get past Washington in the Sugar Bowl. 

More importantly, the Longhorns must slow down Heisman runner-up and the living, breathing folklore known by those in Seattle as Michael Penix Jr. 

Few have slowed him and the nation's No. 1 passing attack down, but no one's been able to knock him out. It's why the No. 2 Huskies (13-0) are one of three undefeated teams remaining heading into the new year. 

Everything starts and ends with Penix. Everyone in Austin knows it, too. 

The Huskies are a proven threat to win it all down at NRG Stadium on Jan. 8. They silenced the critics after being nearly a double-digit underdog in the rematch against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and won by three. 

The formula that worked in Las Vegas might not suffice at the Superdome down off Sugar Bowl Dr. outside the French Quarter. Washington trusted running back Dillion Johnson to pave the way with his legs. Texas is holding opponents to under 90 rushing yards an outing. 

If Kalen DeBoer can win on the ground, he'll win through the air, an area of expertise in the Pacific Northwest this season. Washington averaged 343.8 yards per game and 9.2 yards per pass attempt, ranking inside the top 10 among FBS schools. 

Weaknesses are hard to pinpoint these days in Austin after the No. 3 Longhorns (12-1) ran through the competition en route to their first Big 12 title since 2009, but there are a few. The biggest? Pass defense, which ranks 96th nationally and 10th in the Big 12. 

Steve Sarkisian would never admit it, but a rematch against Alabama would bode well in their favor. A run-orientated offense like Michigan plays right into their hands. 

But Washington? There are reasons for optimism, but also concern, especially if Penix starts to gain momentum and become one with his pass-catcher with each potential completion. 

Longhorn fans don't have to look far to see how lethal the Huskies' passing attack can be when in a rhythm. Last season's Alamo Bowl can attest to that. Penix looked poised in San Antonio, connecting with receivers for modest gains and multiple touchdowns. 

Penix finished the night 32 of 54 passing for 287 yards and two scores on the way to a 27-20 victory. Since then, he's transformed into one of college football's top deep ball passers that needs a few seconds and a receiver downfield to change the course of a game. 

This season, Penix has thrown for over 300 yards nine times. He's hit the 400-yard marker thrice, though those were against Boise State, Tulsa, and Michigan State, all of whom struggled to defend the pass. 

Yes, Texas has weapons. Countless that Quinn Ewers can target for a touchdown. The Longhorns have stars like Xavier Worthy, Ja'Tavion Sanders, and Adonai Mitchell. 

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) makes a pass in the second half at Arizona Stadium.

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) makes a pass in the second half at Arizona Stadium.

Washington has Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk, two of the nation's top targets who each totaled over 1,000 yards. Not to mention, Jalen McMillian is fully healthy for the first time since September to round out the trio. 

Penix and him were a thorn in the Longhorns' side last season. Remember the pass-catcher who scored in the fourth quarter last December, Texas fans? He could have posted a 1,000-yard campaign if not for a knee injury. 

Any miscommunication on Texas' side could lead to a big-time throw from Penix. After all, it's what prompted Washington back to the semifinal for the first time since 2016. 

And yes, all it takes is one play from No. 9 to call game. Look back at the Apple Cup last month. The Huskies needed to drive 90 yards for a touchdown with just under two minutes remaining. Penix hit Odunze and Jack Westover for gains of 10, 23 and 6 to push into Washington State territory. 

That, plus a roughing the passing penalty, led to a game-winning 42-yard from Grady Gross and an undefeated regular season. It's one of multiple games where Penix took over the show and ended talks of an upset. 

For most of the season, the Longhorns entered battle knowing they had the better quarterback. Even in games against Alabama, Oklahoma and Kansas State, Ewers held his own against Jalen Milroe, Dillion Gabriel and Will Howard. 

That won't be the case down in the heart of Louisiana. Penix is as proven as they come entering New Year's Day.

And he's coming for the jugular, or at least the heart of Texas' secondary. 

Will the Longhorns be ready to slow him down?