Heisman hopeful Michael Penix Jr. and No. 5 Washington travel to face No. 11 Oregon State on Saturday. What makes this matchup interesting is that undefeated Washington is a 2.5-point underdog, while Oregon State (8-2) still has a shot at the Pac-12 title game if it can beat the Huskies and Ducks in back-to-back weeks.
Oregon State's path to victory
The Beavers' game plan could heavily rely on the run game. Damien Martinez is the Beavers' offensive engine and coming off a career-high four rushing touchdowns against Stanford last week. It’s his breakaway speed that's allowed Martinez to rack up 592 yards after contact, generating the third-most explosive runs in the country.
The offensive strength of the Beavers is bad news for a Washington defense that ranks 127th in success rate against the run. We’ve seen the Huskies' defensive vulnerability nearly cost Washington against Oregon and USC. The Huskies also allowed Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes to gain 6.5 yards per carry. Beavers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei hasn’t been utilized as a runner like he was at Clemson, however, the ability is there. He ran for 61 yards against Washington State and that skill set could come in handy in fourth-and-short situations, or to seal the deal under the two-minute mark to keep Penix off the field.
Washington's offensive strengths
It’s easy to look at Penix as the sole factor in this game. You wouldn’t be wrong. He is playing with such confidence, accuracy and poise that he could decide the outcome. Graded as the third-best quarterback in the nation behind LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Oregon’s Bo Nix, Penix leads the FBS in passing yards yet has the third-fewest turnover-worthy plays.
How good is Penix? All he needed was two plays and 33 seconds to gain 53 yards for the go-ahead touchdown against Oregon on Oct. 14.
What I’d like to see more of from Washington is the use of the run game. The Huskies have recently had a boost on the ground, increasing run attempts from an average of 26 per game to 34, with success. The Huskies had averaged 4.7 yards per carry but with the increased rushing load that average has jumped to 5.2. It may not seem significant, but in a big-time matchup against a conference rival, having that extra tool could help. This could be a big game for running back Dillon Johnson, who is coming off back-to-back 100-plus-yard games and has 11 scores on the season.
Implementing the run game with a potential first-round NFL draft pick dropping back in key moments could make the difference.
Who has the edge?
The line history is a bit wild with Washington opening as 1.5-point favorite. I have to lean to Penix, who can attack the Beavers' secondary. Oregon State has faced only two passing quarterbacks, giving up 404 yards to Washington State’s Cam Ward (the Cougars are now 4-6 on the season) but holding Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders to 6 yards per pass attempt. Penix is a huge step up in class and playing at a higher level than both Ward and Sanders. Penix is better protected, a sharper decision-maker and is elite from the pocket.
In such a big matchup with a lot on the line, we could see the game played at a slower tempo with more use of the run game from both squads. Penix might even need time to ease into rhythm adjusting to the Corvallis atmosphere. Expect a great game.
If the Beavers win, the Pac-12 becomes that much more interesting with Oregon on deck in a game that decides the conference title contenders. If Washington wins, Penix continues to build his Heisman case. Backing Penix as a 2.5-point underdog is the move.