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HOUSTON -- Michael Penix Jr. had already changed teams, time zones and his career. Now, it was time to bear his soul.

For the quarterback of No. 2 Washington, which is trying to make history Monday against No. 1 Michigan in the College Football Playoff National Championship, the moment came in late November 2022. The Indiana transfer had already proven his worth in what would eventually become an 11-2 turnaround season.

But in the week leading up to the Apple Cup against Washington State, team chaplain Jonathan Rainey asked the Huskies seniors whether they had a message to the deliver to their team.

"He was the first guy to step up," left tackle Troy Fautanu said. "Right there was when he told [his] story."

That story has been repeated, in some form, from here to Seattle. On Monday's big stage, it will share the backfield with the sixth-year player from Tampa, Florida. Washington wouldn't be here playing for its first national championship in 33 years without Penix -- and his story.

A series of injuries at Indiana ground down the quarterback mentally and physically. Before he transferred to Washington in December 2021, Penix had already suffered season-ending ACL injuries (2018, 2022) as well as a clavicle injury that required surgery (2019) and a dislocated shoulder (2021).

"The day of the game, I'd wake up and … I would just lay on the floor and pray to God to protect me that day because I knew where my head was at the time. … It was a lot of tears," said Penix of his time at Indiana during a revealing preseason interview on Pac-12 Network.

It was more than that. This year's Heisman Trophy runner-up at once considered retiring from football.

"I had known about his recent history of injuries," Fautanu said of the chapel meeting. "But for him to be vulnerable to share that with us, I'll never forget. I wouldn't say it made me look at him different, just kind of having more respect for the guy."

There's plenty of that to go around these days. Penix wouldn't have been blamed for limping into town when he made his Washington visit. One thing was for sure, both player and program needed a reboot.

Those injuries had become the theme of his career. Now, the left-handed is trying to do the impossible -- lead a team that boasts the country's top passing offense national championship for the first time since at least 1989. (That's how far back NCAA records go.) It might be the first time ever for such a feat given the spread offense was just debuting back then.

Regardless whether you consider Penix the best player in the CFP National Championship, he is its central figure. He deserves our empathy, sure. Penix already has the undying devotion of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. His nation-leading 4,648 yards passing are exactly 7 more than when he led the country last season. His 35 touchdowns are tied for third nationally this season.

Penix amounts as the most impactful player of the transfer portal era.

Come Monday night, there is absolutely nothing holding him back mentally. 

"It was just more about the pain he felt inside when he was going through all these moments," Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. "I knew it was very hard for him. It would be hard for anyone. He had been through so much. I also know, when he came on his official visit in December, it was straight business."

Penix basically demanded to watch film of this broken program -- the wide receivers, the offensive line, everything. 

In essence, Michael Penix Jr. was scouting for his football life.

"I already knew what I wanted my last couple years to look like, and that helped me be able to have that year and those years that I was looking for," he said. "I'm still grateful for the opportunity, but when I went on my visit, I just asked to see the film of the guys. I wanted to see what I had around me."

What Penix saw was an offensive line that carved out a paltry 3.19 yards per rush in 2021, second-worst in the Pac-12 and 120th in the nation. The Huskies barely averaged more than 21 points per game.

"Michael wanted to know the offensive line, who they were going to be. Wanted to make sure he could be protected," DeBoer said.

Let's just say it's been a process. There are only three holdovers from that 2021 preseason two-deep depth chart: Fautanu -- the left tackle (a backup in 2021), Julius Buelow (starter at guard) and Nate Kalepo (moved to right guard).

"We're kind of used to slander," Fautanu said.

Not anymore. The offensive line is now the best in the nation as honored with the Joe Moore Award. It has allowed only 11 sacks; just three teams have given up fewer. That begins to explain Washington's production despite its offensive imbalance.

"Once I saw what I would have around me here [with the offensive line], I knew that I couldn't pass up this opportunity, and I knew that we'd be able to do something," Penix said.

The dual reboot should be obvious by now. Penix doesn't get to this moment without transferring 2,500 miles from his hometown. And Washington doesn't get back to national prominence without Penix. Call him what you want -- firestarter, difference-maker, flamethrower -- Penix is the classic program-changer of this age.

If you've got a quarterback, you've got a chance. If you've got Penix, you've got a chance at a national title.

Penix has flipped two programs. While at Indiana, he led the Hoosiers into the top 10 during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. That was before he tore his ACL for the second time.

Washington was wounded, too. In November 2021, coach Jimmy Lake was fired after being caught on the sidelines shoving a player. Less than six days after that incident, the school refused to pay his $9.9 million buyout, instead of firing Lake for cause.

Penix to Washington now seems like a portal no-brainer. DeBoer had been Penix's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Indiana in 2019. Over six games Penix played that year, IU won five as he threw 10 touchdown passes. He also suffered that season-ending shoulder injury.

Recall LSU's offense-led surge in 2019 as Joe Burrow tossed 60 touchdown passes and won the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers led the country in scoring with a pair of two impact receivers: Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Penix throws to his own pair of 1,000-yard pass catchers: Rome Odunze and Ja'Lynn Polk.

The difference? That LSU defense had some pros on it. Defensive end Bralen Trice is the only Washington defender ranked in the CBS Sports top 200 ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Penix's progenitor was Lorenzo Brown. In 2009, the University of Sioux Falls QB led the Cougars to their second straight NAIA championship. Brown threw for 40 touchdowns and ran for another 16.

"A true dual-threat guy," recalled Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who was with DeBoer in the same job back then at Sioux Falls. "He was bananas. If he was 5-foot-11, he might have been somewhere [bigger], but he wasn't."

Penix is more of a dropback QB, but the schemes used by the two programs, 15 years apart, are similar. Brown did not stray far, recently retiring from the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League.

"You want to be in a situation where you absolutely have to tell the guys, 'You gotta find ways to stay on the field and find a way to stay wildly aggressive,' Grubb said of his offense. "When you're really humming, you're living in that [effective] area."

Evidence: The wide-open Huskies held the ball for 36 minutes last Monday in their 37-31 win over Texas in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

A victory this Monday would mark a breakthrough of another kind. No champion in recent memory has relied so much on the pass. Washington throws the ball 57% of the time. That's the highest ratio among all 40 teams that have played in the 10-year history of the CFP.

Throw in the fact no team has won a championship in the BCS era (since 1998) with a defense ranked as low as the one Washington fields (97th in total defense, 404 yards per game), and we might see the most offense-reliant champion of the modern era.

But this team wins in a subtler way.

Texas' defense was literally unable to touch Penix in the Sugar Bowl. The Longhorns neither registered a QB hurry nor a sack over 39 pass attempts. Penix's 430-yard passing day was the seventh of 400+ yards in his career, all since mid-2022.

Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth conducted that preseason interview with Penix. He believes 2020 Alabama is a better comparison to Washington. That national championship team featured Mac Jones, who was third nationally in passing throwing to Heisman winner DeVonta Smith and John Mechie III.

"I believe in the philosophy of, throw to guys who are moving as opposed to players who are static," Roth said. "You watch DeVonta Smith and [others] who are moving down the field with deep crossing routes. ... Those are the same things that Washington is doing with Michael Penix Jr."

No one is ashamed of it at Washington, especially Penix. Seattle has wrapped the Florida kid in a warm embrace. The Montlake area -- where the university is located -- is one of the most lovely and football-mad places in the country.

"One day, I was actually sitting on the roof of one the apartment buildings around here. I was looking at the city of Seattle," Penix said before the season. "I never saw anything so beautiful growing up."

Prospects Dylan Morris and Sam Huard were at one time known as UW's quarterbacks of the future. Penix beat them out with his combination of arm strength, left-handedness and panache. Huard has already transferred. Morris will be Penix's backup Monday night, chasing a ring after already announcing his transfer to James Madison.

"I was sitting behind a guy who finished second in the Heisman, and in my opinion, should have won it," said Morris, sounding like it was a story he'll tell his grandchildren.

With Penix as Washington's centerpiece, DeBoer may have flipped a roster better than any coach yet in the transfer portal era. Leading rusher Dillon Johnson is a transfer. So are both leading receivers, though Polk transferred in from Texas Tech under Lake.

DeBoer has done it all in just a couple of years. Deion Sanders added three wins to Colorado's 2022 total in his first year. Lincoln Riley is 8-7 since starting 11-1 at USC. DeBoer is 25-2 in two seasons.

Counting his time at Fresno State, he is the third-winningest active coach behind Georgia's Kirby Smart and Ohio State's Ryan Day. Washington has the nation's longest winning streak at 21 games.

As for Penix, who has led the program to those victories?

"I think it makes him the best player in the country," DeBoer concluded.

The final verdict comes Monday night. To this point, Penix has taken over everything at Washington -- the town, the team and his career. He has another way of putting it.

"A lot of heartbreak, a lot of tears -- a lot of surgeons," the quarterback said.