CFP National Championship preview: It's Michigan's time. But it might be Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.'s moment
Everything — and we mean everything — you need to know about Monday’s national championship showdown between Michigan (-4.5) and Washington.
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The 2024 edition marks the 10th and final championship game of the 4-team Playoff era before the format expands to 12 teams next season, but in many ways it feels more like a beginning of an era than an end. You wanted fresh blood on college football’s biggest stage? You got it.
In one way or another, a Michigan-Washington matchup runs counter to every prevailing championship trend. For one thing, neither team is one of the usual suspects. Monday night will be the first CFP title game that will not feature Alabama, Clemson, Georgia or Ohio State, a ruling caste that had collectively claimed 15 of the previous 18 championship slots and 8 of the 9 titles. For another, neither is from the South. It’s the first time an SEC team has failed to crack the championship round since the inaugural Playoff, in the 2014 season; prior to that, you have to go back nearly another decade, to 2005 under the banner of the BCS. And for these two programs, in particular, you have to go back even further than that: As long as we’re counting the BCS years, Monday night will also be the first meeting between two first-time participants in the title game since Auburn-Oregon in 2010.
It’s been awhile for the respective conferences, too. Michigan, in addition to the burden of its own 26-year drought, is playing for the Big Ten’s first title since 2014 (Ohio State) and only its second since the turn of the century. Washington — ironically, amid the death throes of the Pac-12 — is seeking to become the first West Coast team to claim the national crown since the heyday of the Bush-Leinart USC dynasty in 2004, so long ago that it was still the Pac-10. Before they don the B1G patch themselves, the Huskies can send a league that had long been consigned to national irrelevance out with its first and only championship of the CFP era.
From a team-building perspective, both sides stand to upend assumptions about what a championship roster looks like. Neither team resides in the elite tier of year-in, year-out recruiting juggernauts that up until the mainstreaming of NIL and the transfer portal seemed on the verge of leaving the rest of the sport in the dust. Michigan ranks 14th in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, well below any team that has won a CFP championship to date, and boasts only 2 players who were touted as 5-star recruits. (For context, that puts the Wolverines just 1 spot ahead of Florida, whose alleged recruiting woes are the most-cited reason the Gators can’t compete anymore with the SEC’s upper crust.) Washington is even further off the grid, coming in at No. 26 between Missouri and Michigan State. The Huskies don’t have a single 5-star, nor do they meet the minimum threshold to qualify for the Blue-Chip Ratio. Either way, for the first time in the online rankings era, the “Stars Matter” faction of the recruiting wars will have to acknowledge a persuasive rebuttal.
Amid all the firsts, there’s also an inescapable air of finality surrounding the most inescapable figure on either sideline: Jim Harbaugh. Over 9 turbulent seasons at his alma mater, Harbaugh has been glorified, vilified, written off, resurrected and subjected to as much scrutiny as anyone in his profession. This year, he was suspended for half the regular season — the first 3 games and the last 3, including season-defining dates against Penn State and Ohio State — for his role in separate “scandals” that, depending on your loyalties, may or may not merit the distinction. (The first suspension, self-imposed by Michigan, concerned minor recruiting violations during the pandemic; the second, well, presumably you’ve encountered the name “Connor Stalions” often enough by now. We don’t have enough space here to get into all that.)
Harbaugh has never been in any job as a player or coach as long as his current tenure in Ann Arbor. He flirted with NFL jobs each of the past 2 offseasons, recently hired a new agent who reps high-profile NFL clients, and features more prominently in this year’s NFL rumor beat than usual. Win or lose, the NCAA’s investigation into the sign-stealing business looms. Vibes-wise, all signs point to Harbaugh finally seizing the opportunity to scratch his Super Bowl itch.
Their head coach’s future isn’t the only reason the Wolverines feel a sense of urgency. Besides going down as an instant classic, their 27-20 Rose Bowl triumph over Alabama was quite literally a generational event — not just the biggest win of the season, or of Harbaugh’s tenure, but a culmination of more than two decades’ worth of angst. After back-to-back semifinal disappointments in 2021-22, the ’23 team has been in championship-or-bust mode from Day 1, and has Michigan closer to the to the mountaintop than it has been at any point in the quarter-century since it was last there. After Monday night, they stand to lose not only the coach, but much of the core of the lineup that revived the program following the 2020 debacle that nearly cost Harbaugh his job. Who can say when they’ll be this close again? A long, bitter offseason awaits if they wake up on Tuesday morning still waiting to find out.
As for Washington, the wait for this opportunity has been even longer, through even darker depths along the way. The Huskies’ window of opportunity may even be narrower than Michigan’s. They arrived in Houston riding the nation’s longest active win streak at 21 straight, 9 of them coming at the expense of a team ranked in the AP poll at kickoff. But it wasn’t until the last one, a 37-31 upset over Texas in the Sugar Bowl, that it really dawned on much of the country just how seriously they demand to be taken as contenders to win it all.
The vast majority of the audience tuning into that game could not have picked second-year coach Kalen DeBoer out of a lineup at the start of the night, and probably still couldn’t following his business-like victory speech amid a deluge of purple confetti. In between, though, face-of-the-program quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his fleet of sure-handed wideouts made sure that anyone still sleeping on the Huskies had seen all they needed to see.
At any rate, they’re back in their wheelhouse against Michigan as 4.5-point underdogs, the same spread they faced in the Sugar Bowl and the 4th time in its past 5 games Washington has found itself on the wrong side of the line: Besides Texas, the Huskies were also ‘dogs against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Oregon State in a cold, wet trip to Corvallis in Week 12. Eventually, one would think the odds are bound to catch up to them. But at this point, that still leaves the odds with a lot of ground to cover between now and Monday night.
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When Washington has the ball
Top 10 players on the field
1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. (91.9 PFF grade | 85.7 QBR | Maxwell Award winner)
2. Washington WR Rome Odunze (89.1 PFF | 1,428 yards + 13 TDs | Consensus All-American)
3. Michigan CB Will Johnson (83.8 PFF | 3 INTs + 0 TDs allowed | 1st-team All-B1G)
4. Michigan DT Mason Graham (88.2 PFF | 7.5 TFLs | 1st-team All-B1G)
5. Washington OT Troy Fautanu (73.0 PFF | 1st-team All-Pac-12 | Projected 1st-round pick)
6. Michigan DB Mike Sainristil (81.8 PFF | 5 INTs + 6 PBUs | 2nd-team All-B1G)
7. Washington WR Ja’Lynn Polk (76.7 PFF | 1,122 yards + 9 TDs )
8. Michigan DT Kris Jenkins (80.5 PFF | 35 tackles + 4.5 TFLs | 2nd-team All-B1G)
9. Michigan LB Junior Colson (83.0 PFF | 250 career tackles | 2nd-team All-B1G)
10. Washington RB Dillon Johnson (88.2 PFF | 1,162 yards + 16 TDs | 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
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In the pocket
Listen, you’re not going to catch me out here trying to convince anybody a highly-decorated, 6th-year senior quarterback who finished as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy is somehow underrated. With apologies to West Coast fans convinced that no one east of the Rockies is tuning in, Michael Penix Jr. is about as well-known a quantity to college football fans as they come. Within that context, though, it’s not exaggerating by much to say that his semifinal tour de force against Texas was a genuine revelation. He’s not just who we thought he was: At his best, he has access to levels we didn’t even know were there.
In fact, considering the stakes and the stage, let’s go ahead and call the Sugar Bowl the best game of Penix’s career. Hell, we can make a pretty compelling case without considering the stakes and the stage. It’s right there on paper, where in addition to throwing for 430 yards on 11.3 per attempt, he set career highs for Total QBR (97.7) and overall PFF grade (93.5, also good for the top individual QB grade in any bowl game). He posted a nearly identical grade under pressure (90.3) as he did when kept clean (92.4), didn’t take a sack, and didn’t commit a turnover. He connected on 19-of-20 passes targeted at wide receivers and 6-of-8 attempts of 20+ air yards.
But even a gaudy stat line doesn’t quite do justice to a performance that really had to be seen to be appreciated. Penix had every tool at his disposal and employed them all. He was in full command in the pocket and on target to every area of the field, throwing with consistent downfield accuracy to every route on the tree. He let it rip between the hashes …
Michael Penix Jr my goodness
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 2, 2024
… he dropped it in a bucket outside the numbers …
— Zak (@CaramelPhd) January 2, 2024
… he threaded the needle into tight windows …
What a performance by Michael Penix Jr. Fun tape to go back and study. pic.twitter.com/WdU53TFp2E
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) January 2, 2024
… he manipulated the pocket like a seasoned pro …
Outstanding pocket movement by Michael Penix Jr. to avoid the pressure. Finds Rome Odunze for a chain mover. pic.twitter.com/REN72eNsGa
— Justin M (@JustinM_NFL) January 2, 2024
Watch the pocket patience by Penix. Steps up in that pocket and delivers another dart pic.twitter.com/Mgr2wKRCQi
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) January 2, 2024
… he put it on the money with an All-American defensive tackle breathing down his neck …
What makes this throw so impressive, Michael Penix Jr has immense pressure in his face. Bryon Murphy and Sweat run a game to get a free run at MP! pic.twitter.com/SxME9U4Aum
— Full-Time Dame 💰 (@DP_NFL) January 2, 2024
… and generally looked like the highly advanced, 23-year-old vet that he is. Penix was so deep in his bag against the Longhorns that he ran for 31 yards, lifting his flimsy rushing total for the season (including sacks) into the black. It was the kind of night that made Heisman voters regret their ballots and draftniks, who have tended to be lukewarm about Penix due to his age and lengthy injury history, sit up straight. One indelible game in the spotlight may not be enough to scramble a crowded 2024 QB class overnight, but it certainly was enough to ensure that the first-round consensus is not going to be set without a fair reckoning of his place in it.
Now, on to the encore against the No. 1 defense in America. Perfect record notwithstanding, Penix has been wobbly at times, most notably in a dismal Week 8 outing against Arizona State in which he was picked twice and Washington’s only touchdown came via pick-6. (For once, the fact that the ASU game was a late-night affair for the rest of the country worked to his advantage.) Prior to the Sugar Bowl, his production in terms of QBR and efficiency had been idling in the good-not-great range since midseason. His brilliance under pressure against Texas does not reflect a season- or career-long trend; he comes in well above average according to PFF’s pressure metrics, but not nearly to the extent that his output is as unaffected by it as it was in New Orleans. Like all quarterbacks, turning up the heat and moving him off his spot tends to shake his accuracy and decision-making.
Easier said than done, of course. For its part, Michigan has consistently found ways to get to opposing quarterbacks despite the absence of an individual pass rusher who moves the needle on his own. Against a plus o-line like Washington’s, the Wolverines are more likely to win with scheme than by beating opposing linemen one-on-one. In the win over Alabama, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter came in with an aggressive game plan that had Jalen Milroe’s head spinning, dialing up blitzes on 20 of Milroe’s 35 drop-backs; 7 of those resulted in sacks, most of them by defenders who arrived scot-free due to confusion in the blocking scheme.
Milroe is sacked pic.twitter.com/YqYPSwljXp
— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrBurnerCFB) January 1, 2024
PFF credited 6 different Wolverines with at least 1 QB pressure in that game who also posted a 0.0% “win percentage” when actually engaged with a Bama pass blocker. What’s the point in beating blocks when you can bypass them altogether?
Generating glitches in Washington’s protection figures to be a steeper challenge. Penix can’t compete with Milroe’s mobility, but he has played a heck of a lot more football at this level — as has his offensive line, which PFF has charged with 9 sacks allowed over the past 2 years combined. Penix processes quickly, navigates the pocket like a Jedi, and boasts a stellar pressure-to-sack ratio, having taken just 11 sacks on 137 pressured drop-backs despite his reluctance to scramble. He’s not afraid to put it up against man coverage and give his receivers a chance to make a play (see above), or to ditch it out of bounds and live to play another down. Michigan hasn’t faced another quarterback with anywhere near his combination of experience, accuracy, or next-level savvy. Barring another masterpiece of a plan from Minter on short notice, short-circuiting Penix’s comfort zone may come down to winning in the trenches the old-fashioned way.
Key matchup: Washington C Parker Brailsford vs. Michigan DT Mason Graham. Brailsford, a redshirt freshman listed at 6-2, 275 pounds, is the youngest and smallest member of the Huskies’ o-line. But he has wasted no time distinguishing himself, posting a stellar PFF pass-blocking grade and earning a second-team All-Pac-12 nod from league coaches as a first-year starter. Opposite Graham, he’s facing arguably the toughest assignment on the field: A 318-pounder with legitimate pass-rushing juice for an interior behemoth. Graham has generated multiple QB pressures in 11 of 14 games, including 4 sacks. Although Texas failed to put Penix on the ground, DTs Byron Murphy III and T’Vondre Sweat did generate enough heat to make him move his feet while making their presence felt. If Graham and his interior running mate, Kris Jenkins, can say the same, they can consider their end of the bargain upheld.
Down the field
Penix’s showcase in the Sugar Bowl was also an advertisement for the Huskies’ depth at wide receiver: His top 4 wideouts, Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan and Germie Bernard, combined for 19 catches on 20 targets, 15 of them going for first downs or touchdowns and many of them coming against reasonably tight coverage by Texas DBs. (PFF marked 4 of those receptions as “contested”; I’d argue that number could have been higher.) It was a defining performance for a group whose national reputation throughout the season could have been summed up as Odunze and Associates.
Not that Odunze hasn’t earned top billing. If not for Marvin Harrison Jr., Odunze would be firmly in the running to be the first receiver off the board in April, and depending on how the process unfolds between now and then, he might close the gap yet. The numbers are in his favor, and they only keep going up. No Power 5 receiver has more catches (162) or yards (2,698) over the past 2 seasons, and no other wideout in 2023 achieved his stat line with quite as high a degree of difficulty.
Odunze was both the most targeted Power 5 wideout on attempts of 20+ air yards and the most productive, coming down with 22 catches for 739 yards. He also led the nation in contested catches, hauling in 20 of 27 attempts in traffic, per PFF; that was good for the top success rate on contested throws (74.1%) among players with at least 60 total targets, easily outpacing both Harrison (43.3%) and LSU’s Malik Nabers (45.5%). Week-in, week-out, no one made a habit of making the ridiculous look more routine.
ROME ODUNZE IS UNGUARDABLE
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 14, 2023
Odunze was so good, it was almost unfair to his running mate on the outside, Polk, whose 1,122 yards and 9 touchdowns were overshadowed by comparison. Between Polk and McMillan, who was limited most of the year by a nagging knee injury, the “other guys” in the rotation have a combined 3,440 yards and 28 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons in their own right.
On that note, McMillan’s role in the Sugar Bowl bonanza was a reminder of his enormous value in the slot after a season spent largely on the margins. In 2022, his production rivaled Odunze’s. This year, McMillan was off to a similarly fast start in September before the injury that rendered him ineffective for the next two months. He made the effort to play through it, but didn’t record a catch between Weeks 3 and 13. Meanwhile, passes targeted to slot receivers plummeted as a share of Penix’s overall attempts.
Slowly but surely, McMillan has worked his way back into the fold. He caught 5 passes in the Apple Cup (all of them short), followed by a 9-catch, 131-yard effort in the Pac-12 Championship Game that announced his return to form. McMillan’s 19-yard TD catch against Texas — the frozen rope into the middle of the end zone in the Penix highlight series above — was his first since a Sept. 9 win over Tulsa. He was missed more in the meantime than probably anyone outside of Seattle realized. Penix could not have asked for a better gift for the postseason run than one of his most bankable targets looking like his old self.
Key matchup: Rome Odunze vs. Michigan CB Will Johnson. There will be pro prospects all over the field in this one, but Odunze vs. Johnson is the one true Sunday matchup. Johnson is on the extremely short list of corners nationally for whom the thought of lining up across from Odunze in man-to-man coverage is not necessarily a doomed proposition: A former 5-star listed at 6-2, 202, he boasts the pedigree, the length and the experience opposite A-plus competition, having more than held his own against Marvin Harrison Jr. 2 years in a row. Johnson hasn’t allowed a touchdown in coverage this season, and didn’t allow a reception against Alabama on only 2 targets. Putting the clamps on Odunze with the national title on the line would represent the crown jewel of his fledgling career.
On the ground
Washington got good news this week on the status of its leading rusher, Dillon Johnson, who’s expected to play on Monday night despite suffering what initially looked like a serious injury at the end of the Sugar Bowl. That came as a relief, to put it mildly: To a large extent, Johnson is the Huskies’ ground game, accounting for more yards (1,156), touchdowns (16), first downs (68) and broken tackles (40) on the season than the rest of the team combined. Since he seized the full-time role in September, the rest of the running back depth chart has barely touched the ball, logging a grand total of 32 carries between them over the past 9 games.
Johnson’s health is vital. While most of the attention on Washington’s offense is reserved for the passing game, the Mississippi State transfer has been a steady, productive presence, averaging 116 scrimmage yards in conference play on a workmanlike 20 touches per game. He broke out in a big way in the Huskies’ Week 10 win at USC, ripping the Trojans for 256 yards and 4 touchdowns on 9.8 per carry, and hit triple digits in both wins over Oregon. And although the trophy went to Penix, Johnson was the rightful MVP of the Pac-12 Championship Game, where he accounted for 152 yards and 2 TDs on 28 carries.
DILLON JOHNSON IS GONE 🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 5, 2023
Against Texas’ vaunted run D, predictably, the yards were harder to come by. Tasked with keeping the Longhorns honest, Johnson ran 21 times for just 2.3 yards a pop, with a long gain of 7. His success rate: A pedestrian 33%, boosted by 2 touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. He’s in for a similar slog against Michigan, which is every bit as sturdy against the run as Texas. Tellingly, the Wolverines haven’t allowed an individual 100-yard rusher since last year’s Fiesta Bowl loss to TCU. The Huskies would love to spring Johnson for a chunk or two; they’ll settle for whatever it takes to keep the linebackers’ attention, stay out of obvious passing downs, and keep the play-calling from becoming too one-dimensional.
Key matchup: Dillon Johnson vs. Michigan DB Mike Sainristil. Sainristil, a converted wide receiver, has been one of Michigan’s surest tacklers the past two years in a full-time nickel role. In the Rose Bowl, not so much: PFF rung him up for 4 missed tackles against Alabama, including a critical open-field whiff as the last line of defense on the game’s first touchdown.
— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2024
Washington isn’t going to pound out a consistent living between the tackles, but given the chance Johnson is eminently capable of making the Wolverines pay the full price for a random lapse in space.
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When Michigan has the ball
Top 10 players on the field
1. Washington Edge Bralen Trice (86.0 PFF grade | 77 QB pressures + 11.5 TFLs | 1st-team All-Pac-12)
2. Michigan RB Blake Corum (82.4 PFF | 56 career TDs | 9th in Heisman vote)
3. Michigan QB JJ McCarthy (90.6 PFF | 89.5 QBR | 22 TDs/4 INTs | 1st-team All-B1G)
4. Washington CB Jabbar Muhammad (77.4 PFF | 3 INTs + 15 PBUs | 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
5. Washington LB Edefuan Ulofoshio (83.6 PFF | 90 tackles + 8 TFLs | 1st-team All-Pac-12)
6. Michigan WR Roman Wilson (81.1 PFF | 735 yds + 12 TDs | 2nd-team All-B1G)
7. Michigan C Drake Nugent (77.2 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | 1st-team All-B1G)
8. Michigan TE Colston Loveland (74.0 PFF | 585 yds + 4 TDs | 1st-team All-B1G)
9. Washington DT Tuli Letuligasenoa (79.2 PFF | 111 career tackles + 17.5 TFLs)
10. Michigan OG Trevor Keegan (67.4 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | 2nd-team All-B1G)
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In the pocket
Last week, the biggest of the few remaining questions surrounding JJ McCarthy was how he would respond if Michigan was forced to rely on his arm in comeback mode, a scenario he’d yet to face in any of his 25 previous wins as the Wolverines’ starter. This week, we can consider that box officially checked.
— Chirag Nanavati (@Sc0utsiders) January 2, 2024
In real time, McCarthy’s crucial, 29-yard completion to Roman Wilson seemed to hang in the air for an eternity, and every time I watch the replay angle from the defense’s point of view, I feel like it should be edited to zoom in on the trajectory of the ball in super slow-motion and set to dramatic music like a classic NFL Films clip from the 1970s. That was the biggest play on the biggest drive of the game/season/millennium for Michigan, which culminated two plays later with McCarthy finding Wilson on a 4-yard touchdown that tied the game. After a forgettable second half, McCarthy was 3-for-4 for 60 yards on the drive — the other big gainer coming on a do-or-die 4th-down conversion that gained 27 yards — while adding another 16 yards as a runner.
While his final stat line (17-for-27, 221 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) doesn’t exactly leap off the screen, it was more or less exactly the kind of performance Michigan had in mind in a game that delivered on its promise to unfold as a defensive slog. McCarthy’s 168.4 passer rating was the best by an opposing quarterback against Alabama in 20 games, dating to the Tide’s shootout loss at Tennessee in October 2022; his 91.9 QBR rating was the 2nd-best against Bama this season, trailing only Jayden Daniels’ 97.7 QBR in Week 10. He did not look like a Heisman candidate or can’t-miss draft pick; he did make the plays he needed to make, and he avoided the ones he didn’t.
Feel like we should be talking about this play from McCarthy more. pic.twitter.com/MPqynC9oGQ
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 4, 2024
What’s left to prove? McCarthy fares well in the stats that matter — 3rd nationally in QBR, 10th in passer rating, 10th in overall PFF grade, 12th in yards per attempt — as well as situationally. He has posted fine marks under pressure, throwing downfield, and on 3rd down. He now has his dramatic 4th-quarter comeback with 30 million people hanging on his every move. There’s really only one box left: Holding up his end of the bargain in a shootout.
The main reason for that, obviously, is that Michigan’s defense doesn’t do shootouts, or anything so much as resembling a shootout. In McCarthy’s 2 seasons as a starter, only 1 opposing offense has topped 30 points: TCU, in a 51-45 barnburner in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, also remembered as McCarthy’s lone defeat as a starter. McCarthy finished with a career-high 343 yards and 2 touchdowns on 34 attempts in that game, but also served as the goat (not the good kind) for serving up two pick-6 interceptions that put the Wolverines behind the 8-ball and kept them there. Michigan fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and didn’t touch the ball again with a chance to tie or take the lead.
In that sense, McCarthy’s night Monday will unfold to a large extent in response to Penix’s. How long can the Wolverines afford to remain patient, methodical and run-oriented before they’re obligated to put the game on their quarterback’s arm? Ideally, from their point of view, that’s a question they can continue to avoid answering. Over the past 5 games, McCarthy is just 1-for-8 on attempts of 20+ yards. Even as night fell against Alabama, there was enough time on the eventual game-tying TD drive to keep the ball on the ground on 4 plays out of 8. Penix, however, is more than capable of forcing the issue much sooner.
If McCarthy does find himself stuck in must-pass situations, he’ll also find himself in the crosshairs of Washington edge rusher Bralen Trice, an aspiring first-rounder whose good-not-great sack totals don’t come close to reflecting his impact. Per PFF, Trice has been responsible more QB pressures than any other FBS defender each of the past 2 seasons, finishing with 70 pressures to his credit both years. (For context, the other regulars in Washington’s edge rotation, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Voi Tunuufii, and Sekai Asoau-Afoa, have accounted for 70 combined pressures this season between them.) Trice has also been responsible for the most individual pressures in a single game in both seasons, forcing 16 in the Huskies’ late-October win over Stanford and 18 in last year’s Apple Cup win at Washington State. Against Texas, he was credited with 7 pressures and 2 sacks, running away with the Defensive MVP award and generally ruining Quinn Ewers’ night.
Bralen Trice vs Christian Jones pic.twitter.com/X6qLQer0pQ
— NMD Grant (@NMDgrant) January 2, 2024
Michigan is not a heavy screen team nor, surprisingly, a heavy play-action team; McCarthy has employed play-action on just 23.3% of his drop-backs. Slowing down the pass rush is up to the protection, which has managed to keep its powder dry against elite edge-rushing combos from Ohio State (8 pressures, 1 sack) and Alabama (10 pressures, no sacks). Still, opposite as disruptive a force as Trice, whatever additional help the tackles need from the backs, the tight ends, and the play-calling to prevent him from pinning his ears back is worth it.
Key matchup: Bralen Trice vs. Michigan LT LaDarius Henderson. Henderson, an Arizona State transfer in his first year as a Wolverine, took over as the starting left tackle in Week 5 and has held down the position since. PFF has singled him out as the weak link in the front, with an alarming 46.8 pass-blocking grade and a team-high 30 pressures allowed, including 8 in the Big Ten Championship Game and 5 in the Rose Bowl. (No other Michigan lineman in was cited for allowing more than 1 pressure in either game.) Trice lines up on both sides of the line, but his reps across from Henderson on the blind side are the ones that should make Michigan fans sweat.
Down the field
Michigan receivers in the Harbaugh era are a relatively anonymous lot, even the few who ultimately go on to the next level; such is their fate in an offense that spends most of its time aligned with two tight ends. Still, with his indispensable turn in the Rose Bowl, Roman Wilson is moving rapidly up the charts. Wilson’s 12 touchdowns on the season are the most for a Michigan receiver since 2007 (Mario Manningham, also with 12), and his 16.3 yards per catch is the best average for a full-time wideout since 2019 (Nico Collins, 19.7). The only thing standing between Wilson and more national recognition is the fact that he’s been targeted fewer than 5 times per game. But when you ball out in the Rose Bowl, people pay attention.
The rest of the rotation has had its moments, but not many. The other starter, senior Cornelius Johnson, has settled into a possession role, essentially matching Wilson for targets (60) and receptions (44) but for a substantially lower ypc average and a single touchdown, against Bowling Green in Week 3.
Johnson is the go-to guy on contested catches, but the explosiveness he flashed as an underclassman seems like a long time ago. The slot types, Tyler Morris and Semaj Morgan, have speed to burn — Morris hit the gas on the receiving end of a 38-yard touchdown against Alabama, the first of his career — but occupy a part-time, occasionally forgotten role in an offense that prioritizes tight ends over speedsters. The Wolverines are more likely to get a big play from sophomore TE Colston Loveland, a plus athlete who is 9-for-11 career on targets of 20+ air yards with 5 touchdowns, or maybe Donovan Edwards, who has been known to line up wide and can get vertical out of the backfield.
You love to see Donovan Edwards making plays down the field in the passing game. 😍
📺: NBC pic.twitter.com/Rf2WFyyd6G
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) November 4, 2023
That’s Edwards’ only downfield reception of the season, but anytime he’s on the field he’s still liable to be the one guy in this rotation who scares the defense the most.
Now, as for Washington’s secondary, yes, they give up a lot yards: 267.1 per game, which ranks 123rd out of 133 FBS teams. Not ideal. But there is no worse way to judge a defense than “passing yards allowed,” a volume statistic that is very often a reflection of a good team that regularly forces opponents to throw their way out of a deficit. In fact, Washington has faced more passes than any other defense in America, and by almost every other measure the Huskies are respectable at worst. They’re 22nd in yards per attempt allowed, 32nd in pass efficiency D, and tied for 9th in interceptions. The starting linebackers, Edefuan Ulofoshio and Carson Bruener, were both among the nation’s best in coverage, posting PFF coverage grades that ranked No. 1 and No. 4 respectively among Power 5 ‘backers with at least 200 coverage snaps.
Only 2 opposing quarterbacks, Oregon’s Bo Nix and USC’s Caleb Williams, finished with a passer rating against the Huskies above 140.0 (roughly the FBS average), and in Nix’s case his 2 outings against Washington represented his lowest-rated games of the year. They just held Quinn Ewers to his lowest-rated game of the year, too. And, well, Caleb Williams is Caleb Williams. Michigan’s offense isn’t going to show them anything they haven’t seen already in a very deep year for Pac-12 quarterbacks.
Key matchup: Roman Wilson vs. Washington CB Jabbar Muhammad. Muhammad, a veteran transfer from Oklahoma State, might have made a bigger impression in his first year as a Husky than he did in 3 years in Stillwater. He was arguably the top cover man in the Pac-12, finishing with 3 interceptions, a conference-best 15 passes broken up, and one of the truly memorable individual performances of the season in Washington’s Week 12 win at Oregon State.
Jabbar Muhammad is having a career day against Oregon State. Great job reading DJ and just stepping in front of the receiver. pic.twitter.com/jLRCLu3eNp
— Ian Valentino (@NFLDraftStudy) November 19, 2023
Texas targeted Muhammad seven times in the Sugar Bowl to little effect until the game’s possession, when he was on the wrong end of a 41-yard gain that sparked the Longhorns’ late, borderline-miraculous comeback bid in the final minute. Frankly, it’s debatable whether Michigan has a receiver who would crack the top four of Texas’ regular rotation.
On the ground
It felt right that the crowning moment in the Rose Bowl belonged to Blake Corum. Who else? A consensus All-American in 2022, Corum’s absence from last year’s CFP run due to an ankle injury was one of the many reasons Michigan’s semifinal exit against TCU was such a stinging disappointment, and his decision to pass on the draft for another bite at the apple was the first signal of just how high the stakes would be in ’23. A year later, he paid off that investment in what might already be the most iconic run in school history.
— Rose Bowl Game (@rosebowlgame) January 2, 2024
That was vintage Corum: The uncanny vision, the patience to bait the play-side linebacker into committing to a gap too soon, the abrupt jump cut to daylight, the smooth acceleration upfield, the determined finish — all hallmarks of Corum’s game at its best, at the exact moment when the Wolverines needed it most. It’s the version of their best player they’d been waiting most of the year to see.
Statistically, Corum has not quite been himself. Compared to his breakout campaign in 2022, his rushing output this season declined by more than 50 yards per game and nearly a yard-and-a-half per carry. He forced significantly fewer missed tackles (27, down from 73), accounted for significantly fewer first downs (50, down from 86), and had significantly fewer runs of 20+ yards (8, down from 15). As a junior, he hit triple digits on the ground 8 times; as a senior, he’s done it twice.
On the other hand, well, first of all: He’s still here. Corum’s top priority this season was remaining healthy and viable all the way to the end, and he’s succeeded while only sacrificing about five touches per game across the entire schedule. He’s scored in every game, with multiple touchdowns in each of the past 6. He was available for workhorse duty during the crucial November stretch against Penn State (26 touches for 145 yards), Maryland (29 for 94), and Ohio State (22 for 88). And in addition to his overtime heroics against Bama, he recorded the two biggest receptions of his career out of the backfield: The first, a short touchdown catch that put the Wolverines on the board in the first quarter; the second, a 4th-down conversion that kept their last-gasp drive alive at the end of regulation.
In light of all that, if there’s one word that sums up Corum’s role this season, it would be closer. The numbers always paled in comparison to the moment.
Blake Corum’s most clutch plays this season 🔥 pic.twitter.com/eF6MyKJ5z8
— JD 〽️ (@MGoJDBlue) January 3, 2024
A more lingering question: Where’s Donovan Edwards? This was all set up to be a breakout year for Edwards coming off a high-octane finish in ’22 in place of an injured Corum. Instead, he’s remained the clear RB2 while offering few glimpses of the explosiveness that made him a rising star as an underclassman, averaging a meager 3.5 yards per carry with a long gain of 22. He was a nonfactor in Pasadena as a runner or receiver. Monday night is the last chance to unlock his big-play potential as part of what was supposed to be the nation’s premiere 1-2 punch.
On paper, Washington’s bend-but-don’t-break run defense defies easy conclusions. The conventional numbers are just kinda meh: The Huskies rank 43rd nationally in run D and 86th in yards per carry allowed, but haven’t been gashed for egregious totals in any single game. They’ve largely kept the lid on, allowing just 8 carries of 20+ yards with a long of 44. The efficiency metrics, on the other hand — EPA, Success Rate, Stuff Rate — are all red flags: Washington comes in near the bottom of the FBS across the board. Depending on your perspective, the fact that they’re usually playing with a lead could make either set of numbers look better or worse.
Either way, the upshot is that this is an outfit willing to give up small- to medium-sized chunks on the ground in exchange for limiting explosive plays. To that end, the personnel tends to be on the lighter side — the only interior lineman who ranks among the top 11 defenders in snap counts, Voi Tunuufi, is a 6-1, 260-pound tweener who plays all along the line, sliding inside mainly on passing downs. The big guys, particularly the 6-6, 327-pound Ulumoo Ale, are enormous. But they don’t spend much time in opposing backfields, and neither do the linebackers who rely on the front to keep them clean. Instead, they’re mostly content holding the profits on the ground in check until the offense falls too far behind to keep taking them or just gets bored.
Key matchup: Michigan OL Karsen Barnhart vs. Washington DT Tuli Letuligasenoa. Michigan’s o-line took a severe hit when All-American mainstay Zak Zinter suffered a gruesome leg injury against Ohio State. Enter Barnhart, a 5th-year vet who has logged 29 career starts at 4 stations (all but center). Barnhart slid inside from right tackle to fill the Zinter-sized vacancy at right guard, and has already made a lasting mark on the position by serving as the lead blocker on Corum’s OT touchdown run against Bama. If there’s a discernible drop-off, it remains TBD.
Whatever the stats say, containing Letuligasenoa is a challenge. Now in his 6th year in Seattle, Tuli’s snap count has plummeted this season as he’s battled a lingering knee injury, but his impact when he’s on the field was undiminished: His 89.9 PFF grade against the run is the best of any front-seven defender in the Pac-12, by far, and good for the 3rd-best nationally among all Power 5 d-tackles. Washington is banking on him being on the field for more plays than he’s off, a threshold he hit in both the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl for the first time since Week 2.
• • •
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
Michigan is coming off a brutal performance in the kicking game that nearly tanked the Rose Bowl. Between a missed field goal, a botched snap on a PAT and a muffed punt that set up Alabama’s first touchdown, special teams miscues alone amounted to an 11-point handicap, and frankly the Wolverines are lucky it wasn’t a whole lot worse: A second muffed punt, by senior Jake Thaw — the “safe” return man, in the game specifically for his reliable hands — nearly gifted the Crimson Tide the winning points when Thaw inexplicably tried and failed to field the ball inside his own 5-yard line in the final minute of regulation.
How did Michigan's Jake Thaw hold onto this football after the muffed punt? pic.twitter.com/UO9ptAOf9k
— Brad Crawford (@BCrawford247) January 2, 2024
Thank goodness for his own sake that Thaw managed to recover the ball in the field of play, avoiding the worst and preserving a shot at overtime while Michigan fans’ lives suddenly flashed before their eyes. Had Bama recovered, or if the ball had carried him another step or two beyond the goal line for a safety, it would have ranked as one of the most catastrophic gaffes in the history of organized sports, as well as one of the most well-documented. Thaw may as well have gone ahead and dug his grave in that end zone. Instead, it went down alongside the punt that clanged off Semaj Morgan‘s hands in the first half as a mere footnote.
In fact, Washington also had a costly muffed punt in its semifinal win, courtesy of part-time return man Germie Bernard, which Texas promptly converted into a touchdown. Both teams employed multiple punt returners over the course of the regular season, and it will be interesting to see who they trust (and when) on Monday night. Regardless, everyone in the stadium is going to be at least a little bit on edge when the ball is in the air.
The kickers tend to inspire more confidence. Prior to pulling his lone attempt in Pasadena, Michigan’s James Turner hit 16-of-18 field goals in the regular season and hadn’t missed since Week 4. He’s connected on 3 attempts of exactly 50 yards, which given that he was just 1-for-6 from 50+ over 3 years at Louisville appears to be roughly the extent of his range. (The Rose Bowl miss was from 49.) Turner’s counterpart, Washington’s Grady Gross, hasn’t attempted a kick from long range, but has hit 16-of-20 on the year, including 3-of-3 in the Sugar Bowl. He’s still riding the good vibes of his walk-off game-winner against Washington State, which made him an instant hero among the fan base and earned him a scholarship in the process.
The punters: Nondescript. Ditto the kick returners, although Michigan may have a better chance at actually bringing one out. A little more than 40% of Gross’ kickoffs have yielded a return, one of the higher rates in the Power 5 — by way of comparison the number for Michigan’s Tommy Doman is just 18.5% – and against Texas he repeatedly lobbed short, low-altitude kicks in front of the Longhorns’ returners that forced them to field the ball on a hop. He’s booted his fair share of touchbacks, too, so whether that was a limited-time tactic or one that will carry over, we’ll all find out together.
Save Zak Zinter, the injury list is blessedly short. Michigan’s post-Zinter o-line configuration has held up fine against two of the nation’s best defenses; meanwhile, as long as Dillon Johnson’s ankle remains on track, Washington will be playing with essentially a full deck. The biggest question mark on either side is the status of Michigan DT Rayshaun Benny, a regular in the d-line rotation who logged roughly 20 snaps per game before suffering what appeared to be a significant leg injury on the first series against Alabama. Benny’s availability is TBD, but on the list of the Wolverines’ concerns in this game having enough viable bodies on the interior d-line ranks near the bottom. For this time of year, these teams are as close to full strength as it gets.
• • •
The verdict …
Occasionally I surprise myself in this section, and in the 8 years I’ve been writing these previews, Washington’s performance in the Sugar Bowl is the most compelling case for the underdog in a CFP Championship Game since Clemson in 2016. Back then, I picked the Tigers to upset what at the time looked like the most unbeatable Alabama outfit yet, on the premise that although Bama had obviously been the more consistent team over the course of the season, Deshaun Watson was a special talent who gave Clemson the higher ceiling. I was right then (barely), and although I’ve made plenty of regrettable picks in the meantime, I have a similar gut feeling about Michael Penix Jr. now.
Of course, the comparison fails on one key point: The Clemson-Bama showdown in the 2016 title game was a rematch of the original Clemson-Bama showdown in 2015, a dramatic and wildly entertaining game that went right down to the wire. The Tide won that one, but not before Watson had turned in one of the great individual performances in CFP history and the rest of the Tigers had proven they could hang athletically with the sport’s reigning dynasty. When essentially the same teams played their way back into the title game a year later, it was much easier to imagine Clemson holding up at the line of scrimmage while Watson went off against a vaunted Alabama defense, because they’d already done it. There are no such assurances here.
We’re pretty sure Washington’s passing attack is legit, right? The tale of the tape reflects some inconsistency over the second half of the season, but put Penix in a dome with those wideouts and the result speaks for itself. They’ve played a ton of football together and have a lot more ahead of them. Can the Huskies hold up in the trenches? That’s a tougher call. They’ve got an elite pass rusher in Bralen Trice, at least a couple of future pros on each line in Troy Fautanu and Tuli Letuligasenoa, and perfectly cromulent linebackers. If Dillon Johnson is his usual self, he can get done what they need to get done on the ground. And while Kalen DeBoer doesn’t have much a national profile, there’s no mistaking the fact that they’re very well-coached.
Turning the tables, though: Is Michigan explosive enough on offense? The Wolverines haven’t had a downfield passing game to speak of since the first weekend in November — that is, since Harbaugh’s suspension by the Big Ten. Surely the defenses they’ve faced in that span have had a lot to do with that, and some of the offenses they’ve faced, too. (There was absolutely zero reason to risk throwing downfield against Penn State or Iowa when their most realistic chance of reaching the end zone was cashing in a Michigan turnover.) When they need it, though, do they have it in the bag? JJ McCarthy, I can see it. The receivers? I dunno. I do know that a quarterback like Penix on the opposing sideline fundamentally alters the logic of slugging it out.
Aside from maybe Georgia, when it was looking to snap its epic title drought a couple years ago, there hasn’t been as hungry (or desperate, depending on your point of view) team to win on this stage as Michigan. The Wolverines have been very consciously aiming for and emotionally investing in this moment for 3 years. They don’t know what the immediate future looks like or when the opportunity will present itself again. They’re all in, right now. That kind of narrative is hard to pick against. When you get right down to it, I’m just not betting against the other quarterback.
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• Washington 31 | Michigan 26