Five matchups that will define the College Football Playoff National Championship for Washington
Washington against Michigan. Unbeaten Pac-12 champion against unbeaten Big Ten champion. We get a College Football Playoff National Championship of epic proportions to close the book on the four-team Playoff era.
Michigan hasn’t won a national championship since the 90s. In its third consecutive CFP appearance, the Wolverines are painfully close to ending the drought. Washington hasn’t won a title since 1991, and the Huskies are led by card-carrying AARP members who put off the NFL Draft last season to make one last run at winning the whole thing.
On one side, you have a high-flying, scoreboard-breaking offense led by a head coach with a championship pedigree. On the other, you have a smashmouth football team with a battle-hardened head coach that once again looks like a classic lunch pail team.
Style makes a fight. These two teams have a ton of style in the kind of beautifully contrasting way.
Here are five matchups that will define the game:
Michigan DC Jesse Minter vs. Washington OC Ryan Grubb
This is the best matchup in the game because it’s between two of the very best at their respective crafts in all of college football.
Ryan Grubb has been tremendous for Washington, scheming players open in the secondary all season and keeping defenses off-balance with a rigorous self-scout to break tendencies. Washington has been able to reinvent itself at times, leaning more on its ground game when necessary and then leaning back into Michael Penix Jr.’s otherworldly arm talent when faced with susceptible secondaries.
On the other side, Jesse Minter put a masterclass of a defensive performance on display in the Rose Bowl, taking what was a size mismatch at the line of scrimmage and flipping it on its head with blitz disguises and a flurry of pressure that caved in Alabama’s protection. The Crimson Tide struggled with keeping quarterback Jalen Milroe upright all season long, but Michigan produced five sacks in the first half of a Playoff game — that just doesn’t happen. And those five sacks came from five different guys.
“Communication. I think that’s the key,” Grubb said of handling the litany of pressure looks UW will get. “I think that’s typically where interior problems happen, especially in the A and B gap, when you’re not on the same page and one side of the line is going one way and the other is going the other way, to oversimplify it and all of a sudden there’s an A gap open and Michael has somebody running down into his face.
“Those are the things we have to minimize. They do a great job. Coach Minter definitely dials it up with a lot of different looks had. We have to make sure our guys are all on the same page.”
Added Minter: “Sometimes in this type of game it’s not necessarily about the sack numbers. It’s about affecting the quarterback someway, somehow, and sometimes that’s through coverage, sometimes that’s through pressure, sometimes that’s through winning one-on-ones up front.”
Penix has ultimate confidence in throwing one-on-one balls to any one of Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, or Jalen McMillan. From a defensive standpoint, you have to find a way to pressure Penix without exposing your secondary to one-on-ones. Washington’s receivers win those balls; Odunze leads the country in contested catches, per PFF. Start giving up explosives to Washington’s offense and it snowballs.
Which puts Minter’s flurry of pressure looks front and center. Can Michigan confuse Washington? Can the defensive line affect the passer enough with base pressures? If so, what in-game adjustments can Grubb make?
“They try to undress your defense in a sense to where they can give the quarterback some answers presnap as to what you might be playing,” Minter said. “You kind of have to tip your hand if you are in man or zone, tip your hand if you are pressuring.”
The chess match between those two coordinators is going to be fascinating.
Michigan’s edges vs. Washington’s tackles
Sure, this is an extension of the previous point, but if one side — Washington tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten or Michigan’s committee of edge rushers — is consistently beating the man across from them, things get significantly tougher for the corresponding coordinator.
Fautanu and Rosengarten are going to be playing on Sundays. Between the two of them, they’ve been debited with allowing just 31 quarterback pressures in more than 1100 snaps as a pass blocker. For context, Michigan tackle Ladarius Henderson has given up 30 in 265 pass-blocking snaps.
Sacks are one thing, yes. Penix doesn’t get sacked. Texas lamented after the Sugar Bowl that it was able to get to Penix but unable to bring him to the ground. Michigan has to be able to get to Penix. Make him feel it.
The Wolverines go by committee. Four different edge rushers have at least 24 quarterback pressures this season and none have more than 28. The quartet of Jaylen Harrell, Josaiah Stewart, Braiden McGregor, and Derrick Moore had four of Michigan’s six sacks against Alabama.
“The biggest thing all season is we’re all able to play together as one and go out there and know what we’re all thinking,” Fautanu said. “I know what Roger is thinking, I know what Parker (Brailsford) is thinking. Parker does a really good job making sure we’re all on the same page.
“… We played Oregon and they played eight guys on the edge. I faced so many people in one game it was crazy. Yeah, all of them are threats from Michigan. All great players and really well-coached. Got to make sure we’re ready for all of them.”
Michigan CB Josh Wallace vs. Washington WR Ja’Lynn Polk
In The Game, 6-foot-2 Michigan corner Will Johnson shadowed Ohio State wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. around the field. If Michigan chooses to play Washington the same kind of way, we could see Johnson following around Rome Odunze.
Stopping Odunze is a nightmare. He’s going to get his. He was one of the best receivers in football this season.
The box Washington puts teams into is when the top cover corner plays Odunze, the No. 2 has to figure out how to wrangle with Ja’Lynn Polk — a 1,122-yard receiver this season and a likely Day 2 NFL Draft pick. Polk’s 17.3 yards-per-catch average this season was fourth among Pac-12 receivers but he’s not much of a YAC guy. He’s a move-the-chains guy.
Slightly more than 37% of his targets this season came in the intermediate part of the field (10-19 yards). He was deadly in that range, bringing in 23 receptions with a 64% catch rate and five contested catches. The 6-foot-2 Polk isn’t going to wow NFL scouts with raw speed, but he has excellent ball skills and plays with an edge. UW uses that in the intermediate passing game to keep the chains moving when it isn’t lobbing moon shots to Odunze.
With 5-foot-10 nickel Mike Sainristil spending the bulk of his time in the slot and thus likely to match up with Jalen McMillan, I’m looking to see how much of a one-on-one battle we get between 6-foot Michigan corner Josh Wallace and Polk.
Wallace is great. So far this season, he’s Michigan’s highest-graded defensive back. He has only missed two tackles all year and he hasn’t yet given up a touchdown in coverage. He’s been targetted 38 times for 19 receptions and 9.7 yards per catch. He sticks to his man, with an average of only 2.7 yards allowed after the catch.
Michigan is going to give some stuff up in the pass game simply because of how good Washington’s collection of receivers is. But if one guy gets rolling, the Wolverines can’t let another start breaking loose. Texas ran into that issue a bit. Odunze and Polk each topped 100 yards. Add McMillan’s total and the trio had more than 300 receiving yards between them.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun matchup. It’s probably, as a group, the best receiving core we’ve faced,” said Johnson. “We just have to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year. Execute, trust Coach Minter’s game plan and I think we will be in good positions.”
Michigan QB JJ McCarthy vs. Washington S Dom Hampton & CB Jabbar Muhammad
JJ McCarthy completed 17 of his 27 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan’s 27-20 semifinal win over Alabama. It was an uneven performance. He missed three of his first four passes, then hit 10 of his next 12, then missed four consecutive throws.
Michigan had four three-and-outs and six of its 10 real drives in regulation that failed to cross midfield. If Michigan got started, Michigan scored. Three of the four drives that reached Alabama territory scored. And all three of those drives started inside the Michigan 30.
McCarthy’s season has been a strong one from an efficiency standpoint — he enters the national title game No. 3 in Total QBR — but he’s left a ton of meat on the bone. He won’t blow you away with raw numbers, but it’s not exactly like he’s operating in the same kind of wide-open scheme that lets Michael Penix Jr. throw the ball around the yard. Michigan hasn’t asked him to be a world-beater much. Sometimes, it has actively handcuffed him.
Washington’s secondary provides an opportunity for McCarthy to have a big game. Quinn Ewers threw for 318 yards and inexplicably clawed Texas back into the game when it looked like the Huskies were well on their way to a win.
Husky Dominique Hampton and corner Jabbar Muhammad are the top coverage options for UW. Can one of them get an interception off McCarthy?
The Michigan passer has only been picked off four times this season. Three of the four came on the same day in September. But Alabama picked him off on the first drive of the game in the Rose Bowl — an interception that was waved off because the defender was out of bounds.
“When you have your opportunity, it’s got to be kind of the one-shot, one-kill mentality,” said co-defensive coordinator William Inge. When you see the ball, you’ve got to go attack it.
Washington collected the most interceptions of any team in the Pac-12 this season (16). Only eight teams in the FBS had more. Muhammad has three of the Huskies’ 16, Hampton has two.
“They did a good job mixing up their coverages,” Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said. “I think they’ve got really good DBs. Both those guys on the perimeter do a really good job, especially (Muhammad). Super physical, gets in your face.”
On McCarthy, Moore hit the key point: “No moment is too big. He continues to just thrive in the big moments. He just has the ‘it’ factor that you can’t really teach or coach.”
A gritty player is how you’ll hear McCarthy described by NFL scouts. On the other side, Washington has a passer who can hit every throw and a coaching staff that actively encourages him to try. We know that kind of quarterback can win a national championship. How about McCarthy? Can he author a signature moment that wins Michigan a national title?
Michigan RB Blake Corum vs. Washington’s edges
In 2021, during a meeting between the two teams in Ann Arbor, Blake Corum ran on Washington’s defense 21 times for 171 yards and three touchdowns. He was a force that day, popping a huge run and forcing seven missed tackles.
“Blake has just gotten better and better,” said Sherrone Moore.
He had nearly 1,500 yards and 18 rushing scores last season. He enters Monday’s game with 1,111 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. His single rushing score against the Crimson Tide snapped a five-game streak of games with multiple rushing touchdowns.
Simply put, Corum has been one of the most reliable running backs in college football for three years straight. This season, he has been lethal going off-tackle.
Per PFF, he’s averaging 4.8 yards a carry off left tackle. He’s averaging 4.3 yards a carry off right tackle. Michigan loves to run him around the left end, where he has averaged more than 7 yards a carry on 49 attempts this season. Twenty-two of those 49 carries have gone for first downs.
When he’s running around the edge, be it the left side of the line or the right, Corum has a 15% explosive run rate. He has four explosive runs on more than 100 attempts between the tackles.
Washington edges Bralen Trice, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Sekai Asoau-Afoa, and Voi Tunuufi have to be sturdy against the run in this game. Yes, their ability to pressure the quarterback on dropbacks is important, but UW will be more lethal if it can push McCarthy to play from passing downs. Washington has to win those early downs against the run. Setting the edge is going to be paramount.