Hayes: Washington's offense looks a lot like 2019 LSU, 2020 Alabama. Can Huskies win a title, too?
They fit right in. Same style, same sudden explosiveness, same declaration to all comers.
You have to stop us. Or outscore us.
So the Washington offense isn’t at the same level as LSU in 2019 or Alabama in 2020. Who cares?
They’ve still followed the same path to the final game of the season, arriving at the Playoff National Championship Game against Michigan on sheer force and offensive will.
Playing defense isn’t so much an afterthought as much as it is a complement. And it only takes 1 defensive stop for the offensive onslaught to begin.
“We’re tough to defend,” Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. told reporters. “We have a lot of different ways to attack defenses.”
Welcome to the new age of college football, where the vertical passing game has become the quickest way to get good and maybe win it all. Georgia slowed that progress over its past 2 national championship seasons with its defense-first philosophy — even though the throwing of QB Stetson Bennett IV was critical in both seasons — but it’s back again in the Playoff National Championship Game.
It’s style (Washington) vs. substance (Michigan). The only question remaining: Is there a true move at the elite level of college football, where the line of scrimmage is everything and toughest (and fastest) defense wins?
Will offense again be the difference?
“Big-time arm talent, tremendous presence in the pocket, sees the field really well,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Penix. “He’s so polished. It’s an elite level.”
It’s also something Michigan didn’t anticipate in the final game of the season. The Wolverines expected a fistfight with Georgia.
They got the best offense in college football, stressing defenses from every possible angle.
“The same stuff we’ve been leaning on all year, just lean on our pillars, our good defense,” Michigan defensive tackle Mason Graham told reporters. “Just kind of keep playing the way we’ve been playing.”
Harbaugh and the Michigan staff built to this point over the past 2 offseasons — after losing to Georgia in the 2021 Playoff semifinal — by adding strength and speed on the offensive and defensive lines to deal with the Bulldogs and Alabama and anyone else from the SEC.
Those lines of scrimmage dominated Alabama in the Rose Bowl semifinal, specifically the defensive front that made it nearly impossible for the Tide to throw the ball. Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe was sacked 6 times and constantly harassed — and threw for only 116 yards.
Now Washington rolls into Houston on Monday with the most dynamic and dangerous offense in college football, with 4 receivers who can win on the outside and a tight end who is dangerous in the middle of the field and a running back who can get tough yards.
And the hot quarterback — goodness, the hot quarterback. Penix is what Joe Burrow was in 2019 at LSU, and Mac Jones was at Alabama in 2020.
He’s accurate, he’s fearless, and he’s making critical plays at big moments. Washington — like LSU and Alabama of years past — believes no one can stop them, and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and coach Kalen DeBoer are calling plays with that in mind.
It’s an incredibly powerful spot to be in, both athletically and mentally.
Clemson was No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense 2019 and had multiple future NFL Draft picks. It also had an offense with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross — but once LSU got a stop on defense midway through the 2nd quarter, everything changed.
Clemson was playing catch-up against a hot quarterback and elite skill players, and LSU outscored the Tigers 28-8 the rest of the way to win the national title.
A year later, it played out almost identically for Alabama: The Tide got a defensive stop in the middle of the 2nd quarter and held Ohio State to a field goal with a 21-17 lead.
Alabama then outscored Ohio State 31-7 over the final 30-plus minutes to win the national title. The 2020 Tide defense might have been Nick Saban’s worst in Tuscaloosa, and the 2019 LSU defense was 31st in the nation in scoring defense.
But both were so good offensively, so dialed into what they wanted and how to execute it, all it took was 1 key defensive stop to force the opponent to play catch-up. And when you’re playing catch-up, coaches call plays differently, players execute differently, and the process isn’t a smooth operation.
It’s based on equal parts desperation and panic, knowing that every missed opportunity — or failure to score points — will push you further behind a hot offense that isn’t going away.
“I’m always confident in myself and this team, and the preparation that our coaches give us going into each game,” Penix said. “I feel pretty excited for the opportunity.”
Why wouldn’t he? The Huskies have 2 receivers who average more than 17 yards per catch (Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk), and the receiving corps goes 5 deep of players who can win on the outside and over the middle — including WRs Jalen McMillan and Germie Bernard, and TE Jack Westover.
Add to that, 1,000-yard rusher Dillon Johnson — assuming he’s healthy, of course — and this could be the most dangerous offense Michigan has faced under Harbaugh (including those dangerous Ohio State teams in 2021-22).
LSU in 2019 had 3 receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall Jr.), a tight end (Thaddeus Moss) who could win individual battles, and a 1,000-yard running back (Clyde Edwards-Helaire).
Alabama in 2020 had WRs DeVonta Smith, John Metchie III and Jaylen Waddle, tight end Jahleel Billingsley and 1,000-yard running back Najee Harris.
So the Washington offense isn’t exactly LSU or Alabama of the past. Who cares?
All it takes is one more game of sheer force and offensive will to arrive at the same place.