When the Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies play for the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston, it’ll be a stark clash of styles on every level.
The Huskies head coach is the calm, quiet Kalen DeBoer, while Michigan’s leader is the uber-intense Jim Harbaugh. Washington wants to win with an elite vertical passing game that gives its iffy defense some margin for error, while Michigan wants to grind the opposition to dust with a powerful running game and stifling front seven.
One team would prefer a track meet, and the other would prefer an old-style matchup in which the line of scrimmage tells all.
Betting markets and the computers see an edge for Harbaugh’s team. Sportsbooks have made the Wolverines 4.5-point favorites and our supercomputer agrees they’re the best bets, giving them a 71.9% chance to win.
However, Washington has defied expectations all year, including winning as 4.0-point underdogs against the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Day.
Let’s go over some key questions ahead of Monday’s kickoff on ESPN.
Does Washington have the beef to stand up to Michigan’s run game?
Both Michigan and Washington have brilliant running backs. Only one team has a suspect defensive front that’s struggled to stop the run. The Washington defense has allowed the 10th-worst run success percentage (44.8) in the nation, but the Huskies have gone 14-0 regardless.
The issue of opponents pounding the rock effectively against UW has come up all year, but it’s come to a head in the Huskies’ last two games – both wins, obviously. Oregon ran 20 times for 124 yards in the Pac-12 Championship, and Texas carried 28 times for 180 in the Sugar Bowl. (The first time Washington played Oregon, the Ducks averaged 5.1 yards on 40 rushes.)
Washington co-defensive coordinators Chuck Morrell and William Inge will spend this week thinking about how to best slow down Michigan tailback Blake Corum. The All-American hasn’t had an especially prolific season, and a few Big Ten teams figured out ways to hobble him. (Corum only had 44 yards on 15 carries against Purdue at midseason, for example.)
But Corum is a significant threat as both a ball carrier and flat receiver, and a few bolts of lightning from him were the difference in both Michigan’s game-tying drive and overtime winner against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl semifinal.
The Wolverines aren’t at full strength themselves, having lost All-American guard Zak Zinter to a broken leg during their win over Ohio State. How Washington’s front holds up against Michigan’s line will determine how much of the game stays within the Wolverines’ comfort zone and how much they have to depend on quarterback J.J. McCarthy to carry them on passing downs.
Michigan hopes not much.
Will Washington have its typical deep passing field day?
The most exciting unit in this game, or any game this season, is Washington’s offense. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throws dime after dime to an elite receiving group that’s led by (but not at all limited to) likely first-round NFL Draft pick Rome Odunze.
Washington, third nationally in offensive TRACR, has two more very good receivers in Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan, and McMillan’s late-season return after some injury woes during the year has given defenses one more thing to be afraid of.
All of this happens behind an excellent offensive line that took the Joe Moore Award as the country’s top blocking group. Washington has an offense without weaknesses – or, more accurately, without anything that isn’t an outright strength.
In this way, the Huskies pose a unique schematic challenge for the Wolverines. All season, opposing quarterbacks have targeted Michigan with a barrage of underneath passes. Jalen Milroe figured to be a different test in the Rose Bowl, but Alabama’s quarterback (who averaged more than 13 air yards per throw this season to lead the country) had to strain to catch bad snaps from his center and wound up barely testing Michigan’s secondary down the field at all.
Penix will give Michigan that test. He doesn’t typically throw it as far as Milroe, averaging just under 11 air yards per attempt himself, but Penix is a phenomenally accurate deep ball passer. He posted a well-thrown percentage of 78.0 while airing the ball out more than all but a handful of QBs, and he doesn’t deal with the same snapping issues that Milroe did against Michigan.
Penix is one of just four quarterbacks with at least 300 adjusted pass attempts to have a well-thrown percentage better than 78.0 and a pickable pass percentage lower than 3.0 while averaging more than 10.0 air yards per attempt.
And of those four (which includes Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels), Penix has easily averaged the most air yards per attempt.
Michigan’s defense, however, is elite against the pass. The Wolverines are seventh in our defensive TRACR rankings against the pass, have picked off 16 passes in 14 games and allowed a 101.5 passer rating – third in the country.
Then again, they’ve seen nothing like Penix. And even when they faced Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., they weren’t dealing with a receiver quite like Odunze, only because Ohio State QB Kyle McCord couldn’t deliver the ball like Penix does to his favorite targets.
Washington has extra reason to chuck it around in this game: Starting running back Dillon Johnson was injured at the end of the Sugar Bowl. He has some sort of leg ailment, but he’ll play. Exactly how much of his usual capacity he will have is an open question, but Penix may have even more on his shoulders.
If J.J McCarthy has to win the game for Michigan, can he do it?
In a vacuum, that’s an easy answer: of course. Michigan trailed by a touchdown when McCarthy took the ball at his own 25-yard line with inside five minutes to play against Alabama, and he led a crucial touchdown drive that sent the game to overtime.
But the remaining question about McCarthy revolves around whether he can carry Michigan’s offense with his right arm if the team gets into a hairy situation.
Michigan’s tying drive against Alabama was a good show of play-calling by coordinator Sherrone Moore, who got receiver Roman Wilson and tailback Corum open on crossing and flat patterns for McCarthy. In overtime, two Corum runs were Michigan’s only plays, the latter for a touchdown.
The Wolverines have played from ahead so often this year that McCarthy has gone 14 games without needing to put together an awe-inspiring performance, or even a single comeback effort in which he’s had to make a lot of throws that are anything like what Washington demands from Penix on a regular basis.
Moore has given McCarthy lots of outlets, and the QB has taken them: His 7.6% checkdown rate is the seventh highest in the country among quarterbacks with 300 attempts or more.
But it’s not like McCarthy hasn’t been good: His 81.2% well-thrown ball rate this season is 18th nationally and it’s come on an average of 9.3 air yards per attempt. (The FBS average is 9.0.)
He’s given Michigan everything the Wolverines have needed. Will he, and they, need more in the national title game?