National Championship Preview: Michigan Defense vs. Washington Offense

National Championship Preview: Michigan Defense vs. Washington Offense

January 7, 2024
Michael Penix (#9, image via Washington Athletics)

Michigan ranks #9 in rushing defense (93.1 yards allowed/game) and #7 in yards allowed per carry (3.03). Last week they allowed a season-high 172 yards on the ground, but 63 of those yards came on 21 attempts by Alabama QB Jalen Milroe. Michigan backup DT Rayshaun Benny was lost for this game after a lower body injury last week, but the Wolverines still dominated the line of scrimmage against the Crimson Tide, and fellow DT Mason Graham was named MVP of the Rose Bowl. Middle linebacker Junior Colson leads the team with 89 tackles, and fellow LB Michael Barrett is second with 61. The third guy is LB Ernest Hausmann (44 tackles), whose playing time seems to have diminished in Michigan’s postseason. Michigan is #55 in tackles for loss (5.86 per game), led by OLB Jaylen Harrell and DE Braiden McGregor with 9 each. Washington’s rush offense ranks #102 nationally (123.6 yards/game), and they’re tied for #55 in yards per carry (4.42). The leading rusher is Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson (6’0″, 218 lbs.), a senior who has 222 carries for 1,162 yards and 16 touchdowns this season; Johnson suffered an ankle injury last week and may be limited or slowed by the injury. Freshman Tybo Rogers (5’11”, 185) seems to be the primary backup at this point in the season, as he had 5 carries for 19 yards last week when Johnson was hurt; altogether, he has 43 attempts for 182 yards and 0 touchdowns this year. The offensive line for the Huskies won the 2023 Joe Moore Award for being the top offensive line – Michigan won it in 2021 and 2022 – so they play very well together. Redshirt junior LT Troy Fautanu (6’4″, 317) will probably get drafted in the first couple rounds, and redshirt sophomore RT Roger Rosengarten (6’6″, 300) is also a solid player who could get drafted in the middle rounds. Center Parker Brailsford (6’2″, 275) is a redshirt freshman thrust into a starting position due to injury.

Advantage: Michigan. Washington has decent success in the run game, but they don’t really commit to it, since their strength is in the passing game. They also rely heavily on Johnson and haven’t got much from the backup running backs, so if Johnson is slowed by his ankle injury, that could spell trouble for the run altogether.

Michigan ranks #2 in passing defense (150 yards allowed/game), #5 in yards allowed per attempt (5.8), and #3 in defensive passing efficiency. They have allowed 7 passing touchdowns while nabbing 16 interceptions on the season. Last week Milroe completed almost 70% of his throws, but they were short gains (5.0 yards/attempt). The Wolverines are tied for #17 in interceptions per game (1.14), led by Mike Sainristil’s 5, and 4 of their 16 picks have been returned for scores. Michigan sacked Milroe 6 times in the Rose Bowl, bringing them up to #21 in sacks per game (2.71). Harrell has 6.5 sacks, OLB Josaiah Stewart has 5.5, and McGregor has 4.5. It’s going to be much tougher to get to the QB in this one, though, because while Milroe has a reputation for holding onto the ball too long, Washington QB Michael Penix (6’3″, 213) has one of the quickest releases in the country. Penix transferred from Indiana following the 2021 season and is in his sixth year of college, having had his best season for the Hoosiers when Washington head coach Kalen Deboer was Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019. Penix finished second in the 2023 Heisman voting and has the Huskies ranked #1 in passing (350 yards/game), #6 in yards per attempt (9.4), and #11 in passing efficiency. Penix is 336/504 (66.7%) for 4,648 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He’s ridiculously accurate and, in my opinion, is the most impressive pure passer in the country. He’s throwing to junior WR Rome Odunze (6’3″, 215), who has 87 catches for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns; junior WR Ja’Lynn Polk (6’2″, 204), who has 65 catches for 1,122 yards and 9 scores; and junior WR Jalen McMillan (6’1″, 192), who has 39 catches for 526 yards and 4 touchdowns. They also have threats at tight end with fifth year senior Jack Westover (6’3″, 248) with 41 catches, 394 yards, and 4 touchdowns, and fifth year senior Devin Culp (6’4″, 237) with 15 catches for 194 yards and 2 scores. Washington is #4 in sacks allowed per game (0.79), due to both a solid offensive line and Penix’s quick decision making.

Advantage: Washington. Penix is the best passing QB in the country, and he has some good receivers. I think the offensive line looks better than it is because of Penix. Michigan’s pass rush is going to be negated somewhat by the play calling and Penix, so even though I think Michigan’s defensive line is better than Washington’s offensive line, the ball’s going to get out. It’s going to be very important for Michigan’s defensive backs to tackle well and get Odunze, Polk, McMillan, etc. on the ground quickly after they catch the ball.

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