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Strength vs. strength for CFP title: Michigan’s stingy pass D faces Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.

By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
Published: January 6, 2024, 6:01am

The College Football Playoff national championship game between No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Washington is a contrast in styles and a matchup of strength versus strength when Michael Penix Jr. faces the Wolverines’ defense.

“You get a schematic, professional-style matchup and to me you get the Baltimore Ravens versus the Kansas City Chiefs,” said Fox analyst Brock Huard, who has called games for both teams this season. “The Huskies in purple masquerade as the Chiefs and the guys in blue masquerade as the Baltimore Ravens.”

Michigan (14-0) is a 4 1/2-point favorite over Washington (14-0), according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL

Getting pressure on Penix is difficult. Washington’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the best group in the country and tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten provide excellent edge protection.

When teams do pressure Penix, he is often unfazed. In the Sugar Bowl, Texas didn’t sack him once in 38 pass attempts and while it might have looked like the Longhorns got almost no push, they actually registered 16 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. When pressured Penix was incredible, completing 60% of his passes at 10 yards per attempt.

“Can Michigan strike up enough interior pressure and edge pressure to actually get to Penix, not just make him uncomfortable? And then can the safeties and cornerbacks find those layers of wide receivers and force Penix to make the impossible throw … and not give (the Huskies) any gimmes,” college football data analyst Parker Fleming said on The AP Top 25 College Football Podcast.

Texas got most if its pressure from the interior with powerful tackles T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II. Michigan is deeper up front and better off the edges. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter gave Alabama fits in the Rose Bowl by making it difficult to identify what was coming from where. Minter succeeded Mike Macdonald, who left Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh to work for Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

Huard, who played quarterback at Washington, said Michigan’s defense will test Penix and Huskies offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb as problem-solvers.

“It’s an NFL-type defense, which is a matchup mindset, which is change the picture pre- and post-snap, which is make it very difficult on the quarterback to read and react,” Huard said.

Washington’s veteran offensive line has allowed only 11 sacks for a team that throws it as much as any in the country. And while the Huskies’ deep passing game can be spectacular, Penix and Co. are good all over the field. If there is a play to be made, the Huskies usually make it.

Penix targeted receivers Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillen and Germie Bernard 20 times against Texas and completed 19 passes for 411 yards.

Michigan’s secondary plays an aggressive style, led by star cornerback Will Johnson and versatile nickel back Mike Sainristil. The Wolverines don’t concede anything. They want to force opponents to make difficult completions. No team is better at making the difficult look easy than Washington.

Here’s the wildcard: Michigan has the third-best pass defense in the country by opponent efficiency rating (101.52) and has allowed seven touchdown passes, fewest in the nation.

But the Wolverines have faced only two offenses ranked in the top 20 in pass efficiency (Alabama and Ohio State).

“Michigan is elite defensively, but they’ve gotten to feast on horrific, horrific offenses in the Big Ten,” Huard said. “So from a stress test, Michigan has not seen anything the likes of Washington’s offense.”

Meanwhile, Washington has faced only one top-30 pass defense: Oregon, twice. Penix completed 64% for 8.2 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL

Strength vs. weakness.

Michigan runs the ball a lot and efficiently, and can do it in critical situations.

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Washington’s run defense isn’t good (86th in the country at 4.40 yards per carry allowed), but Penix and the offense are so effective that opponents often can’t or don’t stick with it.

Texas’s running backs averaged 6.8 yards per carry in the Sugar Bowl against Washington, but had only 18 carries as the Longhorns seemed to get impatient early and then were scrambling to come from behind late.

Michigan is committed to the run with Blake Corum, who leads the nation with 26 touchdowns. Even in a game they trailed for much of the second half against Alabama, the Wolverines had 30 runs and J.J. McCarthy threw 27 passes.

Washington’s defense, outside of edge rusher Bralen Trice, who had two sacks in a ferocious performance against Texas, doesn’t have much high-end, NFL-type talent. The Huskies do have a knack for getting big stops late in games — which helps explain how they have won each of their last 10 games by 10 points or fewer.

Michigan and Washington have thrived off dictating the way their games are played. Michigan makes its opponents try to out-grind them. Washington makes its opponents try to keep pace.

“I really don’t expect there to be many wasted possessions,” Fleming said, “and we might get this really weird mismatch with these long plodding rushing drives and scoring and Washington coming out and scoring in four or five plays.”

RUSSO’S PREDICTION: Michigan 34-26.

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