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Key Matchups: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington

The Wolverines are four quarters away from winning their first national title in the CFP era, and these key matchups will decide the game.

NCAA Football: Washington at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Erik Bean Erik is a lifelong Wolverines fan born and raised in West Michigan. He covers a variety of topics related to Michigan football including game analysis and recruiting.

Michigan is coming off one of the biggest wins (if not the biggest) of the Jim Harbaugh era. The Wolverines battled through adversity and mistakes to come away victorious, knocking the lone SEC team out of the playoff picture. Now they turn their eyes to the National Championship against the Washington Huskies.

Washington is also undefeated and coming off a 37-31 Sugar Bowl victory over the Texas Longhorns. Almost blowing a 10-point lead, the Huskies were able to hold off the Longhorns on a final drive that ended and punched their ticket to Houston.

Washington will provide a variety of challenges for Michigan. Let’s take a look at this week’s key matchups.

Michigan’s pass-rush vs. Michael Penix

Penix is the face of this Washington team. Without the experience and talent of the senior signal-caller, the odds of Washington making the title game are quite slim. He has had an unreal season, throwing for 4,648 yards and 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions. If Michigan is to win, limiting Penix will be crucial.

In order for the Wolverines to shut down Penix, they are going to have to establish some pressure. They were able to take advantage of the sack-prone Alabama offensive line, but Washington has done a much better job protecting Penix this season by only allowing 10 sacks.

The Michigan defense, especially in the first half, wrecked havoc on the Alabama offensive line, sacking Milroe six times with five different players. The Wolverines were able to deploy a variety of different looks and stunts to confuse the Alabama defense and get to the backfield, often disguising blitzes. With Washington’s pass happy offense, bringing heavy pressure would result in leaving the secondary to fend for themselves.

What will greatly impact Penix’s style of play will be star running back Dillon Johnson’s health. He left the Sugar Bowl late in the fourth quarter with an injury and was later seen in a boot. If Johnson is unable to go or is limited, Washington will lean even more heavily on the pass game than it has been. If this is the case, Minter will surely bring a ton of pressure to neutralize Penix’s ability to sit in the pocket and sling it around.

Michigan’s secondary vs. Washington’s receivers

The best quarterbacks in the country are often surrounded by the most talented receivers. In Washington’s case, it has two wideouts that have put up gaudy numbers this season in Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynne Polk. Both receivers have more than 1,000 yards individually and combine for 2,675 yards and 22 touchdowns. Keeping them in check will be a tall task for Will Johnson and Josh Wallace.

Odunze is Penix’s primary target and the most probable matchup for Johnson. Odunze is a taller receiver at 6-foot-3 with a similar body type to Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. He is an excellent route runner and quick off the ball. Odunze will get his yards but if Johnson can limit the big plays downfield and keep him in check, it’ll go a long way in preventing a track meet type of game.

Polk is also a larger receiver, standing at 6-foot-2. With Wallace being a step below Johnson and a little smaller, Penix could try to pick on Wallace a bit. If it becomes evident Wallace is struggling, expect Mike Sainristil to lend a helping hand.

The defensive line can go a long way in helping Johnson and Wallace if it is able to get after Penix. If Michigan can get pressure with four-man fronts, it will do wonders in helping shut down Odunze and Polk.

Michigan’s passing attack vs. Washington’s defense

As it has been all season, the performance of J.J. McCarthy often has a great impact on the game. He got picked off on the first play from scrimmage against Alabama and was luckily bailed out by the defender stepping out of bounds. McCarthy will need to protect the ball against Washington, making the Huskies earn every point they get.

Luckily for McCarthy and Michigan’s pass catchers, the Washington secondary has been less than stellar. The Huskies rank 120th in passing yards allowed per game at just over 267. This is a weakness Michigan should be able to exploit and swing the game in its favor. With Michigan’s all around solid defense, a fast start on offense could put Washington in a very bad situation.

Even though Washington’s secondary gives up a lot of yards, they are still a veteran unit led by Dominique Hampton. The senior has 58 tackles and two interceptions this season, and has the size to cover a tight end or bigger receiver such as Cornelius Johnson.

With Hampton often drawing opponent’s biggest receiving threats, Roman Wilson will likely spend a lot of time matched up against Jabbar Muhammad, who has also had a good season with three interceptions and 13 passes defended. His size is more comparable to that of Wilson, but keeping up with the speedy receiver will be a tall task. With the weaknesses in the secondary, McCarthy would be smart to take some shots downfield.

Where Michigan could really exploit Washington’s pass defense is with the tight ends. Colston Loveland and AJ Barner have both proved they can create mismatches for opposing defenses, especially when deployed in third-and-long situations. The Huskies lack the size in the secondary to lock down both the receivers and tight ends, so this could be another area McCarthy exploits as well.

The Wolverines learned in last year’s loss to TCU that shootout football is not the style of football they want to play. Washington is going to try and replicate that Fiesta Bowl, even more-so if Dillon Johnson is unable to suit up or is limited. If the Wolverines play disciplined and don’t need to play from behind, this is a favorable matchup for Michigan. Both teams will exchange blows early, but Michigan is a more balanced team and it’ll take a lot of things to go Washington’s way to offset that discrepancy.