The National Championship between the Michigan Wolverines and the Washington Huskies is almost here. The undefeated Huskies have the best offense the Wolverines have seen this season, with a superstar quarterback and stud wide receiver leading the way.
Here are three players to watch when these two square off in the title game:
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
Michael Penix Jr. was probably robbed of a Heisman Trophy. He dipped a bit towards the end of the season, which didn’t help his case, but I don’t think there was a singular more valuable player in the country.
In the last two games — the Pac-12 Championship and the Sugar Bowl — Penix has been unstoppable. He’s 56-of-77 (72.7 percent) for 749 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Those were the two most important games of the season, against Washington’s best competition, and he tore up two good defenses.
The Huskies quarterback is a veteran — six years in college football — and has a ton of experience. Penix also has elite weapons around him, but none of that would matter if he was incapable of getting them the football. There is not a more explosive arm in college football than his. He has such a quick release and the ball soars out of his hand. His pocket presence has greatly improved since his days at Indiana, and he’ll routinely move out of the way of a pass rusher and launch a ball down the field.
This throw by Michael Penix Jr.— 247Sports (@247Sports) January 2, 2024
Ja'Lynn Polk takes it 77 yards to set up a Washington touchdown pic.twitter.com/DpsBOs7nRM
Michigan must put pressure on Penix, not because he’ll take sacks like Jalen Milore did, but because more often than not, he’ll heave one up. This is a game where the Wolverines’ secondary is going to be tested, and they’ll be facing the best receiver group they have seen this season. Locking them up and coming down with an interception or two could completely change the game.
Wide Receiver Rome Odunze
Odunze, Penix’s top target, has been one of the best wide receivers in college football this season. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Michigan fans could get flashbacks of TCU’s Quentin Johnston from last year if it can’t contain him.
Like Johnston was, Odunze is projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. He’s maybe the most dangerous deep threat in college football, winning an obscene amount of 50-50 balls. That’s why he averages 17.9 yards per reception and has racked up more than 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns this year.
Odunze has a streak of five straight games where he has surpassed the century mark in receiving yards, and he has scored six touchdowns in that span. Just look at this release and phenomenal catch down the sidelines:
Rome Odunze might be the first WR off the board this April— Leighton Glodek (@LGlodek) January 2, 2024
I love Marvin Harrison but man…Odunze makes it look so easy! pic.twitter.com/L0fydzbPDV
This is the kind of stuff Michigan could see a lot of. Thankfully, I suspect Odunze will see a lot of Will Johnson in coverage, and he has been one of the best cover corners in college. The Wolverines will likely be disguising plenty of coverage to hopefully confuse Penix and force some mistakes, but we should see a couple of thrilling snaps where Johnson and Odunze go head-to-head.
Edge Bralen Trice
Washington’s defense has not been great this season, ranking 120th in pass defense and allowing more than 400 yards per game this season. But the Huskies have one standout who can wreck a game, and that’s Trice.
The junior edge rusher is up to seven sacks on the season after recording two against Texas in the Sugar Bowl victory:
Impressive film last night from Washington ED Bralen Trice.... Heavy handed with good rush plans. Can work with this guy. 7 QB Pressures vs Texas pic.twitter.com/zABju1rGBu— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 2, 2024
Trice has led the FBS in quarterback pressures in each of the last two regular seasons, recording 70 in both 2022 and 2023, according to PFF.
Many expected Alabama’s pass rush to be a problem for Michigan in the Rose Bowl, but the Wolverines did an excellent job protecting J.J. McCarthy and giving him ample time in the pocket. In fact, they allowed just one sack to a Crimson Tide defense that had 39 sacks (over three per game) during the regular season.
Washington’s defense is nowhere near as good as Alabama’s, and the Michigan offensive line dominated for the majority of the game. They’ll need to do the same against the Huskies and, specifically, Trice to take home the championship.