After falling flat in the College Football Playoff semifinals the last two years, the Michigan Wolverines finally exorcised their bowl demons and defeated Alabama in the Rose Bowl to punch their ticket to the National Championship.
What awaits them in Houston is a gunslinger by the name of Michael Penix Jr. He has thrown for more than 4,500 yards this season and 35 touchdowns, and also has this year’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, which has only allowed 10 sacks all season. On top of all that, Penix is surrounded by some of the most talented receivers in the nation.
The senior signal-caller has very few weaknesses, but there are things Jesse Minter’s squad can do to limit his production. Here are few ways Michigan can limit Penix’s production.
Get in the backfield
It goes without saying, but getting pressure on any quarterback and making him uncomfortable often results in bad passes. Fortunately for Penix, his offensive line has done an excellent job keeping him upright.
If Michigan is to slow down Washington’s offense, it’ll start up front. In Michigan’s victory over Alabama, the defensive line’s ability to get after Jalen Milroe alleviated a lot of pressure on the secondary. Penix’s arm strength is capable of beating coverages, meaning the pendulum swings in Washington’s favor the longer it takes Michigan’s defense to get pressure. Penix is a much more experienced quarterback than Milroe and will be harder to rattle, especially with good protection.
Penix also has excellent pocket presence and is mobile enough to buy more time or move the sticks with his feet when needed. Minter will need to be crafty in how he designs blitzes in order to quickly get to Penix. If Michigan allows him to sit in the pocket and go through his reads, it will be a long night for the defense.
Spy the check down
Penix’s highlight reel is filled with long explosive passes where Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk are making acrobatic catches. What flies under the radar is what Penix does when the big play isn’t there.
He has learned throughout his college career to take what the defense gives you. In their close contests this year, Penix regularly dumped off short passes to a check down when his receivers weren’t gaining separation down the field.
Washington’s bread and butter is getting its playmakers in the open field. There are times the Huskies will have Odunze or Polk set up as a check down or bubble screen, hoping it will give them room to work after the catch. If star running back Dillon Johnson suits up — he suffered an injury against Texas — he will likely be used in the passing game as well. With how prolific the Huskies’ passing attack is, there is no reason for them to go away from it now.
Washington’s design to regularly have a check down available if the big play isn’t there has neutralized good defense in the secondary on many occasions. Michigan has the speed in players such as Rod Moore and Mike Sainristil to close quickly on those guys, and their open-field tackling will be tested in this one.
Keep Penix off the field
The best strategy the Wolverines could have against Washington is long, time-burning drives when J.J. McCarthy and company have the ball. Washington has an underwhelming defense and has given up a lot of yards this season, especially through the air. Although running the ball is more of their forte, the Wolverines are much more balanced this season.
The Wolverines finally get a healthy Blake Corum in the postseason and will likely lean on him heavily. When Michigan has needed him the most, he has shown up in big ways.
Washington relies on a high-flying offense to score fast. The Wolverines got in a hole early against TCU last season and was forced into that style of football, and we know how that worked out. Michigan will need to start fast, and then lean on its run game and defense. If the Wolverines can take the lead early and set the tone in the ground game, it’ll give the defense ample time to rest and prepare for what will be exhausting drives against a team whose strength is speed.
The Wolverines have the size and strength to win the battle in the trenches, and the speed to keep up with Washington’s offense. The Wolverines need to stay fresh and keep Penix off the field as much as possible. If Michigan is able to do that, its chances of hoisting the championship trophy in Houston are pretty good.