Saturday evening’s game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Washington Huskies was supposed to have a different tone to it. As a team that has seen the promised land of the College Football Playoff, the Huskies were supposed to be a statement game on the Wolverines’ schedule. One that the program could point to at the end of the season as a season-defining victory. A game that could propel momentum in Ann Arbor and help make a push into a brutal Big Ten slate.
Instead, the life of this game has been sucked out of it. The juice around it on the national landscape has been lost. I’m surely not the first to tell you the Huskies lost to the FCS Montana Grizzlies in Week 1. The 13-7 final in favor of the Grizzlies stunned everyone around college football. For Huskies fans, this is their Appalachian State.
I know what you are thinking, those are big words in terms of a comparison. Michigan was a much higher ranked team when they fell to Appalachian State, but the expectations for both that Michigan team and this Washington team were just the same.
Washington had a successful 2020 season in what was a puzzling year for the PAC-12 conference. They played only four games but ascended to a top 25 team before losing to Stanford. An outbreak of COVID within the locker room removed them from the PAC-12 championship. Their replacement, the Oregon Ducks, wound up beating USC and earned a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. Like so many seasons, the Huskies were cut short, and players from that team will always be wondering what if.
Fortunately for the players and their fans, they return almost every starter from that unit. The expectation once again for this team was to make a push at a PAC-12 championship and potentially earn their right as the top-dogs in the conference. A push for another College Football Playoff bid was not entirely out of the question.
I mean look at this prediction by Mike Vorel of the Seattle Times for their first game of the season. After praising Montana for becoming a solid team in the FCS, he said this:
But it won’t matter. Why? Because Washington is not Central Washington. And in their last two games against FBS opponents — Oregon in 2019 and UW in 2017 — the Griz lost by a combined score of 98-10. Prediction: Huskies 41, Griz 10
I don’t blame Vorel for this assessment. No one saw this loss coming from the Huskies. Any sane person would have predicted a blowout with the advantage going to Washington. Vorel had the Huskies finishing their season at 10-2, a staple not good enough for the playoffs, but it certainly would have given them a shot at a conference championship.
Now, this program is back to square one. They will go back and evaluate what they did wrong and come back with a chance to make a statement against Michigan. This game now means a whole lot for the Huskies and it could mean very little for the other side. Michigan has to win this game now. A loss now would be even more catastrophic before in the eyes of the national media. A win for the Wolverines, while remaining important, has less notoriety for the team because of Washington’s Week 1 loss.
Overlooking this Washington team would be a monumental mistake for Michigan. Just because they dropped the first game of their season doesn’t mean they are any less talented.
Second-year quarterback Dylan Morris had the worst game of his young career against Montana. He threw three picks and finished with a QBR of 8.4 in the game. That’s eighth-worst in all of college football. Last season, Morris had more than 225 yards passing in three of their four games. Some fans may start clamoring for five-star true freshman quarterback Sam Huard to get his run after a mighty sloppy first game in 2021, but head coach Jimmy Lake guaranteed twice after the loss Morris would remain the starter.
With Morris staying as the starter, his top target, Cade Otton will be one to watch out for this Saturday. Otton had 82 yards on eight receptions in the loss to Montana. That accounts for one-third of the receptions and an even higher percentage of the yards. Outside of Otton, there is a void of talent in the receiver corps. Ja’Lynn Polk, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Terrell Bynum, some of the top wideouts on their team, are all out or hurting.
Every Huskies offensive lineman from last year is back on the team this year. That includes left tackle Jaxon Kirkland, who staved off the NFL Draft to return for one more season at Washington. That will be an intriguing matchup to watch with Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, who did the exact same thing.
Richard Newton is their starting running back and he’s a big part of their offense. He had 21 touches and 85 yards in the loss to the Grizzlies. It’s his third year with the team, and he knows the offense well.
Where the Huskies really stand out is on the defensive side of the ball. All but three starters from last season return to this team. Montana won that first week game by scoring just 13 points. The Grizzlies were a combined 2-of-14 on third and fourth down and had only 232 yards total in the game. Even with a change at defensive coordinator with Bob Gregory being promoted when Pete Kwiatkowski took the same role at Texas, this defensive unit has high expectations and loads of talent.
We have seen Michigan’s offense prove stagnant in the past because of play-calling and time management. If those same things arise on Saturday evening, it will be a tough hole to climb out of for the Wolverines against a stout Huskie defense.
This Washington team still has the pieces to be successful, and they are going to be hungry coming off the embarrassing loss. Michigan needs to play at their best and keep things serious if they want to get past a tough Huskies searching for answers. You have to play who is on your schedule, no matter what the early season may mean. Yes, Washington lost in Week 1 to a vastly inferior opponent, but overlooking the Huskies could be detrimental to the Wolverines’ in their push toward the Big Ten schedule.