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And Then There Were Two: Michigan and Washington Battle for College Football’s National Championship

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In roughly 12 hours, Michigan and Washington meet to determine this year’s national champion. The undefeated champions of the Big Ten and undefeated champions of the Pac -12 meet in an old school Rose Bowl match-up - this one for all the marbles. An intersectional battle between one of college football’s top offenses and one of its top defenses. The difference in styles makes for an intriguing match-up, but also one that few could have predicted in September.

That Michigan is participating in the championship game isn’t too surprising. After all, the Wolverines came into this season as back-to-back Big Ten champions and back-to-back college football playoff participants. With the abundance of talent returning from those squads, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines were among this year’s preseason favorites and spent the season ranked near the top of the polls.

Things didn’t go well for Michigan in its prior playoff appearances, however. Overmatched against Georgia two years ago and falling as favorites to TCU last year. Many pundits came to believe that Michigan just wasn’t capable of postseason success. Saying that its style may work in the Big Ten, but not beyond it.

But it’s that failure - particularly against TCU last year - that’s driven this year’s Michigan team. It’s why players like Blake Corum, Zak Zinter and others put off the NFL for a run at a national championship. “Unfinished Business” is how Michigan’s Blake Corum describes it, and that mantra has carried the Wolverines this year. Galvanized them. Brought them closer. “It’s almost an unfair advantage,” Harbaugh said last week, “how close this team is.”

That closeness was apparent when, despite outplaying Alabama for much of the game, Michigan fell behind in the fourth quarter to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. Amazingly, it marked the Wolverines’ first second half deficit of the season. But it didn’t faze Michigan or its players. As an insightful observer put it, “The Wolverines never wavered, certainly never panicked and ultimately came through when it mattered most and won the championship rounds against SEC champion Alabama.”

Michigan celebrated its Rose Bowl victory, but the celebration was subdued. That’s because while the victory may have exorcised some of Michigan’s playoff demons, as Michigan players are fond of saying: The job isn’t done yet. And to finish the job, Michigan will have to get past a dangerous Washington team that’s an even more surprising participant in Monday’s title game than is Michigan.

Coming into the season, it was USC that was supposed to carry the flag for the Pac-12. Once the season started and USC began to fade, Oregon became the “it” team out west. Washington hosted Oregon in October in a battle of unbeatens, and as a home dog (or is it home Dawg?), the Huskies defeated the Ducks 36-33 in one of the season’s best games.

When the rivals met again in the Pac-12 championship game, with both the conference championship and a playoff berth on the line, Oregon was a double-digit favorite. Undeterred, Washington prevailed again, this time overcoming a late 21-0 run by Oregon to record a 34-31 victory.

The victory put Washington in the Sugar Bowl, where it faced a once-beaten Texas. Underdogs again, the Huskies looked like the better team most of the night. Washington didn’t make things easy for itself down the stretch, but the Dawgs ultimately held off a furious last-minute rally by the Longhorns to hold on for a 37-31 victory and advance to the championship game against Michigan.

“I really feel like these are the two best teams (in the country),” Harbaugh said in Houston. “They’re the last two standing and I anticipate one heck of a football game.” Indeed, but what can be expected when the teams meet on the field?

Michigan is a slight favorite over Washington, and that shouldn’t be surprising. The Wolverines are one of the most talented and deepest teams in college football.

How talented? Pro Football Focus recently published a ranking of the top 275 draft-eligible collegians and Michigan placed 14 players on the list (Washington placed seven on the list, including three in the top 25).

How deep? The Wolverines lost their best offensive lineman - consensus All-American Zak Zinter against Ohio State - and not only finished off the Buckeyes and rolled over Iowa in the Big Ten title game, but manhandled Alabama in the trenches in the Rose Bowl. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines go three-deep along its defensive line. That depth along the defensive line has been one of the keys to Michigan’s success this season.

And despite being criticized for its soft non-conference schedule, Michigan comes into Houston battle-tested, having gotten through Penn State, Ohio State and Alabama on its way to the championship game.

Michigan has proven to be a worthy finalist - but so has Washington. One of the most explosive offenses in the country, Washington will surely challenge Michigan. And that starts with its All-American quarterback.

Michael Penix, who had a sensational season for Kalen DeBoer and the Huskies, passing for more than 4,600 yards and 35 touchdowns against only nine interceptions, is the best quarterback Michigan will face this year. One of the best deep ball throwers in college football and owner of one of the most relaxed throwing motion you’ll ever see, Penix followed up a breakthrough season in Seattle last year with an even better one this year.

Harbaugh described Penix as, “a quarterback that is special,” and one that “has the “it” factor in every way.” Penix is a major reason why Washington is where it is - one game away from a national championship. But he hasn’t gotten the Huskies here by himself.

Washington’s receiving corps – headed by All-American Rome Odunze (1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Ja’Lynn Polk (1,122 yards and nine touchdowns) is arguably the best unit in the country. Penix and the Huskies’ passing game carved up the Texas defense to the tune of 430 yards and two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. They’ll try to replicate those numbers against Michigan.

Michigan should put up more resistance than Texas did. The Wolverines rank second in the nation against the pass, compared to the Longhorns at #113. Headed by junior cornerback Will Johnson, Michigan has one of the better secondaries in country. It will have its hands full with Penix and company, but it’s not the first time it’s faced a passing threat, battling Ohio State and its all-NFL receiving corps the past three seasons.

After defeating the Buckeyes in one of those match-ups, Michigan’s players said their coaches warned them that they’d give up plays to the Buckeyes. Michigan knew Ohio State would have its moments. Knew it would have its share of explosive plays. “We told our players,” Harbaugh said, “not to get discouraged when they (the Buckeyes) make plays. When they score. Because they will.” The Wolverines will likely take the same approach against the Huskies. Washington will make its share of plays. Michigan will just try to limit them.

Making that task more difficult for Michigan is that Washington is also tough up front. The winner of this season’s Joe Moore award given annually to the nation’s best offensive line (Michigan won the award the previous two years), the Huskies have surrendered just 11 sacks through 14 games. Michigan’s defensive line had a field day with Alabama’s offensive line, sacking quarterback Jalen Milroe six times. It won’t be as easy against Washington.

If Michigan can apply pressure to Penix, even if it never gets to him, it will make things easier for its secondary. And if the Wolverines are able to pressure Penix, look for the pressure to come from the interior, up the middle, and not the edges.

Perhaps the biggest key to that game, however, is when Michigan has the ball. Washington’s defense is somewhat underrated, and showed against Texas that it’s capable of making big plays when needed. But can the Huskies defense hold up in the trenches against Michigan?

Washington has given up an average of 137 yards on the ground per game this season, good for 41st in the nation. Michigan hasn’t been the rushing team it’s been the past two seasons, but as it showed against Alabama, its goal is still to own the line of scrimmage and win the war on the ground.

“We know what Michigan’s done with their running game and their offensive line and just how it controls the tempo of the game,” DeBoer told reporters in Houston. “It’s going to take guys being physically tough, but also we’re going to have to really execute. We can’t be missing gaps or having the defensive line doing their own thing or linebackers doing their own thing.”

And that’s another key: Tempo. Michigan is very deliberate on offense. And while it will mix in its share of passes to wideout Roman Wilson and tight ends Colston Loveland and AJ Barner, Michigan’s bread and butter is the power run game. Harbaugh and the Wolverines will certainly try to get Corum and company going. And in doing so, keep the ball out of the hands of Penix and the Washington offense and limit Washington’s possessions.

And so, with all of the advancements in college football, all the wide open offenses and offensive sets, this year’s national championship game could very well come down whether Washington can stop - or at least slow down - Michigan’ run game. Or in even plainer terms, which team will win the war in the trenches.

And Harbaugh and the Wolverines wouldn’t have it any other way.