2 top CFB analysts break down UW Huskies’ matchup with Michigan
Jan 4, 2024, 1:01 PM
(Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
After taking down Texas in the Sugar Bowl, the UW Huskies head to Houston on Monday for a national championship date with Michigan in a clash of 14-0 teams.
So what does this upcoming matchup look like for the Huskies against the Wolverines?
Two top college football analysts, FOX Sports’ Joel Klatt and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, joined Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk on Thursday and dove into the game.
Joel Klatt: ‘Not a great matchup for Washington’
Klatt called Texas a “great matchup” for the Huskies in the Sugar Bowl. So what kind of a matchup is Michigan?
“Not as great,” Klatt said.
Klatt said things changed dramatically for the Wolverines starting in 2021, mainly on defense, and that’s a big reason why they’re undefeated this season.
“In a lot of ways, they were all or nothing pre-COVID, in particular on the defensive side,” he said. “And because of that, they would dominate their schedule and be the No. 1 defense in the country and then they would get to the Ohio State game and get shredded by guys who are just faster than them. And Ryan (Day) would pick them apart.”
According to Klatt, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh called his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and talked about how to change his roster and scheme, “specifically to beat Ohio State.” Michigan has since beaten Ohio State each of the last three years.
“They didn’t build this program to win the national championship. They built this program in its current form to beat Ohio State,” Klatt said. “… So what they have right now is a complete (pass) rush that is cohesive in the way that it rushes in its rush lines, they maintain their levels of defense, they have hybrid players that cover well, they’ve got a lockdown corner, they’ve got a nickel that might be the best nickel in the country. It’s not a great matchup for Washington.”
Michigan won’t completely stop Washington’s offense, Klatt said, but the Wolverines will try to limit how many possessions the Huskies get.
“You see that Washington’s comfortable holding on to the ball. They won the time of possession against Texas, they won the time of possession against Oregon. But for them, I think it’s more about the number of possessions that they get,” he said.
Klatt pointed to the 2021 matchup between Michigan and Ohio State where the Buckeyes threw the ball well that game, but they had just 10 possessions because of how Michigan plays offensively. That Ohio State team was also built similarly to Washington offensively as the Buckeyes had a star receiver trio and an NFL quarterback in C.J. Stroud, the No. 2 pick in last April’s draft.
“They forced them to snap it 10-plus times to drive down the field. And then on the other side, Michigan got that big old boa constrictor out and they squeezed the life out of them with their run game,” Klatt said. “And they ran it 15 times out of 16 plays in the fourth quarter and 20 times out of 24 snaps in the second half. And that’s a different matchup than Texas, who was going to try to go up-tempo with you and score with you on offense and then hope that a weak secondary was going to hold up. So in a lot of ways, this specific Michigan team was built and the foundation’s laid to beat a team that looks identical to this Washington team.”
Klatt does think this UW team measures up better against Michigan than the last three Ohio State teams because of star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. But ultimately a lot of this game comes down to if the Huskies can get off the field on defense.
“The biggest question is going to be is (Washington’s) defense going to be better than what that Ohio State defense was? I think that the bigger issue is is Michigan going to be able to just grind this game down into a nine- or 10-possession game?” Klatt said. ” … If there’s a scenario where Washington gets 12 or 13 possessions, well now a sack on third down doesn’t really matter. The impactful nature of that goes down just because of the increased number of possessions. That’s what I think is the biggest issue is Washington’s ability to get off the field, Washington’s ability to hold that run game in check and hold (J.J.) McCarthy in check and have the ability to force them to kick field goals and punt the football a few times.”
Kirk Herbstreit: Michigan ‘on a mission’
Herbstreit, who will call Monday’s National Championship Game with Chris Fowler on ESPN, said that changes Michigan made with a “younger mentality” on the coaching side of things a few years ago has greatly benefited the program.
He also said this Michigan team is very focused on the task at hand, even with Harbaugh being suspended not once, but twice this year. Herbstreit pointed to Michigan getting blown out by Georgia in 2021 and then losing to TCU last year as motivation for the Wolverines in this year’s playoff.
“To me, this team with J.J. McCarthy and Blake Corum, they run on autopilot,” Herbstreit said. “So (Harbaugh) gets suspended the first three games, they don’t care. They’re locked and loaded. All the drama around the program about the sign stealing and Harbaugh gets suspended, these veteran guys, they were on a mission. It wasn’t beat to Ohio State this time, it was to get back to the playoff and kind of finish this thing the right way.”
Herbstreit likes that both UW and Michigan have great leadership and are “player-led” teams with big goals in mind.
“They don’t want to be patted on the back, and now we’re 60 minutes away from one of these teams who willed their team to this moment, one of these teams will finally climb that mountain and win it all and one will come up a little bit short,” he said. “So there’s a lot of emotion and a lot on the line for both these teams after all that they’ve accomplished.”
With Penix at quarterback, the Huskies have a great shot because of everything he can do on the field, Herbstreit said.
“There are a lot of great pieces around him, but yes, he’s exceptional, he’s accurate, he’s confident, he’s experienced and there’s really not a defense you can throw at him that he doesn’t seem to have an answer for with the pieces that he has around him,” he said. “And now it’s the greatest test.”
Michigan is built around a strong defensive front and a scheme that uses a lot of confusion, Herbstreit said.
“They love to give you one look and go to another and they love to bring the linebackers … and they’ll try to disguise it and they do it very well,” he said. “What you appreciate about Michigan is there are not a lot of five-stars all over the place. This is a team defense. This is a bunch of guys that have developed and grown.”
That defense has starpower, such as top cornerback Will Johnson, who will likely see a lot of time against star UW Huskies receiver Rome Odunze in what Herbstreit called “must-see TV.”
“They’ve got some great players. But if we go back five years ago (in recruiting), it’s not like they got the No. 1 player here and a No. 1 player here,” he said. “They’re not that team … They develop guys in the weight room, the culture. That’s what’s so fun, I think, about the matchup with these two teams. It’s not an accident that culture for both teams got them to Monday night in Houston.”
The undefeated, No. 2-ranked UW Huskies meet the undefeated, No. 1-ranked Michigan Wolverines in the College Football Playoff National Championship at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 8. You can hear the ESPN Radio broadcast live on Seattle Sports 710 AM, or streaming on the Seattle Sports app and SeattleSports.com.
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