Herbstreit: The biggest X-factors for UW Huskies against Michigan

Jan 5, 2024, 9:28 AM

UW Huskies Michigan national championship...

Tuli Letuligasenoa of the Washington Huskies reacts against Texas on Jan. 1, 2024. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The UW Huskies will need star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to be at his best in order to defeat Michigan for the national championship on Monday.

2 top CFB analysts break down UW Huskies’ matchup with Michigan

But who else needs to step up for Washington to cap off a perfect 15-0 season?

Kirk Herbstreit, who will call Monday’s title game on ESPN, was asked that during a Thursday visit with Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk.

“So many options,” he said.

Herbstreit started on defense, and he pointed to someone who plays a big role in the run game.

“On defense, I’ll say Tuli (Letuligasenoa) because against the run, you’re going to have to have a difference-maker on the interior,” he said.

Letuligasenoa, a sixth-year senior, hardly fills up the stat sheet as he’s credited with just 17 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but he is a big space-eating defensive tackle that plays a big role in UW’s run defense.

That’s especially important on Monday as the Wolverines are a run-heavy offense. They may rank just 61st in rushing yards this year, but Michigan is tied for fourth-most rushing touchdowns and are 13th in time of possession due to the team’s ability to run the football and play great defense.

“So I think 91, he’s been a great player. He’s going to have to have one of those games where it’s like, ‘Holy cow, the guy made another play,’ just because of the style of ball that Michigan plays,” Herbstreit said. “And I think being able to get some penetration and trying to win up front will be big. So I think he would be one that stands out to me.”

Offensively, Herbstreit called it “easy” to point to star receiver Rome Odunze, who has over 1,500 receiving yards this year. He also brought up top running back Dillon Johnson, who had over 1,110 rushing yards this season but left the Sugar Bowl with an injury.

“I would say if he were healthy or a if he is healthy, he would be another easy choice for me,” Herbstreit said. (Note: The Huskies have said they expect Johnson to play on Monday.)

“But I think it’s either going to be Polk or McMillan,” Herbstreit went on to say.

Polk and McMillan are Ja’Lynn and Jalen, respectively. Those two along with Odunze give Washington arguably the best receiving trio in America.

Odunze gets a lot of attention, which is deserved with his gaudy statistics, and Polk and McMillan are NFL-caliber guys, too.

McMillan missed a lot of time with injury this year after recording over 1,000 yards last year, but he’s now healthy and has just under 200 yards over his last two games. He also caught a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl against Texas.

Polk served as the Huskies’ No. 3 receiver last season with roughly 700 yards and six touchdowns, and he stepped up with McMillan injured, going over 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns, including one against Texas.

Odunze will likely be shadowed by top Michigan cornerback Will Johnson in a matchup of two likely first-rounders, Herbstreit said. That presents a big matchup on the other side with Polk and McMillan in the mix.

“I think the battle opposite of Will Johnson (is key). Josh Wallace from Michigan, No. 12, he’s the corner on the other side. He played at UMass for four years before he entered the transfer portal,” Herbstreit said. “… When Michigan broke camp, the one question that they had on their entire team that they just didn’t know the answer to was, ‘Who’s going to be our corner opposite of Will Johnson?’ And this Josh Wallace has emerged and become a very solid player for them. If he gets matched up against McMillan or Polk, how does he hold up? Because I think with with Michael Penix and if he has time to throw, that could be a heck of a matchup that eventually plays itself out and whoever wins opposite of Will Johnson, whoever wins that battle with Wallace going up against the other receivers, it could go a long way in determining who wins the game.”

Listen to Brock and Salk’s full interview with Kirk Herbstreit at this link or in the player near the top of this story.

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

More on the UW Huskies

FOX Sports’ Klatt: UW Huskies’ Penix a top-5 pick, ‘better version’ of Pro Bowl QB
Huard: 2 stats that jump out for UW Huskies against Michigan
• Brock & Damon Huard’s Playoff Preview: How UW Huskies match up vs Michigan
• Rost: No. 2 UW still getting ‘very little’ respect after CFP semis win
• What about Michael Penix Jr. isn’t talked about enough?
• What Stands Out: Brock Huard on UW punching ticket to title game
• UW Huskies expect injured RB Dillon Johnson to play vs Michigan

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Herbstreit: The biggest X-factors for UW Huskies against Michigan