Can UW Huskies’ defense match up with Michigan’s run game?

Jan 8, 2024, 12:51 PM | Updated: 12:55 pm

UW Huskies Michigan national championship...

Asa Turner of the Washington Huskies reacts after recovering a fumble on Jan. 1, 2024. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

In 2021, the UW Huskies went 4-8, lost to FCS Montana as well as rivals Oregon and WSU and fired their head coach midway through the season.

What a difference two years makes.

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The Huskies replaced Jimmy Lake with Kalen DeBoer, who has since guided the Huskies to a 25-2 record and 21 consecutive wins.

Washington is one of two teams left standing as the Huskies face Michigan for the national championship on Monday, which you can hear live on Seattle Sports at 4:30.

Is it surreal that the UW Huskies are one win away from being the champions of college football? ESPN college football reporter Adam Rittenberg discussed that and much more with Bump and Stacy on Monday.

“Yes and no,” he said. “I mean, obviously where they were two years ago, you don’t see a rise like this all the way to the national championship game too often.”

Rittenberg did note that TCU made the title game last year after going 5-7 in 2021. What’s different with this Washington team, he said, is that a national championship was the expectation for the Huskies this year.

“When I was out there in Seattle in April, they were very upfront about, ‘We expect to be in the national championship conversation. Why else did some of us come back to school this year?'” Rittenberg recalled.

After going 11-2 last year, every big-name UW player returned to school for 2023, including quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and receiver Rome Odunze.

“They obviously had the talent (to be a championship team),” Rittenberg said of Washington. “But yeah, to go from where they were at the end of the Jimmy Lake tenure to playing for a national championship with a legitimate shot to win it, it’s pretty remarkable and shows what the right type of coaching hire and obviously how transfer acquisition and roster construction can (impact) how fast that could get you to the top.”

Penix and Odunze going up against Michigan’s top-rated defense is getting a lot of attention.

On the other side of the ball, the Huskies will have their hands full against the Wolverines’ run-heavy offense, which has been hard to stop this year and causes Michigan to limit possessions and dominate time of possession.

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Do the Huskies have enough talent on defense to slow down that run game?

“It’s gonna be really tough,” Rittenberg said. “But I think the thing about Michigan’s run game this year, at least with (running back) Blake Corum, is he doesn’t have a ton of big runs and a lot of his damage has been done in the red zone and getting the ball into the end zone … I think it’s again, preventing the big run, getting them into third-and-medium and then making a play on third down to get them off the field.”

“Michigan wants to overpower you, they want to control the time of possession and mount 10-play, 6-minute-type touchdown drives,” Rittenberg later added. “So that’s what Washington ultimately has to avoid. If it is a low-possession game, they’re gonna have to be efficient with their own possessions and score touchdowns. And that’s not going to be easy against Michigan’s defense, but Michigan’s defense also hasn’t seen too many or any real passing attack that’s as talented as Washington’s gonna throw at them.”

Rittenberg does like some of what he saw from Washington’s defense in a Sugar Bowl win over Texas last Monday.

“I liked the way that they were able to rush the passer and make things difficult for (quarterback) Quinn Ewers, especially early in that game,” Rittenberg said. “(UW defensive end) Bralen Trice has been very good here down the stretch leading that defensive front.”

That being said, UW did “get soft” on defense towards the end of that game against Texas, which Rittenberg said nearly allowed Texas to steal a late win.

“They should never have been in that position,” he said. “So I just think playing a complete game, ideally generating a takeaway or two, which is hard to do against this Michigan team, (is key).”

A lot of focus is on Washington’s run defense, Rittenberg said the Huskies are facing a very good receiving corps on Monday, but that they’ve faced better this year, including last week.

“So I think you have to make Michigan earn its points and ideally make plays in the red zone and (Washington has to) play a complete game, which they really didn’t play well, I thought, in the fourth quarter last week,” he said.

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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