Caple: Takeaways from Huskies’ CFP title game loss to Michigan
Jan 8, 2024, 10:20 PM | Updated: 10:28 pm
(Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
HOUSTON — The UW Huskies’ dream season reached an unceremonious conclusion here at the College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium, as No. 1 Michigan ground the Huskies down in a 34-13 victory Monday night.
The Wolverines finish 15-0, with their first national title since 1997.
Washington finishes 14-1, this year still among the finest in school history.
Here’s what to know.
Dillon Johnson in pain
Washington’s star tailback swore he would play through injuries to his right foot and left knee, and Johnson made good on that promise, carrying 11 times for 33 yards and catching two passes for 24 yards. But he was clearly hurting, and Johnson’s injuries combined with Michigan’s stout defensive front made it difficult for the Huskies to run productively.
Plus, it wasn’t just his foot and knee. Johnson said he suffered a high left ankle sprain on the first play of the game, after which he jogged to the sideline and consulted with trainers.
Johnson continued to play, but felt he wasn’t able to contribute meaningfully.
“A lot of it was due to me not being able to get those hard yards and putting us in long situations,” he said. “I wasn’t really able to move. It kind of hurt us.”
Even with Johnson banged up, UW’s other tailbacks — Will Nixon and Tybo Rogers — combined for only three carries. The Huskies finished with 20 rushes for 46 yards, and managed only 4.2 yards per play overall.
UW Huskies’ passing game stunted
All season, the Huskies have thrived on deep throws by Michael Penix Jr. and big plays by their talented receivers. But UW took a far more conservative approach against Michigan’s talented defense, preferring screens and quick throws rather than asking the offensive line to protect long enough to allow Penix to take his usual shots downfield.
Penix didn’t complete a pass that netted more than 16 yards until he finally connected with Rome Odunze for a 44-yard gain in the fourth quarter. Washington’s Heisman runner-up quarterback finished 27 of 51 for 251 yards — just 4.9 per attempt, well below his season average of 9.2 — with a single touchdown and two interceptions.
There were a few missed opportunities to make this one more interesting. With the Huskies trailing 17-3 and facing a fourth-and-7 at Michigan’s 47-yard line in the second quarter, Odunze broke wide open on what appeared to be busted coverage. An on-target throw might have scored a touchdown.
But Odunze broke upfield instead of finishing his corner route, and Penix’s throw sailed just beyond his reach. Penix took responsibility afterward — “I’ve just got to make the throw,” he said — but Odunze did, too.
“That was my fault,” he said. “I should have broke out on that play. Selfishly, I had so much open space that I kind of had a mental lapse and just ran straight up the field, because I saw so much open space there. But the route design should have had me breaking out on that particular play.”
Nixon also dropped a quick throw on third-and-4 that would have moved the sticks early in the fourth quarter with the Huskies still trailing by only a touchdown. A borderline holding penalty called against right tackle Roger Rosengarten wiped out a big gain to Odunze early in the fourth quarter, one of UW’s four second-half possessions in which the Huskies trailed by only seven points, but couldn’t tie the score.
Penix also missed a handful of throws he typically makes, a result of Michigan’s pressure — and perhaps an injury he sustained as a result.
After throwing an interception on the first play of the third quarter, Penix limped off and was examined by medical personnel on the sideline. He stayed in the game, though later he got up after taking a hit and was clutching at his midsection. He walked slowly off the field afterward, a towel concealing his face.
“I knew that I didn’t want them to take me out of that game because I’ve been through it too much,” Penix said. “And I knew that no matter what, I was going to make sure I finished for the guys, and just give it my all. I’m not healthy, but I’ll be there. I’m good. It’s nothing major. I know that for sure.
“I talked with the doctors and stuff like that. It’s nothing major. If I had to play tomorrow, I’ll play. I’m good.”
Michigan’s big runs
It appeared early that the Wolverines might run away with this game, considering their gashing rushing plays in the first quarter.
First, Donovan Edwards ripped off a 40-yard touchdown, stepping toward the congested middle before bouncing to the unoccupied left and outrunning UW’s defensive backs.
Then Edwards scored on a 46-yard run, again finding wide open space and leaving the Huskies in his dust.
And on the final play of the first quarter, star Wolverines tailback Blake Corum broke free for a 59-yard gain, capping a period in which Michigan gained 229 yards on 13 plays.
“Just missed fits, to be honest with you,” UW Huskies linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said. “They went a couple gap schemes, and we had one less guy.”
Washington’s defense didn’t allow another touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter, after a 41-yard pass by Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy set the Wolverines up for the score that finally broke the game open.
They added another touchdown a few minutes later, after Michigan’s Mike Sainristil returned Penix’s second interception to UW’s 8-yard line, and Corum punched in a 1-yard touchdown.
Corum (134) and Edwards (104) both eclipsed the 100-yard mark, allowing the Wolverines to win comfortably despite McCarthy completing only 10-of-18 passing.
This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.