NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Texas at Washington

No. 2 Washington is set to play in its first national championship game in program history against No. 1 Michigan on Monday night. The Huskies missed a bowl game and went 4-8 two years ago but have been unstoppable since hiring coach Kalen DeBoer. Washington is 25-2 under DeBoer's watch, including a perfect 14-0 in 2023. Still, Vegas considers the Huskies 4.5-point underdogs heading into the matchup. 

The Huskies entered the year outside of the AP top 10 but survived one of the toughest schedules in the country to reach the final stage. Washington now has three wins over top-10 teams after beating No. 3 Texas 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl, while DeBoer earned several national coaching awards for his success. However, Michigan presents a unique challenge. 

Washington and Michigan feature a stylistic clash unlike many in recent memory. The Huskies use their aerial attack to spread defenses and create explosive plays. Michigan uses physicality and a tough run game to grind down opponents. Here are five keys that could determine whether the Huskies come home with the sport's ultimate prize. 

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1. Withstand the run

Washington can lose the game on this one aspect. The Huskies ranked No. 125 nationally in opposing rushing success rate and No. 86 with more than 4.4 yards per carry allowed. Washington gave up 123 yards and two touchdowns to Oregon State's Damien Martinez and 127 yards to Oregon's Bucky Irving in their first matchup this season. 

That said, Michigan's rushing offense is a different kind of animal. The Wolverines rarely break off long rushing plays, compiling just 56 all year, good enough for No. 82 in the country despite playing 14 games. Instead, Michigan simply wants to bludgeon opponents with All-American Blake Corum and a physical offensive line. 

Washington handles physicality fine but will have to get stops and deliver the ball back to its offense. The Huskies might want to take a leaf out of TCU's game plan from last year's semifinal against Michigan and attack with linebackers and safeties from exotic angles. It gave the Wolverines issues. 

2. Spread the secondary

Many teams in college football feature a future NFL wide receiver. Some are blessed with two. Only one has three. Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja'Lynn Polk combine as the most terrifying receiving corps since at least 2021 Ohio State, and perhaps 2019 LSU. Michigan has corners to match, led by Will Johnson, but Washington has the personnel to make the Wolverines think. 

Perhaps the most underrated aspect is the return of McMillan, who was limited for stretches by injuries. McMillan is a game-changer from the slot who excels at converting mid-range opportunities. It's an embarrassment of riches that can make opposing defensive coordinator's head spin. 

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is recognizing and delivering pinpoint passes at an unbelievable level. Alabama rarely tried to go downfield against Michigan, but had some success when it did. If Penix can hit a deep pass early, it changes the geometry of the game. 

3. Communicate defensively

At one time, Michigan was a team truly built only to run the ball. Since Sherrone Moore was promoted to offensive line coach and coordinator in 2021, the Wolverines have grown tremendously. Michigan uses window dressing and misdirection to confuse opposing defenses, and Alabama had absolutely no clue how to respond. 

Think to the game-tying touchdown against the Tide in the Rose Bowl. Michigan lined up in a tight set with tight end Colston Loveland and wide receiver Roman Wilson seemingly set to block. When the ball was snapped, the entire line sealed right as quarterback J.J. McCarthy ran play-action to Blake Corum, but Wilson sped to the boundary uncovered. Alabama's defense -- filled with the best athletes the sport can offer -- had no idea what to do with all the motion. There's nothing personnel could have fixed. It was coaching and communication. 

Washington is an exceedingly well-coached unit, especially on the back end. The Huskies' communication will be tested against a Michigan offense that stomps on any opportunities to pull away. Especially when the game gets into the red zone, the Huskies must be prepared. 

4. Find some short game

Washington has not been an efficient team running the ball, but running back Dillon Johnson has done more than enough to earn his keep. The Mississippi State transfer ran for 1,162 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. He had a pair of touchdowns and a handful of tough first downs to keep the chains moving for Washington against Texas' elite rushing defense. 

At the end of the game, Johnson aggravated an existing foot injury in a moment that nearly lost Washington the game. Johnson is expected to play but could be limited. Behind Johnson, no player rushed more than 43 times nor boasts the 218-pound frame that made Johnson so valuable. 

If Washington can't run against Michigan, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb will need to find other ways to convert short yardage. The Huskies could utilize tight end Jack Westover and the short passing game more consistently. Additionally, in a championship game opportunity, don't be surprised to see Grubb call a few quarterback runs. It worked well against Texas. 

5. Protect Michael Penix Jr.

The senior Washington quarterback put together one of the finest games in the history of the College Football Playoff vs. Texas, throwing for 430 yards and two touchdowns. Against Michigan, Grubb must empty the bag. 

Texas got the second-most pressures on Penix of any team this season, trailing only Utah. Ultimately, the Longhorns proved unable to get Penix all the way to the ground and became the sixth team to record zero sacks against the Huskies. 

Michigan presents a different challenge. The Wolverines got five sacks on Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe in the first half. But while UM will get after the passer, Washington is unlikely to suffer the same communication mismanagement of the Alabama unit. Led by Troy Fautanu at left tackle, the award-winning offensive line is one of the best in the nation. If the OL holds its own, Washington wins.