We’ve still got another 3 weeks until the Huskies take on Texas in the Sugar Bowl and there’s plenty of time for more in-depth previews. But there are a few matchups that seem very obvious that they will go a long way in deciding who gets to move on and play for a national championship.
1. DL T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II vs. C Parker Brailsford
It’s not a stretch in the slightest to say that Texas had the best duo of defensive tackles in the country this season. In fact, T’Vondre Sweat finished 1st among all FBS DTs in PFF’s grading system and his partner in crime Byron Murphy finished 2nd. It’s probably more realistic to say that it’s a stretch to say that anyone else even has an argument for first place over Texas.
It helps that they complement each other perfectly. Sweat at an extremely beefy 360+ pounds is your prototypical run-stuffing nose tackle. He made a stop (tackle that’s a failure for the offense) on 13.3% of opposing run attempts which was 2nd in the country. Sweat is perfectly filling the Greg Gaines role under former UW DC Pete Kwiatkowski and running up the middle against Texas is practically impossible with Sweat clogging the lane.
With Sweat occupying multiple blockers over the center it opens up pass rush opportunities for the 6’1, 308 lb Murphy. He finished the season with 40 pressures and 6 sacks. Those 40 pressures tied for 5th nationally despite Murphy playing 50+ fewer pass rush snaps than anyone else in the top-10. Unsurprisingly he led the country in pass rush win rate among defensive linemen.
Washington’s offense has really only been shut down in one game this season which was against Arizona State. In that game the Sun Devils were able to get relentless pressure up the middle against the Huskies and it made it impossible for Penix to step up and hit shots down the field.
It should be noted that UW’s interior offensive line was in flux in that game as Julius Buelow was still out at right guard. Geirean Hatchett started the game at RG but was either injured or benched so the coaching staff moved Parker Brailsford to RG and put in Hatchett’s true freshman brother Landen at center. Both Hatchett brothers finished with by far UW’s lowest pass block grades of the season in that game from the OL while Brailsford was the top on the team in that game.
The first year RS freshman starter Brailsford has been a revelation despite his undersized 285 pound frame, earning 2nd team all-conference honors. This will be the ultimate test for Brailsford. If he can even play to a draw against Sweat and Murphy then it will greatly improve Washington’s chances of victory.
2. WR Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell vs. CB Elijah Jackson
For most of the season it has been clear where the weak point in the Husky defense resides. Washington hoped that Elijah Jackson was ready to take the leap this year and he has been a consistent starter but the performance hasn’t been what anyone wanted. He got better after an impossibly rough season opener (giving up 4/4 for 107 tds plus 2 DPIs) but still had plenty of moments getting beaten deep in bad spots like the end of half touchdown against Washington State.
Washington has a good claim to the best WR duo (if not trio) in the country but Texas is definitely in the conversation. Xavier Worthy has ludicrous speed and averaged 7.5 yards after catch per reception this season. Last year in the Alamo Bowl against Washington, Worthy had one of the worst games of his career with 3 drops and only 7 catches on 14 targets. This season he only had 5 total drops and caught 65% of his targets. Worthy is not someone to make contested catches (35% for his career) but can run right past defenders that can’t be physical with him. Can Jackson keep close enough to bother him?
Even if Worthy struggles again this year then the Huskies have to contend with Georgia transfer AD Mitchell. While Worthy is certainly a deep threat with his elite speed and agility, Mitchell has actually been more commonly their downfield option. His averaged depth of target is about 17 yards downfield compared to 10 for both Worthy and #3 receiver JaTavion Sanders. Those options on the outside mean that Jackson will never have an easy matchup and will need to be at his best for 60 minutes.
3. LT Kelvin Banks Jr. vs. ED Bralen Trice
Texas Quarterback Quinn Ewers was one of the most highly rated QB prospects of the last decade but he’s not a guy that’s going to beat you with his legs. Last year Ewers was generally pretty good about throwing the ball away. He had 3 such plays against Washington in the bowl game. This year that hasn’t been the case.
Ewers has been sacked on 27.5% of his pressures this season (Penix is below 10% for context). If a rusher is able to beat their man and get close to Ewers then there’s a decent shot they’re also going to be able to bring him down. This season Ewers is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt when he gets rid of the ball when under pressure but that doesn’t include all of the lost sack yardage. He has only thrown 1 of his 21 TD passes while under pressure. Getting to Ewers is the key to stopping the Longhorns offense in its tracks.
Enter the matchup between Trice (or ZTF) against Banks. The Longhorns’ left tackle is a former five-star recruit and top-30 overall high school player in the country. He was a day one starter at left tackle and now as a true sophomore made all-Big 12 1st team. PFF gives Banks the highest pass blocking grade among any of the Texas offensive linemen and he’ll be tasked with guarding Ewers’ blind side. If Trice of the rest of UW’s edge rushers are able to bat Banks semi-regularly over the course of the game then it can help get Washington’s defense off the field.