How Rome Odunze — Washington's star receiver — could break CFP title game in Huskies' favor

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HOUSTON – Rome Odunze is that guy. 

The Washington receiver told everyone as much in the final minutes of the first half against Oregon State on Nov. 18. On a wet, slip-and-slide field, Odunze beat Oregon State cornerback Ryan Cooper on a fade from Michael Penix Jr. Odunze fell backward into the end zone, caught the pass for a touchdown, bounced up to his feet and darted toward the camera for confirmation. 

"Yep," Odunze said while nodding his head at the Oregon State crowd. "I'm that guy." 

He is that guy for the Huskies. Odunze made the game-winning TD catch with 1:38 left in the 36-33 victory against Oregon on Oct. 16. He sealed a 22-20 victory against Oregon State with a 19-yard catch on third down, then set up the game-winning field goal in a 24-21 win against Washington State the following week with a 23-yard run on a fourth-down reverse deep in Washington territory. 

He had six catches for 125 yards in Washington's 37-31 victory against No. 3 Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. 

Yet, that on-field bravado is a contrast from the Odunze who took the podium at the College Football Playoff championship media day at the George R. Brown Convention on Saturday. Odunze – a game-breaking receiver for No. 2 Washington (14-0) – could be the latest receiver to take over the CFP championship game when the Huskies face No. 1 Michigan (14-0) at NRG Stadium on Monday.

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That has been a trend the last five years. On Jan. 9, 2020, LSU's Ja'Marr Chase had nine receptions for 222 yards and two TDs in the 42-25 victory against Clemson. On Jan. 11, 2021, Alabama Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith had 12 catches for 215 yards and three TDs in a 52-24 victory against Ohio State. If the Huskies want to beat the Wolverines, then Odunze needs to be that guy. 

"It used to be a dime-a-dozen position," ESPN analyst Greg McElroy told Sporting News. "Now, if you have a guy that can take over the game that can change the way the defense aligns structurally, yeah, if I'm drafting players in this game, Rome Odunze is at or near the top. Even in great coverage, even in double coverage, he will win. He's a complete game-changer." 

MORE: SN experts make their picks for Monday's final

Why did Rome Odunze return in 2023? 

Odunze could have left for the 2023 NFL Draft after compiling 75 catches for 1,145 yards and seven TDs last season. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder could have snuck into the first round. So, why stay? 

"This right here," Odunze said while motioning toward his teammates. "This moment. Having the University of Washington to be on this level and this light, which I think is where it belongs." 

Odunze made 87 catches for 1,533 yards and 13 TDs – an average of 17.9 yards per catch. He is on a streak of five straight games with at least 100 yards or more. According to Pro Football Focus, Odunze leads the nation in contested catches with 20. He's established a borderline unstoppable connection with Penix Jr. – one that will challenge a Michigan pass defense that has allowed 150 yards per game and seven TDs. Odunze and a loaded position group that includes Ja'Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan, Germie Bernard and Giles Jackson – a Michigan transfer – will counter that.

Penix said Odunze – who has five TDs of 20 yards or more – is perfect for those 50-50 shots. 

"Man, it makes my job really easy," Penix said. "It doesn't matter if he's running a route, the ball is coming to him, he's blocking. Sometimes I try to tell him to save his legs and say I'm not throwing it to you on this play, but he's still running full speed. That shows the character and the guy that he is."

Odunze isn't that guy demanding the football in those clutch situations. Washington coach Kalen DeBoer backed that up. He said there has not been an occasion this season where Odunze motioned to throw the ball in his direction.

"I'm not really the type of receiver to call for the ball like that," Odunze said. "In my position I've been blessed to make those plays in those situations when my name has been called. All of us are just ready for the moment." 

DeBoer agreed. It's a comprehensive effort that starts with offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and passing game coordinator JaMarcus Shephard. When Odunze gets a 1-on-1 – which Polk and McMillan have made possible – then the Huskies are going to take their shot with Odunze as much as possible – even against that Michigan secondary that features cornerback Will Johnson and safety Mike Sainristil. 

"I think that's a lot of trust from him to Coach Shephard and Coach Grubb, all of us, just that he's a priority and the ball will find him," DeBoer said. "And just good decisions and good choices by Michael when he finds the opportunity to get Rome in those big moments." 

Rome Odunze, best player in CFP championship? 

There is none bigger than this one for Washington. Odunze was a Biletnikoff Award finalist along with Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. and LSU's Malik Nabers. Harrison Jr. won the award, but the Buckeyes lost 30-24 to the Wolverines. Odunze, Harrison and Nabers all will be first-round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Yet Odunze has a chance to be a national champion, and that's a responsibility he takes seriously given the Pac-12 will be no more after this season. Odunze enjoyed watching playmakers such as Christian McCaffrey, John Ross and D'Anthony Thomas, and it's safe to say he will be in the conversation with those all-time Pac-12 playmakers. Odunze feels a responsibility in that regard.

"I'm a West Coast guy," Odunze said. "I was watching the Pac-12 After Dark, watching all those games and all those moments. It's sad that it's coming to an end. It is definitely kind of the end of an era." 

It is also the beginning of a new era of receivers. While the phrase "generational talent" gets tossed around too much, Odunze has been presented with a generational opportunity.

Will he be that guy? 

"The generations before us inspired us – Julio (Jones), A.J. Green, Odell (Beckham) – there have so many great wide receivers that have entered the NFL and it's changed into a passing league," Odunze said. "That's inspired the younger generation, it inspired me. That is how you get Marvin Harrison, Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze."

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Bill Bender is a national college football writer for The Sporting News.