If Michigan had any nerves coming into Monday night’s national championship game, you wouldn’t know it. Michigan jumped on Washington early. Fueled by a pair of Donovan Edwards touchdown runs of 41 and 46 yards, the Wolverines raced to a 14-3 first quarter lead. On Michigan’s next possession, James Turner connected on a 31-yard field goal to extend Michigan’s lead to 17-3 less than two minutes into the second quarter.
Yet despite the hot start, the Wolverines couldn’t quite pull away from the Huskies.
Washington caught its breath and righted the ship. Tightened its defense, dedicated more resources to stopping the run. As a result, for the majority of the second and third quarters, the Wolverines maintained a seven-to-ten-point lead. Michigan couldn’t put the game away. Washington couldn’t close the gap.
The teams mostly traded field goals and field position.
And so it went until midway through the fourth quarter. Leading by a touchdown, Michigan put together its first extended drive of the half. Beginning on its 29-yard line, the Wolverines moved the ball 59 yards in six plays, the key play a 41-yard pass from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland. A few plays later, facing a second down from the Washington 12-yard line and with just over seven minutes to play, Michigan had a chance to finally put the game on ice. Not surprisingly, the Wolverines turned to senior running back Blake Corum.
Corum responded with yet another memorable touchdown run. First evading an unblocked Alphonzo Tuputala with a nifty change of direction, Corum then cut upfield and darted into the end zone. The run might not have been quite as impactful as his 22-yard touchdown run immediately following Zak Zinter’s injury against Ohio State or his 17-yard game-winning touchdown run to defeat Alabama in overtime, but it nonetheless changed the tenor of the game.
The touchdown gave Michigan a 27-13 lead and provided the Wolverines some much-needed breathing room. It also amplified the pressure on Michael Penix and the Huskies to answer with a touchdown of their own if they had any hopes of staying in the game.
On the ensuing drive, pressured by edge rusher Jaylen Harrell, Penix floated a pass that Mike Sainristil corralled for an interception. Not content with just the interception, Sainristil (a former receiver) returned the pick 81 yards to the Washington eight-yard line. Two plays later, Corum found the end zone again - the 58th and final rushing touchdown of his spectacular career - and the game was over.
Cue the confetti.
Leading 34-13 with under four minutes to play, and with the number one defense in the country playing like it, the rest was academic. A defensive stop and a couple of kneel downs by McCarthy and the Wolverines had completed their undefeated season and captured Michigan’s first national championship in a generation.
“Glorious,” is how Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh described the feeling. And if you’re a Michigan player or fan, it was a glorious feeling, indeed. But that doesn’t mean it was always easy. Michigan may have ultimately won by three touchdowns, but the game felt much closer than that, much more competitive, for much of the game.
It was also a game in which each team probably feels like it could have done more.
Washington made mistakes it hadn’t made all year. False starts by its offensive line. Errant passes by Penix. Drops by receivers. But credit Michigan and its defense for much of that.
“It’s not like anyone’s not trying,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said after the game, explaining his team’s rough night. “That’s a credit to Michigan,” DeBoer continued, “Obviously, they’re a very good football team.”
Indeed, Michigan held a Washington team that was averaging 38 points and 474 yards a game to 13 points and 301 yards.
Michigan too, couldn’t help but feel frustrated. The Wolverines rushed for 174 yards in the first quarter. More than 200 in the first half, but led only 17-10 at the half. The game was reminiscent of Michigan’s national semi-final game against Alabama, where the Wolverines largely dominated the action on the field, but didn’t dominate the scoreboard to the same extent. In that game, it came back to haunt Michigan, as the Wolverines needed a fourth quarter comeback and overtime to eventually turn back the Tide.
Michigan would face no such fate this night.
Asked what Washington did mid-game to slow Michigan’s run game, Corum said, “They may have added another guy in the box, but they made some good plays, too. That’s why they were in the national championship. Give them credit.”
And Corum was right. Statistics aside, the Dawgs’ defense kept its struggling offense in the game. But only for so long. Because by overplaying the run, Washington’s defense left itself vulnerable against the pass. And eventually, McCarthy and the Wolverines took advantage.
Asked about the fourth quarter touchdown drive that ultimately broke the game open, Harbaugh said, “We knew we had an ace up our sleeve. We had a play-action to Colston Loveland. And it hit.”
Hit, it did. McCarthy connected with Loveland for the aforementioned 41-yard gain. And then for good measure, hit Roman Wilson on a play-action pass for a 12-yard gain. Two plays later, Corum found the end zone.
If Washington’s defense was the reason the Huskies were able to stay in the game, Michigan’s defense was the reason that the Huskies weren’t able to close the gap – or do much of anything, for that matter.
One of the biggest keys to Michigan’s renaissance over the past three years was its change in defensive philosophy. Beginning with Mike Macdonald and continuing with Jesse Minter, the Wolverines essentially installed an NFL defense. One designed to stop NFL passing games. It paid dividends against Ohio State and did Monday night against Washington.
But it’s more than that. Another trademark of Michigan’s defense is its ability to adapt.
Against Alabama, Michigan leaned on its secondary. Confident that its secondary could contain ‘Bama’s receivers, Minter was able to use Michigan’s front seven to confuse and harass Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe. Michigan sacked Milroe six times and showed him so many different looks, so many different rushes and rushers, that Alabama all-but-abandoned the passing game all together.
Against Washington, Minter took a different approach. This time leaning on Michigan’s defensive line. The Wolverines did blitz occasionally, but for the most part dedicated just their front four to rush the quarterback. This allowed Michigan’s linebackers to play with more flexibility and play a bigger role in pass coverage - something critical against Washington’s NFL-laden receiving corps. It was a strategy that (mostly) prevented Penix and the Huskies from completing big plays through the air. Mostly prevented Penix and the Huskies from even attempting big plays through the air.
But for this strategy to work, Michigan’s front four had to consistently apply pressure to Penix. Which it did.
Michigan only sacked Penix once, but harassed him all night. Never let him get comfortable. And by the end of the game, a notably gimpy Penix showed the wear and tear one takes playing against Michigan’s defense.
After the game. Penix lamented his play, gallantly taking blame for the offense’s difficulties. True, Penix didn’t play his best game, but he played valiantly. And he didn’t get the help from his receivers that he’s accustomed to getting. Nor did he operate from a clean pocket the way in which he’s accustomed to operating.
In previewing this game, I wrote that even if Michigan couldn’t get to Penix, the Wolverines had to apply pressure to him. Had to keep him from being too comfortable. Michigan did just that. Dominated in the trenches. Pressured Penix. Outplayed Washington’s Joe Moore award-winning offensive line. It was Michigan’s dominance at the line of scrimmage - on both sides of the ball - that ultimately decided the game.
Well, that and Blake Corum.
There’s plenty more to say about this group of Michigan players. What they’ve accomplished this season. What they’ve accomplished over the last three seasons. The impact they’ve made. The legacy they’ve left. But that’s an article for another day. Today, we celebrate what they did Monday night in Houston. They won the national championship.
They finished the job.