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Michigan Defeats Alabama in Rose Bowl Classic

In a Rose Bowl for the ages – one that didn’t just come down to the final minutes, but required overtime to determine the winner – Michigan overcame a late fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Alabama and advance to the national championship game for the first time in program history.

Rose Bowl Game - Alabama v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

For a team that hadn’t been pushed much this season, Michigan was pushed to the brink in its Rose Bowl match-up against Alabama. On the wrong end of a 20-13 score late in the fourth quarter and with the momentum squarely on Alabama’s side, Michigan found itself with its back against the wall, needing a scoring drive and a subsequent defensive stop to save its season. And then, needing to do it all over again in overtime. With a preternatural coolness, Michigan did just that. And as a result, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines exorcised their playoff demons and advance to next week’s national championship game against Washington.

The late game fireworks made for an exciting finish, one that won’t soon be forgotten by the 96,000-plus in attendance, but Michigan’s heroics might not have been necessary had the Wolverines not been their own worst enemy at times throughout the game.

Michigan’s players had been waiting for this game – for this chance at playoff redemption – since the final seconds ticked off last season’s semi-final loss to TCU. After a long and emotional season, they finally had their chance. Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps it was something else, but Michigan seemed intent on digging itself an early hole. Or holes, if you prefer. There’s an old adage that the first step to getting yourself out of a hole is to stop digging. It took the Wolverines awhile to figure that out.

Michigan narrowly escaped what would have been a catastrophic interception on the game’s first offensive play (the interception was correctly overturned), but received no such mulligan on its next mistake. After holding Alabama to a quick three-and-out and forcing the Tide to punt, freshman Semaj Morgan muffed James Burnip’s punt, giving ‘Bama the ball on Michigan’s 44-yard line. The Tide didn’t waste any time capitalizing on Michigan’s mistake, with senior running back Jase McClellan breaking off a 34-yard touchdown run on the Tide’s fourth play from scrimmage.

McClellan’s touchdown gave the Tide an early 7-0 lead – and elicited early “SEC” chants from the Alabama faithful.

Many teams might be shaken by such a start. Shaken by a sense of déjà vu. Shaken by the fear that what it had worked for all season was suddenly in jeopardy of being taken away. Shaken by the fact that Alabama had won the last 66 games in which it held a 7-0 first quarter lead.

Michigan proved that it is not such a team. Led by a special group of upperclassmen, Michigan’s Golden Generation if you will, the Wolverines regrouped, and over the remainder of the half, took it to the Tide.

Largely on the back – and legs – of senior running back Blake Corum, Michigan responded to Alabama’s touchdown with a ten-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at seven. The drive was noteworthy not just because it evened the score, but also because of the way in which the Wolverines moved the ball.

It there’s been a common trait among Nick Saban’s Alabama teams over the years, it’s that they have generally imposed their will at the point of attack – dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. “Bully Ball”, some call it, and under Saban, Alabama perfected it. On this day, however, it was the Wolverines who were the bullies. It was the Wolverines who were the more physically dominant team up front.

Through one half of play, Michigan rolled up a 2:1 edge in total yards – with most of those yards coming on the ground, where the Wolverines rushed for 115 yards on an even 6.0 yards per carry. The way the game was going, you got the impression that if Michigan stuck to its strength – and kept feeding Corum – the Wolverines might put the game away early.

Impressions can be fleeting, however.

While Michigan was controlling the action on the field, it wasn’t doing so to the same extent on the scoreboard, taking only a 13-7 lead into the locker room. Despite being the better team for the majority of the half, Michigan allowed Alabama to hang around. And the risk in letting Alabama hang around is … well, that risk was realized when the Tide came out of the halftime locker room hot.

Alabama started clicking when Milroe started to find his legs – literally. The 6’2”, 220-pound redshirt sophomore looked more comfortable in the second half, and began racking up the rushing yards. Milroe finished the day with 63 yards on the ground (a total that would have been well over 100 yards were it not for the six sacks that Michigan recorded) and kept many a drive alive with his feet.

With Milroe dictating the action when Alabama had the ball and Michigan unable to do much of anything when it had the ball, the Tide eventually wrested control of the momentum – and the scoreboard.

Give Alabama credit for turning things around. Not surprisingly, Saban and the Alabama coaching staff corrected some of the issues that were plaguing the Tide in the first half. But Alabama had some help.

For a team that has played so well, so cleanly all season, Michigan couldn’t seem to get out of its own way this day. Muffed punts, botched extra points, passes that missed their mark and some rather curious play calling made for a frustrating afternoon and a particularly stagnant second half.

The mistakes also resulted in Michigan facing its first second-half deficit of the season. A deficit that grew to seven points when Alabama’s Will Reichard connected on his second field goal late in the fourth quarter.

With just under five minutes to play, Michigan got the ball back for what looked to be its last best chance to orchestrate a touchdown drive to salvage the game – and the season.

Having gained fewer than 50 yards of total offense and converting only two first downs through the first 25 minutes of the second half, the odds that Michigan would turn things around and score a game-tying touchdown didn’t appear to be great.

If Michigan was concerned, it didn’t show. With the season on the line, McCarthy and the Wolverines re-discovered their groove, converting an early fourth down and then connecting on a handful of chunk plays – highlighted by a spectacular 29-yard catch by Roman Wilson – en route to completing an eight play, 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the game with a minute-and-a-half to play.

Asked what enabled the Wolverine offense to have the drive it had after having so little success in the second half, McCarthy said, “It’s all about focusing on the next play, one play at a time, and just staying in the present moment and worrying about the assignment that you have to go out and execute.”

“We weren’t really getting things going (offensively),” McCarthy added, “but that never bothered us because it is all in the past and we are focusing on staying in the present and controlling the future.”

And by focusing on the present, the Wolverines salvaged their future.

Michigan had to survive another miscue, muffing yet another punt deep in its own territory after holding Alabama on its next possession, but the Wolverines avoided catastrophe and the game went to overtime.

In overtime, Michigan got the ball first and went to its bread and butter – turning to Corum and the run game. After gaining eight yards on his first carry, Corum delivered what could be the signature play of a record-setting career. A 17-yard touchdown run in which the senior All-American executed a jump cut, a change of direction, a pair of spin moves – and in the end simply refused to be tackled.

“It was nothing new for me,” McCarthy said after watching Corum’s run. “It was just amazing the world got to see it.”

After Corum pinballed his way into the endzone, the Wolverines had their first lead since the first minute of the fourth quarter and put the pressure back on Alabama. After picking up one first down, the game quickly came down to a fourth-and-goal for Alabama from the three. Michigan stuffed Milroe on a quarterback keeper and the celebration was on.

Asked about that final play and what the defense expected, Michigan linebacker Junior Colson said, “We knew exactly what was going to happen. When the moment gets tough, you go to your best player. They (Alabama) went to their best player (Milroe) and we were right there to stop it.”

Michigan didn’t play its best game. But the Wolverines never wavered, certainly never panicked and ultimately came through when it mattered most and won the championship rounds against SEC champion Alabama.

“It was a team effort,” Corum said, clutching a rose amid a sea of maize and blue confetti. “We’re going to deal with adversity, we know that. We had some adversity today, a little sloppy. But we came together as one.”

And by doing so, Corum and his teammates stand at the precipice of achieving their ultimate goal.