These guys are national champions! It’s amazing to think of what had to come together for this team to win a national championship. From an outsider’s perspective, Alabama and Georgia just seem to kind of fall into a national championship. They throw a lot of money at the football program, they’re in recruiting hotbeds, and magically, they just end up in the championship. I know that sounds trite, and obviously, there’s a lot of play calling, hard work, toughness, culture building, etc. that goes into winning a championship. But I don’t know that any national championship team in recent memory can compare with what this team had to go through to get there, including:
- Hiring the golden boy QB/coach to come back to Michigan from the NFL in 2015
- Morons who thought Jim Harbaugh should have been fired sometime around 2020
- Overcoming basically multiple decades of Ohio State dominance in the Big Ten
- Bringing back guys who could have gone to the NFL (Zak Zinter, Blake Corum, Trevor Keegan, etc.)
- Limitations with recruiting and transfers due to NIL shortcomings and admissions nonsense
- A QB battle that resulted in the incumbent starter transferring to Iowa
- Year after year of a head coach being courted by the NFL
- Enduring the loss of All-American RG Zak Zinter in the middle of the Ohio State game
- Having Jim Harbaugh suspended for 50% of the 2023 regular season, including the two toughest games against Penn State and Ohio State
- The NCAA and Big Ten seemingly conspiring to try to damage Jim Harbaugh and/or force him out of college football
- Drawing #4 Alabama, a battle-tested and proven program, in the College Football Playoff instead of 13-0 newbies Florida State
Of course, there are other struggles and roadblocks that are too numerous to mention, but it was a long and difficult road for this team to win on the biggest stage in college sports.
Donovan Edwards breaks out. I’ve been quick to point out his struggles this season, so I have to be quick to point out where Edwards succeeds. Edwards ran 6 times for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns. That comes after a season when he had been ranked as the second-to-worst Big Ten running back in terms of yards per carry (3.48 coming into the national championship game). Edwards found a couple big holes and used his explosive speed to outrun Washington’s secondary, which I mentioned in the lead-up to the game was one of the worst tackling units on the schedule. Up through fourteen games this season, Edwards’s longest run of the year was 14 yards. Then in his first couple carries against Washington, he had two runs that were 40+ yards (46- and 41-yard touchdowns). Michigan had 14 points in no time thanks to Edwards’s big plays.
The whole running game had a day. Every Michigan player who ran the ball averaged 7.0 yards per carry or better. Michigan ended up averaging 8.0 yards per carry (38 carries, 303 yards, 4 touchdowns). Starting running back Blake Corum’s long run went for 59 yards; altogether, he ran 21 times for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns. At one point the broadcast put up a statistic that said Michigan averaged 31 yards per carry in the first quarter, 4.4 in the second quarter, and 4.0 in the third quarter. They were talking as if Washington had shut down Michigan’s running game, and I was thinking, “Ummm . . . that’s just getting it back down to average, guys.” It’s like when your co-worker shows up 30 minutes late to work every day, and then when they finally get there on the dot at 8:00 a.m., it’s like, “Hey, everybody! Look how awesome Larry is for showing up on time for the first day this month!”
This was not J.J. McCarthy’s day. I actually think McCarthy did just fine – and he made some great throws – but Michigan had so many ways to be dominant in the run game that the passing game was almost irrelevant. Michigan probably could have gone with the second half Penn State script for this entire game and won the day. The Wolverines were having such great success in the run, and they weren’t even testing the edges with jet sweeps, QB sweeps, etc. McCarthy finished 10/18 for 140 yards. He had some open receivers, but Washington’s pass rush was solid. The matchups just favored Michigan’s running game so much that McCarthy could be a complementary piece. I thought Michigan probably could have/should have run him more, but they only used one designed run for him.
Kudos to Washington. Washington put up a valiant fight. They hung around for 3.5 quarters, and it was 20-13 late into the game. Then Michigan broke it open late with the Blake Corum touchdowns. I thought their defensive line and linebackers showed some toughness. There were a couple standout plays by linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio (who lined up like he was going to rush the passer on 4th down, only to run out to the flat and bat down a pass intended for Roman Wilson) and safety Dominique Hampton (who punched out a ball intended for Colston Loveland). Running back Dillon Johnson put in a hard day’s work on a bum knee/ankle to run 11 times for 33 yards and catch 2 passes for 24 yards. Offensively, they outcoached Michigan to scheme open receivers and even get some running lanes, but physically, they weren’t a match.
Let’s talk about Michael Penix. Michigan held the best passer in the country to 27/51 for 255 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. They only sacked him one time (from NT Kenneth Grant), but they harassed Penix repeatedly. They were pushing offensive guards back in Penix’s face, forcing his own linemen to step on Penix’s ankle. Then they hurt Penix’s ribs. By the fourth quarter, I was thinking, “How long can Washington keep him in this game without risking his future?” There are apparently some NFL scouts who think wide receiver Rome Odunze is better than Marvin Harrison, Jr., and Odunze was held to 5 catches for 87 yards. Ja’Lynn Polk is considered to be a 2nd-3rd round prospect, and he had 4 catches for 37 yards. Third receiver Jalen McMillan, known for his yards after the catch, had 6 catches for just 33 yards and 1 touchdown. Penix did miss some throws he usually makes, but you have to credit Michigan’s defense for making him uncomfortable enough to miss some routine throws.
Michigan’s defense was mostly awesome. The best play of the day can be debated, but for me, it was when Penix threw a quick out to McMillan on 3rd-and-7. With a reputation for running after the catch and a good amount of open space, McMillan had a chance to get the first down. Instead, nickel corner Mike Sainristil wrapped him up, held on tight, spun him to the ground, and killed the drive. You could also argue that Grant knocking an offensive guard on his butt and then sacking Penix was the play of the day. Or maybe when cornerback Will Johnson tipped a pass to himself and then secured an interception just inside the sideline to stop Washington’s first drive of the third quarter. There were a couple coverage busts, but overall, it was a dominant day against a very good offensive unit.
What does this mean to me? Michigan winning the national championship means a lot of things. I, of course, know I had nothing to do with the win, but this is why we watch sports. We all latch onto one team – or maybe a few – and root for them. I’ve been a Michigan fan since birth. I remember going to Michigan Stadium in the freezing cold and eating a hot dog as a kid sitting in the stands, watching Ricky Powers and Desmond Howard and Tony Boles and Elvis Grbac and Tyrone Wheatley. I remember where I was when Charles Woodson made that interception in the Rose Bowl following the 1997 season. So many Michigan memories have that “I was with (insert friend/family member) at (insert place) when (insert magical moment).”
And a lot of those hopes about winning national championships faded over the years, not because I thought Michigan was falling off, but because so much talent was getting concentrated in the SEC. I don’t care what sport you’re a fan of, but eventually, you get sick of watching the same team(s) win championships year after year. If I weren’t a fan of Tom Brady, I would have been sick of the Patriots. I’m not a fan of the Yankees, so I got sick of them really quickly back in the 1990s and early 2000s. When people asked me what I thought about Monday’s national championship game beforehand, I said, “Whoever wins, I’m just glad they won’t be from the SEC.” And yes, this means that people will be sick of Michigan soon, and that’s only if they’re not already annoyed by Jim Harbaugh dominating the headlines.
But this confirms that schools from other parts of the country, not just the southeast, can still win championships in football. This confirms that high academic standards aren’t going to preclude a team from winning. It also shows that teams can still win by running the ball and playing good defense.
Who’s got it better than us?