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College Football Playoff Semi-Finals recap - Michigan stuns Alabama in overtime and Washington holds off Texas

A breathtaking College Football Playoff Semi-Final weekend saw the rankings hold firm as the No.1 and No.2 ranked teams in the country advanced to Monday's national championship game. For all the furore surrounding unbeaten ACC champion Florida State's controversial exclusion from the Playoff, it was the best four teams in the nation - Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama - who put on a show on New Year's Day.

Rose Bowl - No.1 Michigan 27, No.4 Alabama 20 (OT)

There is a poignant image of Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy following the Wolverines' semi-final loss to TCU last season. McCarthy is looking on, disconsolately, through a sea of purple and white confetti at the Horned Frogs players celebrating their upset win. It is a picture of quiet reflection yet also one of resolve within loss. The young signal-caller seemed to soak in the pain of the moment to fuel him through the following season, one in which he would ultimately drive his team at least one step further.

Image credit: Detroit Free Press)

A year later, that opportunity arrived. 96,371 fans crammed into the historic Rose Bowl for the historic game's largest attendance since 1998, anticipating a tumultuous showdown between the two teams with the most wins in college football history. Michigan and Alabama have shared 25 national championships. This, remarkably, was just the sixth meeting between the storied university football teams, Alabama had won the previous two and three overall.

Interviewed before the game on ESPN, Michigan's coach uttered a prophetic statement:

"If ever a game's going to be won up front, it's this one." - Jim Harbaugh

It's often said that games of football are won in the trenches and Harbaugh's prediction came to light early in the first quarter. Pass protection has been a problem all season for the Crimson Tide and quarterback Jalen Milroe was sacked twice in Alabama's opening series, drowning in a sea of maize and blue as Michigan's defensive line swarmed through their opposite numbers. Michigan couldn't capitalise as Semaj Morgan fumbled a punt return and gave the ball straight back to Alabama.

McCarthy thought he had opened the game with an interception on the Wolverines' first play, picked off by Alabama safety Caleb Downs, who was subsequently ruled out of bounds. A close call for Michigan which seemed to jolt the early game nerves out of their quarterback.

After Alabama's Jase McClellan opened the scoring with a 34-yard touchdown against the run of play, Michigan, putting their early mistakes behind them, equalised on an 8-yard pass from a more composed McCarthy to running back Blake Corum, who had missed last year's loss to TCU with injury and played like a man with a point to prove. This was his first receiving touchdown of the year, but his 25th in total during an exceptional personal season.

Michigan's Roman Wilson plucks a pass out of the air (Image credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill)

Into the second quarter, the Maize and Blue pass rush was overwhelming Alabama. Milroe was sacked twice in two plays as the pocket collapsed around him. With 12:36 to go in the first half, Milroe had attempted just two passes.

Michigan's first lead of the game came courtesy of a 38-yard Tyler Morris reception, the Wolverines' receiver tiptoed down the sideline to put Michigan 13-10 up at the half after a missed extra point attempt and field goal from Tide kicker Will Reichard.

Alabama emerged from half-time with a more physical offense, relying on the talented running game of McClellan and Milroe, the former giving the Crimson Tide the lead early in the fourth quarter after the latter had run through the heart of Michigan's defense, instead of trying to run around it with little success in the first half. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees's adjustments were paying off.

A Josh Wallace fumble recovery after Quinten Johnson had stripped the ball from Milroe's hands seemed to inject some life into a Michigan attack that was insipid in the third quarter. Trailing 20-13 after another Will Reichard field goal, the Wolverines faced a 4th-and-2 with 3;19 left on the clock and coach Jim Harbaugh made a gutsy call to go for it, rewarded with a 25-yard completion from McCarthy to Corum. A four-yard touchdown pass to Roman Wilson capped an 8-play 75-yard drive that levelled the game with 1:34 left.

A 17-yard touchdown run from Corum on the first play of overtime broke Michigan's all-time rushing touchdown record and put the Wolverines 27-20 up. Their vaunted defense completed the job, initially knocking McClellan back for an 8-yard loss before stopping the lionhearted Jalen Milroe on a 4th-and-goal play, an agonising three yards short.

Michigan advanced to their first College Football Playoff final, and first national championship appearance since 1997, where Heisman winner Charles Woodson's inspired team would defeat Washington State 21-16. You wonder whether the challenges thrown at Michigan - heartbreaking semi-final loss a year ago, Corum's absence from that critical game through injury and two sideline bans for Coach Harbaugh this season - mean that their destiny could lie in securing their first title in 27 years? We will find out on Monday night.

"Everything we've been through the last two years, how it ended the last two years, it's just absolutely amazing to be on the other side. We got one more though. We got one more.” - Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy

Sugar Bowl - No.2 Washington 37, No.3 Texas 31

Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was in imperious form against Texas (Image credit: AP/Butch Dill)

With Michigan awaiting them in the final, No.2 Washington and No.3 Texas, two teams who have thrilled college football viewers at times this season with their offensive ambition, fought out a thrilling encounter in New Orleans.

Michael Penix Jr, the architect of Washington's fast-starting aerial attack, took four plays to light up the Caesars Superdome. His 77-yard touchdown pass to Ja'Lynn Polk saw the Huskies fly out of the blocks, while running back Dillon Johnson ran in a 2-yard score just seconds later to put the Pac-12 champions 14-0 up. Texas had barely caught its breath.

Running back Jaydon Blue and defensive tackle Byron Murphy II (with fellow defensive lineman T'Vondre Sweat blocking for him on offense) then ran in touchdowns for Texas. The Longhorns were back in contention, having previously taken over on downs after Murphy, doing his day job on the other side of the line of scrimmage, held up Dillon Johnson.

Dillon Johnson ran in two touchdowns against Texas (Image credit: USA Today/Geoff Burke)

Polk hauled in his second touchdown of the game, a 29-yard pass from Penix which was tipped off the hands of Texas freshman defensive back Malik Muhammad before landing in the arms of the Huskies' receiver. Polk had 122 receiving yards, combining his partner in crime and fellow receiver Rome Odunze for 247 total receiving yards. The Longhorns responded with a 10-play, 72-yard drive featuring a scamper downfield from Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers, culminating in a 3-yard touchdown run from C.J. Baxter which tied the game 21-21 at the end of an eventful first half.

Four and a half minutes into the second half, Washingt0n took the lead for the fourth and final time. Jalen McMillan held on to a 19-yard pass from Penix to move seven points ahead with a successful Grady Gross extra point. Washington added two field goals from kicker Gross, the first after Bralen Trice recovered a C.J. Baxter fumble, to take a 34-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Quinn Ewers threw for 318 yards but came up short against the Huskies defense on the last play (Image credit: Aaron E.Martinez/Austin American-Statesman)

Holding the Huskies to field goals kept Texas in the game, and when Ewers found Adonai Mitchell, the 6'4" Georgia transfer with two national titles under his belt, for a 1-yard score on a back shoulder throw with 7:23 left, it was a one-possession game.

The two teams exchanged field goals, Bert Auburn's 25-yard kick with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter brought Texas back needing a touchdown to win. The Longhorns moved to Washington's 12-yard line with 15 seconds left on the clock and the second dramatic finish to a thrilling College Football Playoff Semi-Final weekend was on.

Three attempts later and Quinn Ewers' pass, intended for Mitchell at the back of the Huskies' end zone was tipped away by Huskies corner Elijah Jackson in the dying seconds and Texan dreams of a first national championship appearance in 15 years, were over, while Washington advance to their fifth national championship game, looking to win their first title since 1991, where they beat... Michigan.

The final chapter in Washington's remarkable story, and that of their quarterback Penix, will be written on Monday night. Penix will face an old foe in Michigan from his days in the Big Ten at Indiana, where his potential was stunted by three season-ending injuries, two from surgically repaired knees and one from a shoulder. Having followed coach Kalen DeBoer to the Pacific north west, the Huskies' quarterback has enjoyed a prolific season capped with a Pac-12 title, 430 yards and two touchdowns in this game and runner up in the Heisman trophy voting. He will want to finish on top of the rostrum in his last game in college football. DeBoer was effusive in praise of his team.

"Those guys are the most resilient guys I have ever been around." - Washington coach Kalen DeBoer.

You get a sense that while the Longhorns' journey for the season is over, they have exciting chapters to be written in the next few years. Steve Sarkisian, who coached the Huskies from 2009 to 2013, has turned the program around in Austin. Texas won the Big 12 title and heads for the SEC with their tail up, also with a Playoff appearance and victory over Alabama under their belts. In Ewers, who threw for 318 yards and a touchdown, they have arguably the best returning quarterback in college football next season, and the most highly sought after recruit at the position in Arch Manning to succeed him when he bolts for the NFL.

Ultimately, Washington's star players were just better than those of the Longhorns on the day. Penix outperformed Ewers, Dillon Johnson outperformed C.J. Baxter, while Rome Odunze and Ja'Lynn Polk outperformed Adonai Mitchell and Xavier Worthy, The Texas players will be stronger for the experience and their time will come.

“They were a second away from playing for a national championship, They should be proud of themselves. Penix got hot and (Washington) made some big plays down the field.” - Texas coach Steve Sarkisian.

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