As the maize and blue confetti floated down over the field at Houston's NRG Stadium late on Monday night, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, reflecting on his team's 34-13 win over the Washington Huskies, said "there's a story in every piece of that confetti."
Michigan's 1,004th win in college football, the most of any program in college football history, brought them their tenth national championship, the latest chapter of an extraordinary story for Harbaugh, an NFL veteran and former Wolverines quarterback, who returned to Michigan as their head coach with the goal of returning the national championship to Ann Arbor for the first time since 1997.
No.1 Michigan 34, No.2 Washington 13
The physicality that took Michigan to the final with a win over Alabama was evident early in the first quarter. The Wolverines returned to their grass roots, their huge offensive line powering through Washington's defensive front seven and opening up channels for their talented running backs who in turn were setting the platform for Michigan to open up the play-action pass option. The Wolverines' offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore was lining up six offensive linemen at times, confusing Washington's run defense and opening up gaps for Blake Corum and Kalel Mullings to run through.
Having softened up Washington's defense, it was their running buddy Donovan Edwards who profited initially. Bouncing off a block by Trevor Keegan, Edwards sped down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown run, capping an impressive 84-yard opening drive which showed Michigan's intent and their potent run game as they took an early 7-0 lead.
67% of Washington's ground game this season has been accounted for by Dillon Johnson. His ability to recover from the injury sustained in the semi-final win over Texas was critical to the Huskies' hopes. He brings to Washington what Blake Corum provides for Michigan, a solid base from which to create space and launch their vaunted triumvirate of receivers Rome Odunze, Ja'Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan. It didn't help that Johnson sustained an foot injury early on, but gamely played on whilst clearly hurt.
"Adrenaline and medication is a powerful combination in a national championship game" - ESPN commentator Chris Fowler.
Grady Gross put the Huskies on the board with a 25-yard field goal after Michael Penix, Jr. had overthrown Odunze on third down.
Michigan responded immediately, A 37-yard J.J. McCarthy pass to Roman Wilson set up Donovan Edwards for a 46-yard touchdown run. With 2:23 still to go in the first quarter, the Wolverines were 14-3 up and flying. Michigan were averaging 12.4 yards per play, against Washington's 5.4 yards-per-play average. Edwards had carried the ball twice for two touchdowns and 87 yards.
Following another three-and-out from Washington, great blocks from Drake Nugent and Cornelius Johnson released Blake Corum on a 59-yard run. Michigan were averaging an astounding 19 yards per carry and Washington were scratching their heads. A 32-yard James Turner field goal extended the Maize and Blue lead to 17-3 early in the second quarter.
Washington needed to get Michael Penix into his rhythm. Michigan's defense, a week after swarming Alabama and Jalen Milroe, were dropping into deeper coverage to nullify the long-ball threat of the Huskies' aerial attack. Penix started to look for his receivers on shorter routes and created a glorious chance for Rome Odunze, going for broke on a 4th-and-7 play with 10:43 left, unfortunately overthrowing his intended target,
On their next drive, a pass interference call on the otherwise outstanding Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil, put Washington in the red zone where they went for it again on a 4th-and-3 play. Penix found Jalen McMillan free in the end zone for a touchdown, concluding an 11-play, 61-yard drive with 42 seconds left in the half.
Will Johnson, later voted Defensive Player of the Game, intercepted Penix on the first play of the second half after the superb Mason Graham had tipped the pass. Michigan couldn't capitalise and the two teams traded field goals.
Washington's defense adjusted and were having significantly more success stopping the run. Michigan's yards-per-carry fell from 19 in the first quarter to five in the third quarter. A game that started with explosive plays ground down into a defensive game of attrition. While the Huskies were figuring out how to stop Michigan's run game, J.J. McCarthy had only completed six passes with a couple of minutes to go in the third quarter. After the Huskies stopped Donovan Edwards and Corum on successive plays. McCarthy took off through the heart of Washington's defense for a 22-yard gain on a 3rd-and-8 play.
As the fourth quarter of this national championship game began, with Michigan 20-13 up, both teams would need to draw on the resilience that had seen them through several close contests and tribulations through this most eventful of college football seasons.
Having swapped two possessions apiece, the relentless Blake Corum, voted Offensive Player of the Game, put the seal on a five-play, 71-yard Michigan drive with a surging 12-yard scoring run. Turner's extra point ricocheted off the left upright and through the posts, putting the Wolverines two touchdowns up with 7:09 left.
Washington found themselves on another critical fourth down play after Penix had overthrown Odunze and Jack Westover, having to go for it on 4th-and-13 with 4:52 left. Up stepped Mike Sainristil with Michigan's second interception of the game, picking off a tiring Penix and returning the ball 81 yards to the Huskies' eight-yard line. Sainristil is a fascinating character. Initially recruited as a wide receiver, the Haitian-born senior gained 539 receiving yards and five touchdowns over 33 games before switching to defensive back in 2022. He has since become one of college football's elite cover specialists and his game-clinching interception was an appropriate way to end his college football story.
Two consecutive Corum runs saw Michigan's rushing touchdown record holder take the ball to and then over the 1-yard line to put the seal on Michigan's long-awaited national championship, putting the icing on a 34-13 win and capping a superb career with the Wolverines before he heads for the NFL.
Harbaugh's reference to a story in every piece of the confetti scattered across Houston's NRG Stadium will have many chapters. His journey from Michigan quarterback, through six teams in the NFL to a coaching career that included stints with the University of San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers before he was lured back to restore glory to his alma mater as their head coach in 2014. Under pressure after a 2-4 season in 2020, Harbaugh recorded his first victory over Ohio State, a landmark win which arguably laid the foundations for this national championship. Having broken the Buckeyes' hoodoo over him, Michigan have now won their last three games against their bitter Big ten rivals. His installation of J.J. McCarthy over Cade McNamara as starting quarterback in 2022 set the foundation for this offense.
Although the latest chapter was finished emphatically in Houston, this is a story that began with Michigan's decision to hire their former quarterback ten years ago and, you sense, with more page-turning chapters yet to be written.