By Lauren Merola, Max Olson, Austin Meek, Jim Trotter and Nicole Auerbach
It’s been 26 years, but finally, no one has it better than Michigan.
The Wolverines, who ranked second in passing yards allowed per game with 150.0 heading into title town, faced their toughest task yet in taming the flamethrower that is Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Michigan answered the bell, subduing Penix to 255 yards and one touchdown — the only Washington TD on the night — against two interceptions on 27-of-51 passing, a vast divergence from the usual performance of the nation’s leader in passing yards per game (332.0) and passing yards (4,648).
Couple that with the Wolverines’ run game and they downed the Huskies 34-13 to emerge as the 2023 College Football Playoff national champion on Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston. It is Michigan’s first title since 1997 and under coach Jim Harbaugh.
Down 27-13 with less than five minutes to play, Penix tried to throw a pass to wide receiver Jalen McMillan but was picked off in double coverage. Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil ran it back 80 yards before running back Blake Corum punched it in for the solidifier.
Corum finished with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns while his counterpart Donovan Edwards added 104 yards and another two scores on the ground.
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Coming out of the half down 17-10, Penix was swallowed by the Wolverines’ defensive line on the first play. He threw an interception to Michigan defensive back Will Johnson, giving up the ball on Washington’s 32 while Penix hobbled to the sideline after a teammate stepped on his ankle during the play. The Huskies defense then came up big, with the help of two Michigan penalties, to only surrender a field goal and keep the game at bay, 20-10. It wasn’t enough, and Michigan reclaimed the swaying momentum to hold the wire-to-wire lead.
“I just feel like it came down to executing,” Penix said postgame. “I missed a couple of throws, just a couple of reads on routes and stuff like that. Just small details within our system that we do great all the time.”
After the game, Penix had noticeable trouble walking off the field but said that “no matter what, I was going to make sure I finished it for the guys.”
“I’m not healthy, but I’ll be there. I’m good. It’s nothing major. I know that for sure,” he said. “I talked with the doctors and stuff like that. It’s nothing major. If I had to play tomorrow, I’ll play.”
41 YARDS TO THE HOUSE 🏠
Michigan’s Donovan Edwards strikes first in the #NationalChampionship
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) January 9, 2024
Michigan set the tone as early as possible, gaining five first downs on an eight-play drive with its first touches on ball to jump out to a 7-0 lead. By the time Michigan held a 14-3 advantage with 2:23 to go in the first quarter, it had 115 rushing yards. By the end of the first, Edwards had 87 yards and two touchdowns after only having three TDs on the season entering the game. It was an off-brand job by Washington, which allowed only two rush plays of 40-plus yards all season before Monday, when it let up three such rushes in the first half.
In the air, a rather forgotten part of Michigan’s first half, quarterback J.J. McCarthy completed his first three passes of the game but then just two of the next nine. He was 0-for-4 on third and fourth downs at half. He finished 10-of-18 for 140 yards.
On the day, Washington posted 301 total yards to Michigan’s 444. Nearly 85 percent of Washington’s yards came in the air, while Michigan, inversely, racked up nearly 68 percent of its yardage on the ground.
“I’m just super proud of this team and how far we’ve come, always being the underdog,” Penix said. “This is the only time you all were right, but we were able to fight and push through so much adversity and just people doubting us and not believing us throughout the season. To get to this point, it’s a blessing.”
What the title means for Michigan
Michigan finally broke through and brought home a national championship in a year that at times felt more like a wild season of reality TV. This team had the right stuff to finish the job after consecutive CFP semifinal losses in 2022 and 2023, won its third consecutive Big Ten title thanks to gritty wins over Penn State and Ohio State, kept fighting for an overtime triumph against Alabama in the Rose Bowl and, in its biggest test yet, shut down Washington and its prolific offense. This was a special team on a path to destiny.
And that path was littered with drama, from Harbaugh serving a three-game suspension to start the season to the in-season investigation into Connor Stalions’ impermissible signal stealing operation to another three-game Harbaugh suspension served up as his team landed in State College, Pa. Through it all, no matter who was coaching or who they were playing, these Wolverines were undeterred. They had the No. 1 defense in college football, experienced leaders who refused to lose and the poise to play their best in their biggest games. — Max Olson, college football senior writer
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Edwards shines when the spotlight is brightest
Edwards has a reputation for showing up in big moments. He wasn’t much of a factor for much of this season, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in a limited role. But in the national championship game, big-game Edwards reappeared in stunning fashion.
Edwards opened the game with a 41-yard touchdown burst and scored again on Michigan’s next drive with a 46-yard run. Edwards laid the groundwork for Michigan’s victory and Corum finished it, plunging into the end zone from 12 yards out to give the Wolverines a two-touchdown lead.
The two-headed rushing attack Michigan envisioned with Corum and Edwards didn’t materialize for much of the season, but it showed up in the biggest game of the year. Both players topped 100 yards on the ground, with Edwards rushing for 104 and Corum rushing for 134. When the Wolverines run the ball that way, nobody can stop them. — Austin Meek, Michigan beat writer
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What happened to Penix?
Statistically, it was not the worst performance of Penix’s brilliant season. But considering the stakes, it felt like it.
One week after putting on a dazzling performance in a College Football Playoff win over Texas, Penix was beaten and beaten down, with he and his Washington teammates falling to Michigan in the national title game. The pinpoint accuracy and explosive plays that wowed observers against the Longhorns were nowhere to be found Monday night.
He appeared in physical pain by the end, though the loss of a perfect season likely hurt more. There were opportunities for big plays, but Penix was uncharacteristically off on several opportunities. And when he was on target he was hurt by dropped passes. — Jim Trotter, senior writer
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Credit Washington’s defense
It looked early like Michigan was going to run away with the game — literally, after two Edwards touchdown runs of more than 40 yards. But credit Washington’s defense for its resilience and toughness for allowing the Huskies to hang around in this game, even with Penix not nearly as crisp as he was a week ago in the Sugar Bowl.
After all the fireworks in the game’s first 17 minutes, Michigan went punt, turnover on downs, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt; the longest drive the Wolverines put together only went 41 yards … until that touchdown drive at the midpoint of the fourth quarter that resulted in a Corum touchdown and put Michigan up by two scores. — Nicole Auerbach, college football senior writer
A Pac-12 swan song
Monday night’s game was such a bittersweet moment for the Pac-12 conference. The Huskies finally broke through to reach the CFP and snap a seven-year drought for the conference and they win an exhilarating semifinal to reach a national championship game … and it’s the very last game for the Pac-12 as we’ve always known it, with 10 of its 12 teams set to depart for other power conferences next season. This Washington team has been a blast to watch all season, as was the entire Pac-12 conference, with surging teams like Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona and the national phenomenon that was Colorado. It’s a tough pill to swallow because it feels like if the Pac-12 had the season it did this fall a year or two ago, its demise would have never happened. Alas.
But the Big Ten is excited it will boast both title game participants as league members come August. A national championship game rematch will be a Big Ten conference game, on Oct. 5. — Auerbach
(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)