The Season Of Harbaugh Ends, Perfectly, With A National Championship
8:58 AM EST on January 9, 2024
On the very first play of the second half of Monday night's national championship game, Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looked around, saw a field's worth of receivers covered, and lofted what was supposed to be a throwaway right at Michigan cornerback Will Johnson, who made a nice recovery and catch to instantly snuff out the only momentum Washington was able to muster all night. It was a fitting play to begin the half, as Penix spent the evening struggling to get anything going, while Michigan, after a first-quarter barrage, remained calm and took advantage of Washington's many foibles en route to a 34-13 win to secure their first national championship since 1997.
As for the barrage: Donovan Edwards got his first carry of the game on second-and-14, and after getting briefly bottled up at the line, he did the 40-yard dash around a bunch of Washington defenders. His 41-yard touchdown run was only five yards short of Washington's rushing total on the night, and he followed that first one up by equaling the Huskies with a 46-yarder on Michigan's next drive. It started to feel like Michigan was going to run away with it.
As for the foibles: In between those two long runs, Washington mounted a 14-play drive that stalled out in the red zone, and after standing the Wolverines up at the 14-yard line and swapping field goals, Penix got the ball back down 17-3 and finally started stringing some first downs together. Stalled out at the Michigan 41, facing a critical fourth-and-7, Washington got bold and called for a deep shot. For the first time all night, Rome Odunze got wide open with a clear path all the way to the end zone after a Michigan safety stepped to the inside and left the sideline clear. It couldn't have happened at a more opportune moment, and it couldn't have ended more tragically. Penix stared at Odunze the whole play, stood his ground, and let it rip, only for Odunze to slow down just long enough to get out of position and grasp for a pass that was just out of his reach.
That wasn't the game, but it cost Washington a sure touchdown. Penix redeemed his earlier fourth-down screwup with a sublime touchdown near the end of the half, notifying referees of a hold on Odunze seconds before nailing the throw to Jalen McMillan.
That great throw is what made the first play of the second half so backbreaking. Washington needed to get something going, yet instead, the high-powered passing attack they relied on all year got shut down. Penix was clearly ailing and while both teams played nervous throughout the second half, only one could afford to do so. Penix and Odunze finally connected on a long one in the third quarter, only for it get yoinked back by a holding penalty. Star Washington running back Dillon Johnson, who suffered a very painful-looking knee injury against Texas, was able to play, but he hurt himself on the first carry of the game. After six straight drives ended in punts, J.J. McCarthy connected with Colston Loveland (the owner of the most tight end-sounding name in college football) for a 41-yarder and Blake Corum scored three runs later. On the next drive, Penix actually completed a successful and legal pass to Odunze, only to throw the game-ending interception a few plays later. That ended the competitive portion of the game. An extra point was doinked in off an upright, Jim Harbaugh dodged the celebratory Gatorade bath, and five-and-a-half years later, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad got his wish.
Michigan's 15-0 season is a fitting way to end the four-team playoff era, bookended hilariously by Ohio State winning in 2014 and their archrivals winning a decade later. Jim Harbaugh was inarguably the protagonist of college football this year, serving a team-imposed three-game suspension for getting too silly with it in the offseason, then navigating the Connor Stalions saga. Crooked Jim escaped punishment after Stalions's spy ring was uncovered, and he could not be denied against Alabama and Washington, which, even if you think Stalions should be executed, is very funny. When Harbaugh called his Wolverines "America's Team," he was quite unintentionally correct.
After losing his first four games to Ohio State, flirting with the NFL seemingly every offseason, and enduring a 2-4 2020 campaign, Harbaugh has led his team to a national championship. What did he have to say after the triumph when asked how sweet it felt? "It's pretty great," he said, before getting to what he really wanted to talk about. "You watch this confetti come down, and it's like thousands of confetti; it tells a story, there's a story in every one of those pieces of confetti, the maize and blue confetti. Just so proud of our team." Agreed. Cue up the Lightfoot.