Michigan Championship Reflections

The Michigan Wolverines won their twelfth overall national championship on Monday night.  Michigan acquired their last trophy in 1997.  Interestingly, this was the third year in a row Michigan qualified and played in the College Football Playoff.  The third time really is the charm.

Jim Harbaugh finally shut down all the naysayers and paid off on the implied promise that he would bring a championship back to Ann Arbor.  Coach Harbaugh presents as quirky.  Some will say that he is an acquired taste.  Quirky mercurial personalities are tolerable when they win.  Coach Harbaugh comes from a family of winners.  His dad won the FCS National Championship with Western Kentucky.  Coach Harbaugh’s brother beat him in the Superbowl.  Monday was Jim Harbaugh’s turn.  Yet, Jim has always shown himself a winner.

This years Michigan Wolverine squad is the epitome of everything that Jim Harbaugh stands for as a football coach.  He has always coached his teams to be tough in the trenches.  His teams run the ball well.  Harbaugh demands a tough, fundamentally sound defense.  Finally, Coach Harbaugh wants a smart, athletic quarterback that will execute Coach Harbaugh’s vision selflessly.  This year’s Wolverines embodied all these winning elements, eventually carrying them to this year’s national championship.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh takes with quarterback J.J. McCarthy during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game against Washington Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Michigan Wolverines never played from behind this year.  In each of their games the Wolverines lead at half time.  The Wolverines flat out dominated their opponents every week.  Their defensive line ran a rotation of eight players throughout the game to keep them fresh and on the attack.  Their run game ground opposing defenses into the gridiron.  They imposed their will on all their opponents and the National Championship was a grand culmination of all their efforts this year.

Michigan is comfortable playing seemingly tight games on the score board.  The reality is that the score board never tells the whole story.  The blood, sweat and bruises acquired during the game tell the true story.  The Wolverines wear teams down.  They shock their opposition with their physicality and never let up.

In the championship game, the Michigan offense opened with a mix of run and pass plays.  The offensive line started moving the Washington defensive line right away at a minimum of four yards a clip.  J.J. McCarthy was sacked for a four-yard loss seven plays into the drive.  Donovan Edward’s number was called on the next play.  McCarthy takes the snap and hands the ball off to Edwards in the gun.  Edwards runs immediately behind the center.  Seeing no hole, he bounced outside to his left and turned on the afterburners for a 41-yard touchdown.

Michigan running back Donovan Edwards celebrates after scoring against Washington during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

The Washington Huskies are no slouches.  Michael Penix Jr. is an experienced quarterback.  He had legitimate parameter weapons to get the ball to.  Unfortunately for Penix, the Wolverine defensive line was too much for his team to handle as the game unfolded.

After Washington scored a field goal, Michigan was on the march again.  A short run led to a 37-yard pass play to Roman Wilson.  J.J. McCarthy lined up in the pistol, with two receivers to the boundary.  At the snap, executed a beautiful play fake and found Roman Wilson running a deep over route.  The next play was an incomplete.  On second and ten, McCarthy takes the snap and hands off to Edwards who reads his blocks and finds a hole large enough to drive a Mack truck through on the right side.  Donavan Edwards turned on the jets and dashed 46 yards untouched for another touchdown.

After Michigan forced a three and out, the Wolverine offense was on the move again.  At the snap McCarthy handed the ball off to Blake Corum who ran thru a whole paved by the center and right guard.  Reading the second level blocks he turned the ball up field and scampered for a 59-yard rush.  Washington’s defense began to stiffen though and held Michigan to a field goal on this drive.

During Washington’s next drive, they decided to go for it on a fourth and seven at mid field.  Michigan successfully defended the down but was unable to capitalize on offense as Washington’s defense managed to force their own three and out.

The two squads traded punts until Coach Harbaugh made a potentially critical mistake.  It was fourth and two on Washington’s 38-yard line.  He decided to go for it instead of punting.  Up and till this point, Michigan’s defense was dominating the Washington offense.  Pinning Washington against their goal line would have only aided their defensive efforts.  Earlier in the game Washington was on their 20-yard line and Kenneth Grant sacked Penix for a 12-yard loss setting the stage for another punt.  Still, Coach Harbaugh decided this was a decisive moment to steal the game.  Unfortunately, a low percentage pass play was called and poorly executed.  Washington used the short field to drive and bring the score within seven points.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. passes against Michigan during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Washington started with the ball in the second half.  During the first play of the game, Penix takes the snap in the gun, steps back and the four-man rush collapses on him.  Specifically, sophomore defensive lineman Mason Graham descended on him as he released the ball.  The ball was short, and Will Johnson stepped in front of the ball and picked it off.  The Michigan Wolverines stole a possession.  Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Washington’s defense stiffened and only allowed a field goal.  The Wolverines defense in turn also allowed a field goal on Washington’s next possession.

There was one point in the game where Washington had an opportunity to even things up.  It was third and eight and Michigan had the ball on their own nine-yard line.   McCarthy was in the gun with trips right and a single receiver to the left.  He takes the snap, dodges a potential sack in the endzone and takes off up the middle of the field for 22 yards.  Though Michigan didn’t score on this drive, that play was immensely important to the field position of the teams.  Their punt put Washington on their own 11-yard line.  More importantly, that particular play averted disaster and boosted the morale of the Wolverines to keep slugging it out in the trenches.

After each team traded punts over three possessions each, Michigan’s offense came alive.  However, with 9:44 on the clock the Wolverine offense exploded down the field for 41 yards in one play.  The score was still 20 to 13 in favor of Michigan.  McCarthy was in the gun, with Corum to his right.  Two receivers were aligned to the boundary while one receiver was on the near side.  Colstan Loveland, tight end, aligned outside the near receiver, motioned to the slot position on the near side.  At the snap, Loveland runs straight up the seam and shows his numbers to the quarterback at precisely ten yards.  Meanwhile McCarthy is executing a play action fake with a defender in his face, and he rips the ball down the seam to Loveland as the defender is laying his hands on McCarthy’s throwing shoulder.  Loveland catches the ball, and turns it up 41 yards down the field before he was tackled.  This play eventually led to a 12-yard tackle breaking touchdown run by Blake Corum.  Michigan once again had a two-score lead and they never lost it again.

Michigan running back Blake Corum scores against Washington during the second half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Washington executed their own explosive play on their next drive when Odunze sprung loose and Penix found him for a 44-yard completion.  The coverage was busted as Mikey Sainristil was attempting to get the defensive backs properly aligned. Five plays later it was 4th and 13 and Washington was on the Michigan 30-yard line. Penix was in the gun with a running back to his immediate right and three receivers right with one aligned against the boundary.   He took the snap and executed a four step drop and released the ball down the seam as Jaylen Harrell was wrapping him up for a would-be sack.  The ball sailed over the intended receiver right into Sainristil’s hands who turned it up field and ran it back 81 yards.  Blacke Corum pounded it in for another touchdown two plays later for the eventual game ending score of 34 to 13.

Throughout this game there were multiple opportunities for Micheal Penix Jr. to make a play with his arm.  There were occasions, despite a consistent withering pass rush, he had just enough time to get throws off.  However, the Michigan defensive line and secondary flummoxed him to the point that his fundamentals began to degrade.  His footwork was off, and he began to throw of his back foot using his arm talent rather than stepping in through the throws.  Worse, he failed to read the field correctly, often firing at his first progression when better options were open.

Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil runs after interception against Washington during the second half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Rome Odunze was open all night long.  Coming into the game I was skeptical of Odunze’s abilities.  I was wrong.  While, Will Johnson is an excellent corner for Michigan, Odunze is a better individual player in one on one.  Unfortunately, Penix was unable to get him the ball when he had opportunities to do so.  More often than not, Penix would make one read, and release instead of surveying the whole field.  On at least three plays Odunze was open had Penix merely looked his way.  When he did look his way, Penix misfired.  He overthrew him at least three times in the game, while only connecting with him on five passes.  For example, on the fourth and seven play in the first half, he over thru Odunze who was at least three steps ahead of the defender.  Micheal Penix Jr. had a great year.  However, the Michigan defense exposed his flaws.  When he gets flustered his fundamentals break down.  He will need the right coach at the next level to improve.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. passes against Michigan during the first half of the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

This year was Jim Harbaugh’s football magnum opus.  Despite the fact he was suspended by the University for six games, Coach Harbaugh’s impressive organizational skills shined as his coordinators worked together to achieve those six victories including wins against Penn State on the road and their long-time rival Ohio State.  In the end, it was Coach Harbaugh’s vision that won the day.  Now the question is what is next?  Will Harbaugh leave for an NFL job?  What is next for Michigan football if Jim Harbaugh leaves?  These questions and more will be answered in the coming weeks.  For now, Michigan’s students, alums and fans will celebrate.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates with the trophy after their win in the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game against Washington Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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