College Football
Michigan does it at last, powering through Washington for first national title since 1997
College Football

Michigan does it at last, powering through Washington for first national title since 1997

Updated Jan. 9, 2024 9:07 a.m. ET

HOUSTON – Every day in Ann Arbor, from their first as bright-eyed young freshmen to the last time they practice as seniors, Michigan players walk by a statue standing guard outside their football facility. 

It is a bronzed likeness of head coach Bo Schembechler, the architect for so many of the Wolverines' victories over which allowed the program to become the winningest in all of college football. Inscribed on the wall behind it is the most famous phrase uttered by originator of the Michigan Man's very ethos: "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions."

For 9,503 days, the statement failed to ring true, the distance since the school's last national title in 1997.

It had been years of good – but never good enough. Season after season, there was heartbreak when the moment mattered, often at the hands of their most vicious rivals in Columbus who jangled gold pants afterward in the ultimate taunt over a school whose name they didn't dare utter. A beloved alum and one of Schembechler's best quarterbacks, Jim Harbaugh was hired nine years ago to take his alma mater to the promised land. 


Now, after defeating the last banner-carrier for the Pac-12 in No. 2 Washington, 34-13, on Monday night, they can finally prove Bo right. 

Those who stayed didn't just become champions, they became national champions. 

To little surprise, it was a game plan which the maize and blue used successfully all season long. They played stifling defense, limiting Washington to 2-of-14 on third down and holding their vaunted passing game to just 255 yards as they battered and bruised Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr. (27-51, 255 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). 

The run game, as ever, was central to Michigan's offensive identity as well. They set the tone on their opening drive, marching 84 yards in just eight plays before tailback backup Donovan Edwards bounced out of a tackle and raced 41 yards up the sideline to pay dirt – at the time, the second longest in the 10 years of CFP title games.

The Wolverines defense bent but didn't completely break during a long Huskies drive that ended in a field goal attempt before Edwards took his second carry of the game even further by racing nearly untouched 46 yards for a touchdown. By the time the first quarter came to a close, the maize and blue were averaging a robust 19.3 yards per carry and their understudy to Blake Corum (21 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns) was on the verge of equaling his season total for rushing touchdowns. 

UM's future Big Ten rivals from the Pacific Northwest didn't flinch, however. 

As they had done time after time in becoming the first-ever team since Division I came into existence to win 10 consecutive games by 10 or fewer points, the Huskies battled and battled. They cut into an early 17-3 deficit and tightened up defensively, benefiting from Michigan out-thinking things by passing too many times to come up with empty drives. Running back Dillon Johnson, who was injured after his first carry, emerged as every bit of a tough runner on a team whose ground game is constantly overlooked to notch 33 yards and pick up several key first downs. 

Penix threw an interception on the very first play of the second half yet stood tall in the face of constant pressure, throwing darts all over the field to his slew of future NFL receivers. Rome Odunze (five receptions for 87 yards), Jalen McMillan (six receptions, 33 yards, one TD) and Ja'Lynn Polk (four receptions, 37 yards) all found soft spots as time ticked off the clock at NRG Stadium against what was, coming in, the nation's top pass defense. Tight end Devin Culp turned one short catch into 14 yards plus a first down that drew an unsportsmanlike penalty, firing up the purple-clad crowd who experienced very Seattle-like conditions outside before kickoff.

The Wolverines though, would not be denied during a season in which they have lived by their motto "Michigan vs. Everybody" that came about amid the constant criticism that arrived starting in mid-October as the Connor Stalions sign-stealing scandal enveloped much more than just the picturesque Midwestern campus. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy was at the heart of much of the response as the game teetered on the brink, scrambling up the gut for 22 yards with 3:12 left in the third quarter to secure the team's first third-down conversion of the night. 

The passing totals for the former five-star player, whom Harbaugh has labeled as the greatest signal-caller to wear the uniform, were nothing eye-popping (10-18, 140 yards, no TDs) but they didn't need to be. Team 144, as they are affectionately known in the annals of the voluminous record books, managed to squeeze the life out of the game as they had continuously in big moments before on this road that led deep into the heart of Texas to notch win No. 1,004.

It happened against Penn State. It happened against Ohio State. It happened against mighty Alabama and the coach who has no equal.

For one final time, it happened against Washington as veteran playmaker Mikey Sainristil's fourth quarter interception and 81-yard run back put a dagger in the nation's longest winning streak. In the process, it returned Michigan back to the mountain top and bookended the four-team College Football Playoff era with Big Ten titles, the most recent of which was the Wolverines' first undisputed national championship since 1948. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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