Michigan football’s final statement in year of controversy: We’re champs!

by | Jan 9, 2024 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

HOUSTON — And then, all Hail broke loose.

Mikey Sainristil intercepted a fourth-down pass, a desperate heave by Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. that landed right in Sainristil’s gut. He took off the other way, eyes widening. Ten yards. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. As tens of thousands of maize and blue fans who stuffed the stands of NRG Stadium rose and roared and waved the kid on. He crossed midfield, green turf ahead. Fifty yards. Sixty yards. …

And as Sainristil galloped on, all the shadows seemed to fall away, everything that hovered over this crazy, undefeated Wolverines season, the critics, the finger pointing, the suspensionsthe “Michigan Vs. Everybody” T-shirts, all of it, burned off as if hurtling into the sun.

Michigan football would capture a national championship, its first in 26 years. No polls this time. No tying with another school. This was undeniable. A No. 1 ranking. A perfect season.

“What were you thinking as you were running that interception back?” Sainristil was asked on the stadium field, long after Michigan defeated Washington, 34-13, for the national crown.

He shook his head and laughed. “I couldn’t breathe from when I caught that interception until about 10 minutes ago.”

Well. That would be a superhuman act. Then again, this sort of felt like one, didn’t it? Taking the final flag in this long, grueling race that started on a warm Labor Day weekend in Ann Arbor and ended a week after New Year’s on a rainy Monday in a massive Houston stadium?

It took an offense that plowed for more than 300 yards rushing on the night. It took a defense that threw a net over the explosive Penix, whose release is as fast as a lizard’s tongue.

It took a numerically dominant performance that by itself still wouldn’t have gotten it done — if not for key moments of executed opportunity:

Like Donovan Edwards breaking free for two massive touchdown runs.

Like cornerback Will Johnson whacking, juggling and finally snagging a Penix pass for a critical interception.

Like quarterback J.J. McCarthy, deep in his own territory with the game tilting the wrong way, taking a third-down snap and breaking through the line, running past defenders for 22 yards, his longest scramble of the season — and Michigan’s only third-down conversion of the night.

One third-down conversion? And they won by three touchdowns?

Hey. Timing is everything.

“A glorious win,” Jim Harbaugh said afterwards, “I could not be prouder or happier of our team. Fifteen-and-oh. Took on all comers. Last one standing.”

All Hail breaks loose.

Some saw this coming for a year

“Yeah, baby!’ came the guttural cries. “Yeah, we did it!” Player after player smashed shoulder pads, lifted one another off the turf, or filmed themselves shrieking in confetti covered giddiness as family and friends surrounded them on the NRG playing field.

It’s in moments like these that you are reminded that college football is still a young man’s game, in some ways a kid’s game. Money, NIL or transfer portals can’t change that.

Here was a group of believers who had to play almost half the season without their head coach. Many of them came back after two previous disappointing CFP losses to get one more shot at the brass ring.

“The urgency,” McCarthy said, in explaining what made this team click. “Right after that last game last year (a playoff loss to TCU). It was different. I knew it. Just from being on the podium last year and saying we would be back. … I had this feeling that it was going to be where we are right now.”

Well. He may not have seen the exact layout of Monday’s game, which wiggled like an earthworm from one team to the other.

Here for posterity, is a recap of how the trophy was won:

Taking the lead, and holding on

Remember that big college football games can often feel like Russian novels. Monday night was no exception. It had more momentum changes than a demolition derby. Michigan stole the early scenes, scoring on its first drive without seeing a third down, when Edwards broke from a scrum and raced outside, 41 yards, all the way to pay dirt.

Just like that, it was 7-0.

Then, on their next drive, the Wolverines hit the “repeat” button. This time Edwards broke free for a 46-yard score, using great vision to burst to an open gap and race to glory. Edwards, the junior who had disappeared for much of the season, had come back like a Marvel sequel. For a while, it looked like he would be the story of the night.

But as we said, college football changes moods like a hungry freshmen at a vending machine. After the Michigan defense squeezed as much juice as possible out of Penix and his high-flying passing machine — holding Washington to just three points and some missed opportunities — Harbaugh let his confidence get the best of him.

With just under 5 minutes left in the first half, U-M faced a fourth-and-3 at the Washington 38. The team went to snap the ball for a punt. But Harbaugh called a sudden timeout. He motioned his players over. For some reason, he decided to go for the yards instead.

Bad idea. McCarthy, under pressure, threw a pass meant for Roman Wilson that was broken up by the Washington defense, and instead of pinning the Huskies deep in their own territory and continuing the slow demoralization of their offense, U-M gave them life.

And they took it. Washington marched downfield behind Penix and hung a fourth-down touchdown on the board with less than a minute remaining to make it 17-10.

Suddenly, with the Washington players celebrating and their fans roaring to life, a game that felt lopsided most of the first half felt suddenly almost … even.

And even it would stay for much of the second half. What was billed as two high-flying offenses became all about defense. Stop and stop again. The two teams traded field goals in the third quarter, the traded six straight punts. The game was slogging. But the threat of Penix and a big pass play loomed large, something that could strike at any moment, like waiting for lighting in a thunderstorm. You know it’s coming. You just don’t know when.

Until finally, with just over 9 minutes left in the game, Michigan stopped waiting for the lighting and made some thunder of its own. McCarthy spotted tight end Colston Loveland over the middle and threw high. But Loveland leapt for it, snagged the ball, and bolted for 41 yards.

It seemed to shake Michigan out of a fog.

A few plays, later, Blake Corum wriggled off defenders and zipped up the middle for a touchdown and a 14-point cushion. The team mobbed him.

The Huskies, like a bull in the arena sensing defeat, was wobbly on their hooves. All that remained was one last stop. It came on that fourth-down pass, with 4:29 left and Washington threatening on the Michigan 30-yard line.

Penix felt pressure. He threw badly. The ball went to Sainristil. And the young man who was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and fled with his family as an infant was suddenly all the way at the end of opportunity’s rainbow, a pot of championship gold waiting.

He made it 81 yards before being brought down. A few plays later, Corum punched it in for the final touchdown of the season and a certain win.

“It means everything,” Sainristil gushed while standing on the field and gazing at the cheering crowd. “All my life, God has blessed me and my family … all the kids back home in Haiti: believe!”

Note: he was breathing when he said this.

Celebration overtakes distractions

The win puts a snowy cap on the mountainous season of Michigan football. When you start with your coach suspended against East Carolina and finish with him suspended against Ohio State, well, you know it’s not a normal year.

In between you had a string of undefeated performances, including a 49-0 drubbing of rival Michigan State32 straight running plays to defeat Penn State, and a 26-0 shutout to win the  Big Ten championship. You had Sherrone Moore dropping F-bombs in effusing his love for his missing head coach, and Corum sticking a rose in his teeth when the Wolverines slammed the door shut on Alabama out in Pasadena.

It was a year of highlights and headlines, the latter often eclipsing the former. And in the center of the storm was always Harbaugh, kicking up dust clouds as if auditioning to play Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoon.

But if Harbaugh stands accused of creating unneeded noise around this program, he must be credited with silencing some of the loudest criticisms that have followed him and the Wolverines for years.

Can’t beat Ohio State? Forget that. Loses to the Spartans? That’s history. Can’t win the Big Ten? Done it multiple times. Can’t win a playoff game or beat top-10 opponents? The Rose Bowl silenced all that, coming from behind to beat the vaulted Crimson Tide in overtime.

And now, finally, the ultimate prize, a national title. There was no backing in. No lucky draws. Michigan played the toughest teams in the nation and beat them all.

As for the controversies?

“We’re innocent,” Harbaugh said, volunteering this at his postgame news conference before he was even asked, “and we stood strong and tall because we’re innocent … these guys (the players) are innocent. … And it went exactly as we wanted it to go.”

His critics may doubt him, but no doubt countless Michigan fans around the world are saying the same thing this morning. It went the way they wanted it to go. From the first win of the season to that final Sainristil pick, a classic image, one young man, gripping a football and running down the field in such a once-in-a-lifetime victorious moment that he couldn’t breathe when it was all over. But then, that’s what happens when all Hail breaks loose.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him @mitchalbom.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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