Every year, fans of college football gather in stadiums and around their televisions to see which team will win it all. This year is different. For the first time ever, Houston hosted the College Football Playoff National Championship. This contest, first launched in 2014, features four teams who compete in a single-elimination tournament to determine a national champion of NCAA Division I football — the highest level of collegiate competition in America. This year, the Michigan Wolverines battled the Washington Huskies inside NRG Stadium on Jan. 8.
As first-time host, the City of Houston met the moment with a plethora of exciting events. The George R. Brown Convention Center downtown was transformed into a football fan-fest, featuring interactive games, team merchandise, and exhibits by NASA, Goodyear and RAM trucks. At nearby Shell Energy Stadium, the AT&T Playoff Playlist treated fans to three days of free live concerts, featuring performances by rappers Latto, Jack Harlow, and 2 Chainz.
The game itself starred two undefeated teams, both 14-0. Washington, despite having a lower profile, was led by dynamic quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. (who ranked first in passing yards). It leads the Pac-12 conference in four statistical categories. On the other hand, Michigan also stands unbeaten, helmed by talented QB J.J. McCarthy and top-tier running back Blake Corum — who scored an astonishing 25 touchdowns during the regular season to become Michigan’s all-time leader in rush TDs. But that success came with high scrutiny amid a major sign-stealing scandal. (“Sign-stealing” or gathering information on signs that a team uses for offensive or defensive plays, is not explicitly banned by the NCAA unless electronic communications are intercepted.)
The Big 10 Conference found Michigan to be in violation of its sportsmanship policy for “conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition,” the conference said. In November, the Big 10 announced that it would ban Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh from coaching the last three games of the regular season. That cast a cloud over Michigan’s season in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that surfaced after the 2017 World Series.
“We’re innocent,” Harbaugh told reporters. “And these guys — these guys are innocent.” But whispers about the team’s ethics — and Harbaugh’s future — remained.
So the Wolverines had a lot to prove as they prepared to play Monday night. But they delivered. Michigan quickly gained the lead with a fabulous ground game: Corum got the handoff on two of the team’s first three plays, picking up 11 yards on his first two rushes. McCarthy was subsequently sacked by Washington defensive lineman Ulumoo Ale. But on the very next play, Michigan running back Donovan Edwards took off for a 31-yard rushing touchdown. The Wolverines led 7-0 with 10:14 left in the first quarter.
By contrast, the Huskies mixed it up on offense, pairing short passes by Penix with small but substantial rushes. They advanced to the red zone, but Penix’s pass to wide receiver Rome Odunze fell incomplete. Washington settled for a field goal: kicker Grady Gross drilled a 25-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 3:56 left in the quarter.
The Wolverines wasted no time getting back into the end zone. McCarthy threw to wide receiver Roman Wilson for a 37-yard gain, and two plays later, Edwards again turned on the jets for a 46-yard rushing touchdown.
After a three-and-out by Washington, Michigan took over on offense. Corum dashed down the field for an incredible 59 yards, taking it all the way to Washington’s 20-yard line. Michigan was within scoring range, leading 14-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The Wolverines opened the second quarter with more points, via a 32-yard field goal by kicker James Turner. Michigan led 17-3. Washington’s drive was hampered by two false-start penalties, and on 4th and 7, Penix’s pass to Odunze fell incomplete. The Huskies turned the ball over on downs.
Both teams punted on their ensuing drives, and later Michigan, too, suffered a turnover on downs. The scoring slowed dramatically in the second quarter. But Washington pulled together a scoring drive near the end of the half, helped by a 15-yard pass interference penalty on Michigan cornerback Mike Sainristil. That took the Huskies to the eight-yard line, and Penix threw to WR Jalen McMillan for a touchdown. But the Wolverines still led 17-10 at halftime.
Washington got the ball to start the second half, but the results were disastrous: Penix was intercepted on the very first play when Michigan cornerback Will Johnson picked him off. Michigan cashed in on the pick with a 38-yard field goal by James Turner. The Huskies responded with a field goal of their own: Gross was good from 45 yards out, making it 20-13 with 8:58 left in the third.
The quarter ended without any more points by either team. And the scoring drought continued into the fourth quarter. But out of nowhere, McCarthy hurled a pass to tight end Colston Loveland, who broke free for a 41-yard catch-and-run. Wilson picked up 12 yards on the next play. Blake Corum rushed for a 12-yard touchdown, helping Michigan leap ahead, 27-13.
But they weren’t done yet. Washington worked mightily to score points on its next drive, but the stalwart Wolverines defense broke up most of Penix’s passes. The Huskies decided to go for it on 4th down, but flags flew. There were fouls on both sides: holding on Washington’s offense, pass interference on Michigan’s defense.
Instead of punting, the Huskies again went for it on fourth down (for what reason, we don’t know). That proved to be a costly choice: Penix got intercepted again, this time by Mike Sainristil — who ran an astonishing 81 yards to the eight-yard line. Corum picked up the rest, scoring his second touchdown of the night. Thanks largely to a stout defense and brilliant running by Corum and Edwards, Michigan steamrolled Washington 34-13.
Despite all the doubters and naysayers, the Wolverines triumphed, handing head coach Jim Harbaugh his first national championship. (It’s the first national title Michigan has won outright since 1948.) Harbaugh was radiant in a postgame press conference: “Glorious win. I could not be prouder or happier,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”
As a University of Michigan alum (he played QB there from 1983-86), Harbaugh basked in the glow of Michigan’s first-ever CFP title. During the press conference, reporters asked Harbaugh: now that he’d won the national title, what’s next? “I just want to enjoy this,” he answered. “I just want to enjoy this. I hope you give me that. Can a guy have that? Does it always have to be, ‘What’s next? What’s the future?’”
Clearly, Harbaugh wanted to live in the moment. And what a moment it was: as colorful confetti rained down upon NRG Stadium, Michigan fans and players rejoiced. Blake Corum was named offensive player of the game; Will Johnson was defensive player of the game. Asked how it felt to receive such an honor, Johnson responded succinctly: “Crazy,” he said. “Dream come true.”