Michigan’s controversy-filled season ends with national championship win over Washington

HOUSTON — Slap an asterisk next to their name if you want.

Choose to remember Connor Stalions, the lower-level staffer who led an alleged sign-stealing, in-game scouting scandal, when you recall how this 2023 college football season unfolded.

On the field, Michigan left no doubt.

Monday night, it completed a perfect season its way — with dominant defense, a punishing ground attack and a clutch quarterback who made big plays when they were needed.

It shut down Washington’s top-ranked passing attack and pummeled the Huskies on the ground, cruising to its first national championship in 26 years with a commanding 34-13 victory inside NRG Stadium.

In the Wolverines’ third trip to the College Football Playoff in as many years, they finished the job.

The defense didn’t allow more than 24 points all season and only two of Michigan’s 15 wins were decided by a single score despite coach Jim Harbaugh missing six of them due to a pair of three-game suspensions.

In mid-October, the sign-stealing scandal broke. It didn’t sidetrack these Wolverines. They kept on winning, and doing so convincingly.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy celebrates their win against Washington in the national championship on Monday. AP

In what may be Harbaugh’s final game coaching his alma mater — he could return to the NFL — Michigan owned the first and fourth quarters, outscoring Washington, 28-3.

It picked off Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Michael Penix Jr. twice and limited him to 255 yards through the air.

The Wolverines piled up 305 yards on the ground, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards each scored twice on the ground and J.J. McCarthy, the hero of the dramatic Rose Bowl victory, led a game-clinching touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter that iced the title.

The game was very much in doubt for much of the second half, a touchdown separating the teams. Washington’s offense just couldn’t get on track. Penix was inaccurate.

His receivers dropped passes.

Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) runs the ball against Washington Huskies cornerback Elijah Jackson (25) during the third quarter. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con
Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts as he holds the national championship trophy. Getty Images

Then, McCarthy hit Colston Loveland on a 41-yard gain over the middle. Four plays later, Corum scored from 12 yards out.

Penix was intercepted deep in Michigan territory on the ensuing possession, ending any comeback thoughts.

Washington was fortunate to trail by just a touchdown at the half.

It was borderline noncompetitive against Michigan’s physical rushing attack, gashed for 209 yards. Twice, Penix missed Rome Odunze for touchdowns.

Questionable Michigan play-calling worked in the Huskies’ favor.

Michigan Wolverines running back Donovan Edwards (7) runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Washington Huskies during the first quarter. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Leading 17-3 late in the second quarter, Michigan opted for a pass on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 38-yard-line despite averaging 12.3 yards per rush at that point. McCarthy’s pass fell incomplete, and the Huskies responded with their best drive of the game. Penix capped it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jalen McMillan on fourth-and-goal.

Before that momentum turn, Michigan was rolling.

Edwards scored on long touchdown runs of 41 and 46 yards. In the first quarter alone, the Wolverines had 174 rushing yards on seven carries and three runs of at least 40 yards. The Huskies previously had given up two such runs all year.

Washington’s explosive offense managed just 105 yards on its first five possessions.

Michigan celebrates winning the national championship. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

On its opening drive, Penix missed an open Odunze in the end zone on third down. Washington settled for a 25-yard Grady Gross field goal.

In the second quarter, trailing 14-3 — their largest deficit of the season — the Huskies went for it on fourth down.

Needing 7 yards, Odunze ran free past the Michigan secondary. But Penix threw well behind him.

Washington’s defense didn’t let the game get away.

Michigan had just a field goal on four second-quarter possessions, twice stalling near the middle of the field.

Penix was intercepted on the first play of the third quarter, but the defense held again, forcing a 38-yard field goal that extended the lead to 20-10.

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) reacts after a play against the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. Washington had three chances to pull even. The offense stalled, managing just two first downs. There were key drops and a killer penalty, but not a lengthy drive.

Eventually, Michigan put the hammer down. Washington had no response.

A celebration over 25 years in the making was on. Asterisk or no asterisk, the Wolverines were the last team standing.

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