‘We’re legends’: Michigan caps undefeated season with national title triumph

Fittingly, the last football game in the history of the Pac-12 Conference was played in the unmistakable style of the brawny Big Ten.

Pretty does not often win in America’s oldest power conference. Gritty often does. For the 15th time this season, the Michigan Wolverines led their opponent into a war waged on their terms on Monday night, and the pristine passing attack of the Washington Huskies had no answers for the nation’s best defense.

After Blake Corum’s second fourth-quarter touchdown put Michigan’s 34-13 victory on ice, the Wolverines had finished off the Big Ten’s pillaging of the Pac-12 — this time on the field with college football immortality up for grabs.

Chants of “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine” echoed throughout Houston’s NRG Stadium, where coach Jim Harbaugh’s family motto became realized as an undeniable fact across the land: Who has it better than Michigan?

Nobody, thanks to the toughness and togetherness of the Wolverines’ 144th team, which put to rest narratives that have been hovering over the program since the days of Bo Schembechler.

Michigan can win the big game. And, for the Big Ten to produce greatness on the national stage, it doesn’t have to be Ohio State.

The Wolverines, 15-0, claimed the program’s 12th national championship, just the second since their postwar triumph in 1948. As sweet as Michigan’s 1997 AP poll national title was, it won’t have to share this one with anybody.

“We’re legends,” said Michigan defensive end Braiden McGregor, standing amid the maize-and-blue confetti and taking it all in.

“Everyone said we couldn’t do it,” McGregor said. “When Coach Harbaugh got suspended, ‘Oh, we’re gonna put an asterisk if they win the national championship.’ We go out here and we did it, nobody can say anything now. We’ve proved the doubters wrong all year, just kept going, cared about each other, didn’t care about the press, ESPN, all that. Look where we are? Natty champs!”

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy and coach Jim Harbaugh celebrate the Wolverines' national championship.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy and coach Jim Harbaugh celebrate the Wolverines’ national championship victory over Washington.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Michigan’s defense held strong when the offense couldn’t find its rhythm in the second and third quarters, flummoxing Heisman Trophy finalist Michael Penix Jr., who completed 27 of 51 passes for 255 yards, with two uncharacteristic interceptions in the second half.

“We came out to prove that we’re one of the best defenses of all time,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett said. “If we want to display that, we had to go do it against the No. 1 offense in the country.”

Michigan became the first team in the 10 years of the College Football Playoff to feature two 100-yard rushers, with Corum pounding away 21 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns and Donovan Edwards blasting through the Huskies defense six times for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

“I also want to point out, nothing fancy here,” Harbaugh said. “There was nothing surprising. Good old-fashioned hard work by these players and these coaches and none of us are up here taking a deep, long bow because we know this was just good old-fashioned teamwork.”

“Bunch of blue-collar guys,” Corum interjected.

“You never doubt if someone has your back,” Harbaugh added from the podium.

Michigan running back Blake Corum is hoisted into the air by offensive lineman Trevor Keegan.

Michigan running back Blake Corum is hoisted into the air by offensive lineman Trevor Keegan after scoring a touchdown in the second half of the Wolverines’ championship win Monday.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

So much of the narrative around this Michigan team centered on the Wolverines’ methods of advanced scouting and whether or not the iPhone footage collected by former analyst Connor Stalions’ network of spies gave them the advantage that led to back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championships.

No evidence has been brought to light connecting Harbaugh to Stalions’ alleged scheme, but that didn’t stop the Big Ten from suspending him for Michigan’s three biggest games of the season.

“We’re innocent,” Harbaugh said, “and we stood strong and tall because we knew we were innocent.”

Sunday, one day before the Wolverines played in their first national championship game in program history, Harbaugh let reporters in on one aspect of his program’s film review techniques that hadn’t been revealed previously. He said he had Michigan watch nature videos of a “pack of wolves” because they were the “perfect fighting unit.”

In the first quarter Monday, whether it was Michigan’s scouting of wolves or the actual Huskies in front of them, the Wolverines looked well-prepared for the spotlight. The Michigan offense brought calculated aggression, happily running the ball down Washington’s throat until Edwards sped out of a gaping hole to the left side for a 41-yard touchdown burst.

Not long after it was announced that Edwards’ touchdown run was the second-longest in CFP final history, Edwards squeaked through the line again untouched for a 46-yard touchdown, giving the Wolverines an early 14-3 lead.

When a Corum 59-yard run on the next drive ended the first quarter, the Wolverines already had compiled 174 rushing yards and seemed to be making an emphatic statement about what the four West Coast additions to the Big Ten could expect from their new league.

Defensively, the Wolverines’ ferocious front affected Penix far more than the Texas pass rush was able to in the Sugar Bowl. Penix uncharacteristically missed a wide-open Rome Odunze on a fourth-and-seven in the second quarter, but the Wolverines could not add to their 14-point cushion.

Washington defensive end Bralen Trice walks off the field following the Huskies' loss in the national championship game.

Washington defensive end Bralen Trice walks off the field following the Huskies’ loss in the national championship game.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

You can only give Penix so many opportunities before he’s going to hurt a defense. Finally, in the last minute of the first half, Penix hit Jalen McMillan on fourth-and-goal from the three, pulling Washington to within 17-10 at halftime.

After a terrifying start , it was Washington who ran to the locker room being serenaded by its fans with chants of “Let’s go Huskies!”

But on the first play of the second half, Penix threw an interception to Michigan cornerback Will Johnson. Michigan’s defense simply wouldn’t relent, holding Washington to just one field goal in the second half and 301 total yards. Meanwhile, Michigan rushed for 303.

The whole Harbaugh clan came to Houston to witness Michigan’s coronation, with older brother John congratulating Jim on the field after the game.

“I’ll check the biggest box. For me personally just to be a part of the family, with my dad who won a national championship at Western Kentucky in 2002, and John Harbaugh who won the 2013 Super Bowl. I get to sit at the big person’s table now. That feels really good. Just to be the only coach in your family that hasn’t won a national title or Super Bowl, the championship. That feels great, personally.”

Harbaugh promised his players earlier this season that if Michigan went 15-0 he would consider getting his first tattoo.

“I have no ink on my body,” Harbaugh said. “No tattoos anywhere. But I did say that to our players. It’s 15-0. I don’t know if it’s my left or right. Right-handed quarterback, I’ll probably get it on my right. And then an ‘M,’ too, an ‘M’ that’s an amazing blue ‘M.’ “

Harbaugh was at his quirky best as Monday inched toward Tuesday, and he did not want to move on from this moment too quickly. Predictably, he was asked one last time about his desire to add a Super Bowl to his ledger.

“I just want to enjoy this,” Harbaugh said. “I hope you give me that. Can a guy have that? Does it always have to be what’s next, what’s the future?”

Will USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington have to deal with a steely Harbaugh-coached Michigan program that will lord over the sport for the next eight months?

The hope among the Wolverines is that the winning culture Harbaugh brought back to Michigan is built to last, even if he does pursue a Super Bowl once again.

“We just won a national championship,” Edwards said. “He can do whatever he wants to do. He deserves it. Whatever choice he makes, the University of Michigan will be happy, his heart will be happy, his family will be happy, his players and coaches will be happy. If he stays, awesome. If he goes, awesome. He deserves it.”

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