Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA — January 2, 2024
It’s a great day to be a Michigan Wolverine Football fanatic! After two consecutive disappointing College Football Playoff (CFP) appearances, the third straight visit to the CFP paid big dividends for Jim Harbaugh’s team in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s afternoon.
Facing the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, number one Michigan looked to take the next step that had eluded them the last two seasons. Poor starts in their previous two CFP semi-final games left the Wolverines in deep holes they could not climb out of. The difference for this group of players was their resilience in taking a blow from the opponent and overcoming it, like the many obstacles they had to face in a challenging 2023 campaign.
Harbaugh suspensions, the sign-stealing scandal, and other program distractions could not derail the championship express as the maize and blue pounded out a perfect 13-0 record on their way to the Big Ten title and the top seed in the last of the four-team playoff format that determines the sports’ national champion. (Next year, the CFP will expand to 12 teams.)
Near Disaster on Michigan’s First Play of the Game
After losing the coin toss to Alabama, who deferred their choice to the second half, Michigan took the opening kickoff. On the Wolverine’s first play from scrimmage, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s tight sideline pass was intercepted by Alabama safety Caleb Downs.
Michigan hearts everywhere must have skipped a beat as it appeared early troubles were again going to plague the Ann Arbor faithful. However, an instant replay review of the catch revealed Downs was standing with the heel of his shoe on the out-of-bounds line when he leaped to make the play on the ball. Having not reestablished an in-bounds position before the interception, the pass was declared incomplete, and Michigan dodged a bullet just seconds into the game, just seven seconds into the contest.
The possession ended with a three-and-out. The Michigan defense set the tone on Alabama’s first drive, also a three-and-out, after sacking Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe twice in the three plays.
Michigan Mistake Leads to First Bama Touchdown
The Wolverines were not immune to first-quarter jitters as wide receiver Semaj Morgan, a freshman making his first start as a kick returner, muffed an Alabama punt. The recovery by the Crimson Tide resulted in a quick score just four plays later as Jase McClellan scampered 34 yards for the game’s first touchdown and a 7-0 Bama lead.
In what was to reflect the smash-mouth nature of the game, Michigan responded by driving 75 yards in 10 plays and Blake Corum taking a short pass from McCarthy to score from six yards out. The TD catch by Corum was the 56th of his career, earning him the record for the most touchdowns ever by a Michigan Wolverine.
The tough Michigan defense sacked Milroe five times in the first half, and Tyler Morris grabbed a McCarthy throw on a crossing route and tipped-toed down the sidelines for a 38-yard score that put the Wolverines up 13-7 late in the second quarter. A bad snap resulted in the extra-point attempt turning into a scramble for the football and another critical mistake by Michigan’s special teams.
A late field goal by Alabama made the halftime score 13-10.
Second Half Drama
The third quarter was like a heavyweight boxing match, with both teams laying heavy body blows on each other. Alabama put together a late drive that resulted in a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Jase McClellan again found the endzone, this time with a three-yard run after Milroe used his legs instead of his arm in moving the Tide into the red zone.
Now up 17-13, Alabama quickly got the ball back, and Milroe continued his ground assault. Only this time, the Michigan defense stiffened, and a hit by Quinten Johnson jarred the ball loose. Josh Wallace recovered the fumble at their own 49-yard line.
With a chance to retake the lead, Michigan could only advance 20 yards into Bama territory. Michigan kicker James Turner came in to attempt a field goal, but special team play again failed the Wolverines as Turner’s 49-yard attempt hooked wide to the left.
With Alabama looking to grind out a winning score, the offense ran six minutes off the clock, keeping it on the ground and pounding the Michigan defensive line. However, the Wolverines kept the Tide out of the endzone, stalling the assault with Bama having to settle for a field goal making it 20-13 with just under five minutes left in the game.
Needing a TD to Send the Game to Overtime
After the ensuing kickoff, Michigan sat 75 yards away from a potential tying touchdown. After mauling opponents late in games, Michigan now found themselves in a do-or-die situation if they wanted to keep their title hopes alive.
They moved the ball into Bama territory but faced a fourth down with two yards to go at the Alabama 40-yard line. McCarthy came up big, finding Blake Corum alone with the necessary yardage to get the first down. After taking the toss from his quarterback, Corum turned the play into a 27-yard gainer. The momentum from the long run carried Michigan on to the touchdown that pulled them to within a point of sending the game into overtime.
A perfect kick sailed through the uprights, and this New Year’s contest turned into an instant Rose Bowl classic.
Alabama again won the coin toss and opted to force Michigan to go first on offense in overtime. It only took two plays for Michigan to score, with Corum again finding the end zone with a 17-yard run. The extra point made it 27-20, with Alabama needing to match with a TD and conversion of their own to send the game into overtime number two.
Alabama took the ball to the Michigan three-yard line. On fourth and goal, the final play of the game saw Michigan’s defense wall up the line of scrimmage and stop Milroe short of the endzone.
Michigan advances to next Monday night’s Championship game in Houston, Texas. But their opponent will not be the Texas Longhorns, as they fell to Washington in the other CFP semifinal in the Sugar Bowl. The Huskies’ 37-31 triumph set up the battle of 14-0 unbeaten squads to decide the best college football team in America.
Bring it on, Go Blue!