Sports

Michigan stymies Michael Penix Jr., Washington to claim first national championship since 1997 season

By Lauren Merola, Max Olson, Austin Meek, Jim Trotter and Nicole Auerbach

It’s been 26 years, but finally, no one has it better than Michigan.

The Wolverines rushed for 303 yards and held flame-throwing Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in check to emerge as the College Football Playoff national champion with a 34-13 defeat of the Huskies on Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston. The win marked Michigan’s first national title since 1997 and the completion of a long-anticipated return to the top of college football under head coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Wolverines, who entered the night ranked second in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game, held the Heisman Trophy runner-up Penix to 255 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 27-of-51 passing, well below the usual output from the nation’s passing yards leader (4,648). Washington’s explosive offense finished with just 301 total yards, as injuries to Penix and running back Dillon Johnson limited the Huskies’ effectiveness.

Michigan running back Blake Corum finished with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns to set the school’s single-season touchdown record (28), padding the margin after backfield mate Donovan Edwards scored the first two touchdowns of the game, nearly doubling his own season total in one quarter. By the time Michigan held a 14-3 advantage with 2:23 to go in the first quarter, it had 115 rushing yards. Washington had allowed only two rush plays of 40-plus yards all season before Monday, when it let up three such rushes in the first half, including Edwards’ two touchdowns.

Washington appeared to regain some momentum by cutting the lead to 17-10 before halftime, but Penix threw an interception to Michigan defensive back Will Johnson on the first play of the third quarter, then hobbled to the sideline after a lineman stepped on his ankle during the play. The Huskies defense came up big, with the help of two Michigan penalties, to only surrender a field goal and keep the game within reach. Down 27-13 with less than five minutes to play, Penix tried to thread a pass to wide receiver Jalen McMillan on fourth down but was picked off by Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil, who ran it back 80 yards before Corum punched in the final score of the night.

“I just feel like it came down to executing,” Penix said postgame. “I missed a couple of throws, just a couple of reads on routes and stuff like that. Just small details within our system that we do great all the time.”

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After the game, Penix had noticeable trouble walking off the field but said that “no matter what, I was going to make sure I finished it for the guys.”

“I’m not healthy, but I’ll be there. I’m good. It’s nothing major. I know that for sure,” he said. “I talked with the doctors and stuff like that. It’s nothing major. If I had to play tomorrow, I’ll play.”

 

“I’m just super proud of this team and how far we’ve come, always being the underdog,” Penix said. “This is the only time you all were right, but we were able to fight and push through so much adversity and just people doubting us and not believing us throughout the season. To get to this point, it’s a blessing.”

What the title means for Michigan

Michigan finally broke through and brought home a national championship in a year that at times felt more like a wild season of reality TV. This team had the right stuff to finish the job after consecutive CFP semifinal losses in 2022 and 2023, won its third consecutive Big Ten title thanks to gritty wins over Penn State and Ohio State, kept fighting for an overtime triumph against Alabama in the Rose Bowl and, in its biggest test yet, shut down Washington and its prolific offense. This was a special team on a path to destiny.

And that path was littered with drama, from Harbaugh serving a three-game suspension to start the season to the in-season investigation into Connor Stalions’ impermissible signal stealing operation to another three-game Harbaugh suspension served up as his team landed in State College, Pa. Through it all, no matter who was coaching or who they were playing, these Wolverines were undeterred. They had the No. 1 defense in college football, experienced leaders who refused to lose and the poise to play their best in their biggest games. — Max Olson, college football senior writer

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Edwards shines when the spotlight is brightest

Edwards has a reputation for showing up in big moments. He wasn’t much of a factor for much of this season, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in a limited role. But in the national championship game, big-game Edwards reappeared in stunning fashion.

Edwards opened the game with a 41-yard touchdown burst and scored again on Michigan’s next drive with a 46-yard run. Edwards laid the groundwork for Michigan’s victory and Corum finished it, plunging into the end zone from 12 yards out to give the Wolverines a two-touchdown lead.

The two-headed rushing attack Michigan envisioned with Corum and Edwards didn’t materialize for much of the season, but it showed up in the biggest game of the year. Both players topped 100 yards on the ground, with Edwards rushing for 104 and Corum rushing for 134. When the Wolverines run the ball that way, nobody can stop them. — Austin Meek, Michigan beat writer

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What happened to Penix?

Statistically, it was not the worst performance of Penix’s brilliant season. But considering the stakes, it felt like it.

One week after putting on a dazzling performance in a College Football Playoff win over Texas, Penix was beaten and beaten down, with he and his Washington teammates falling to Michigan in the national title game. The pinpoint accuracy and explosive plays that wowed observers against the Longhorns were nowhere to be found Monday night.

He appeared in physical pain by the end, though the loss of a perfect season likely hurt more. There were opportunities for big plays, but Penix was uncharacteristically off on several opportunities. And when he was on target he was hurt by dropped passes. — Jim Trotter, senior writer

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Credit Washington’s defense

It looked early like Michigan was going to run away with the game — literally, after two Edwards touchdown runs of more than 40 yards. But credit Washington’s defense for its resilience and toughness for allowing the Huskies to hang around in this game, even with Penix not nearly as crisp as he was a week ago in the Sugar Bowl.

After all the fireworks in the game’s first 17 minutes, Michigan went punt, turnover on downs, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt; the longest drive the Wolverines put together only went 41 yards … until that touchdown drive at the midpoint of the fourth quarter that resulted in a Corum touchdown and put Michigan up by two scores. — Nicole Auerbach, college football senior writer

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A Pac-12 swan song

Monday night’s game was such a bittersweet moment for the Pac-12 conference. The Huskies finally broke through to reach the CFP and snap a seven-year drought for the conference and they win an exhilarating semifinal to reach a national championship game … and it’s the very last game for the Pac-12 as we’ve always known it, with 10 of its 12 teams set to depart for other power conferences next season. This Washington team has been a blast to watch all season, as was the entire Pac-12 conference, with surging teams like Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona and the national phenomenon that was Colorado. It’s a tough pill to swallow because it feels like if the Pac-12 had the season it did this fall a year or two ago, its demise would have never happened. Alas.

But the Big Ten is excited it will boast both title game participants as league members come August. A national championship game rematch will be a Big Ten conference game, on Oct. 5. — Auerbach

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(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)