PASADENA, Calif. — The Michigan defense knew Jalen Milroe was coming — all 6-foot-2, 220 pounds of the Alabama quarterback. He charged straight up the middle on the play that would decide the arc of Michigan’s season, this Rose Bowl semifinal and Jim Harbaugh’s way of doing, well, everything.
This was the kind of knowledge gained through film study, staying late for practice and a little bit of common sense. Alabama and Milroe lived on explosive plays this season. Michigan relied on stoning those plays. Something had to give, even it was obvious what was coming.
“The word is ‘attack,’ right?” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. “… The ball is going to be in [Milroe’s] hands. He’s their best player. He’s super versatile. … We wanted to force the issue and not sit back and wait.”
Sometimes, it’s best not to overthink these situations. On fourth-and-goal from the Michigan 3-yard line in overtime, Milroe threw his body right up the A gap — that fierce nether region on either side of the center — where Michigan has made its living on both sides of the ball under Jim Harbaugh. At that moment, a rock-solid quarterback was stopped for no gain and more than a giant was slayed.
For once in this at-times tortured season for No. 1 Michigan, accusations and innuendo were stuffed just like Alabama’s quarterback. They at least were overshadowed by the momentous result that put the Wolverines in a position to play for their first national championship in 26 years.
“We don’t care anymore,” Harbaugh said. “Don’t care what people say.”
The (accused) sign stealers became heart breakers and soul crushers on Monday night in a 27-20 win over No. 4 Alabama. Milroe and the Crimson Tide just happened to be in the way.
“We knew exactly what was going to happen,” Michigan linebacker Junior Colson said of the game’s final play. “When the moment gets tough, you go to your best player, and they went to their best player and we were right there to stop it.”
It has taken nine years since he arrived at Michigan, but Monday night was Harbaugh’s proof of concept. It was his crowning Michigan Man achievement — at least for now. In an age of offensive explosion, his version of bully ball has definitely proved it can work.
It largely had already. Michigan is playing its third straight playoff after going 0-2 in its first two appearances. Its point differential alone in 2023 (354 points) was more than 67 teams scored all season. Its defense is threatening to become the first to surrender fewer than 10 points per game since Alabama in 2011.
But Harbaugh and Michigan needed to take this next step. Needed it badly, in fact. Michigan needed to prove a philosophy that road-graded the Big Ten could work at the next level. That next level being the conference in which Alabama plays, the SEC.
You might have noticed the Strength Everywhere Conference has won 13 of the last 17 national titles. For the first time since Oregon and Ohio State played in the inaugural 2015 CFP National Championship, the SEC will not at least play in the final game of the season.
Michigan was tougher, stronger, faster. It looked like an SEC team.
“Finally doing this, especially against Alabama, especially against a great coach like Alabama’s [Nick Saban], it’s definitely a turning point for the program,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett said.
There was a sense of desperation in the air prior to the game. A core of the Michigan team departs this offseason, and Harbaugh’s NFL flirtations have become a distraction.
Lose this one, and Harbaugh/Michigan become the coach/team that can’t win the big one. If not Monday, then when?
“The words you used are pretty good — the proof of concept,” said special teams coach Jay Harbaugh, Jim’s son and a senior member of the staff whose unit struggled massively Monday night. “It’s holding guys accountable, tell[ing] them the truth. Those things sound cliché, but they’re the truth. This definitely validates that.”
Jay has seen his dad post six 10-win seasons in his nine years, though none of them really addressed a larger issue. Michigan has only had one split national championship (1997) to its name since 1948.
The tone for this game was set in late 1968 when Michigan hired a 39-year-old up and comer named Bo Schembechler from Miami (Ohio). It was Bo who instilled the grit and physicality and determination that led to Michigan’s greatest heights. He never won a national championship but developed the DNA that infused Michigan’s effort Monday night.
Schembechler, a benevolent tyrant, almost kicked Jim Harbaugh off the team when the freshman was 10 minutes late for a meeting. Almost. Harbaugh went on to have a stellar career with the Wolverines, becoming a beloved icon embraced by his former coach. Harbaugh’s last college game — a loss to Arizona State — was 38 years ago to the day of this Rose Bowl.
Schembechler died in 2006 on the eve of that year’s Ohio State game.
“I only met him once,” Jay Harbaugh said of Schembechler. “From everything that I heard, I would say that [legacy is] true. You tell somebody Michigan is playing, there is a certain type of football that you’re expecting. We like that. We take pride in that. We want people to turn on the TV and see that. I would imagine he’d look down and be happy to see that type of football being played.”
Even though Milroe had rallied Alabama back from a 13-7 deficit — that felt like 27-7 given how Michigan controlled the game — the key player to the Crimson Tide’s resurgence this season never was completely comfortable.
Milroe was sacked six times, four in the first half. He fumbled an incredible four times, losing one. Michigan’s defense had 10 tackles for loss. It was more than that, though. A Michigan offensive line hurt by a season-ending injury to guard Zak Zinter stood up to Alabama.
That desperation had turned to anger for some.
“I grew up in Georgia,” Barrett said. “That’s all I really heard about. People from down South telling me, Bama’s this, SEC’s that. All we heard about all December was how fast, how big, how strong they were. All we could say was, ‘So what?’ All that mattered was what happened between these white lines.”
When it came to winning time, Alabama uncharacteristically blinked. It got something in its eye because Michigan put it there. Alabama had rallied back to lead 20-13 with 4:41 remaining. Michigan then quickly put together an eight-play, 75-yard drive centered around one of the biggest plays of the season. On fourth-and-2 from his own 33, quarterback J.J. McCarthy hit running back Blake Corum on a wheel route for 35 yards. Part of the yardage was negated by a block-in-the-back penalty, but the play kept the drive and the season alive.
McCarthy later told CBS Sports he had found a similar play on film from the 2020 Citrus Bowl, the teams’ last meeting won by Alabama, 35-16. That day, QB Shea Patterson hit RB Hassan Haskins. One interesting nugget from that film study: In January 2020, McCarthy was a 16-year-old high schooler. Current Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore was the Wolverines’ tight ends coach.
“We knew it was going to be a gotta-have-it play,” said McCarthy, who before Monday had thrown one touchdown pass since Oct. 21. Against Alabama in the Rose Bowl, he tossed three.
“When you play a team like this, you gotta go back years to figure things that work against them because not many things do,” Moore said.
Four plays later, McCarthy hit wide receiver Roman Wilson with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tie the game and ultimately force overtime.
“We just didn’t finish the last four minutes of the game like we would like to,” Saban said.
The bullies had been bullied. And in overtime, the simple bludgeoning was completed. Corum ran it in for the winning score from 17 yards out on Michigan’s opening possession. When Alabama got its turn and put the game was in Milroe’s hands, Michigan snatched it away with one final definitive stop.
The A gap was plugged. The season was saved. Michigan didn’t overthink it. Somewhere, Bo was smiling. Bully ball won alongside the Wolverines.
“Jim has a saying he uses every now and then, ‘It’s so simple, it just might work,’ Jay Harbaugh said. “The blocking, the tackling, the lifting, the training … getting good at football by playing more football.”