PASADENA, Calif. — It was fourth-and-goal when Warde Manuel began to pace. The gentle stroll of Michigan’s athletic director peeled him away from the tension and torture he was feeling inside, another helpless bystander in a stadium stuffed with 96,000 of them. Once, twice, three times he retreated from his vantage point near the 10-yard line as an injury stoppage and twin timeouts lured the maize-and-blue faithful into a series of crescendos and decrescendos, each swell more anxious than the last.
Three yards were all that separated Alabama and its imperial head coach, Nick Saban, from a touchdown that would have sent this Rose Bowl to a second overtime. Three yards separated Michigan from a trip to the national championship game for the first time in school history. And given everything that’s happened to the Wolverines this calendar year — from the firings of one coordinator, one assistant coach and two staffers to the NCAA investigations that triggered six games’ worth of suspensions for head coach Jim Harbaugh — the play that was about to unfold felt more like fourth-and-legacy than fourth-and-goal. Strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert skipped and bounced from the huddle to the Michigan sideline. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy implored the fans behind the end zone to cheer. Reserve defensive back German Green mouthed a prayer and stared skyward as both teams returned to the field.
The call from defensive coordinator Jesse Minter was Twister, a fearless and aggressive run blitz that flooded the A- and B-gaps with bodies, all of which were hellbent on smothering the dynamic Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe. Everyone associated with Michigan’s defense presumed the Crimson Tide would keep the ball in Milroe’s hands as the game and the season teetered. The resulting quarterback draw was met with such violence and force that the tackle from edge rusher Derrick Moore helicoptered Milroe’s body until it was facing the wrong direction. “Yeah! Yeah!” Manuel screamed as he leaped into the air. Catharsis was officially uncorked: Michigan 27, Alabama 20.
“This just epitomizes the way this team has played all year,” Manuel said a short while later. “Tough, locked in, prepared, dealing with different issues that pop up in the game and finding a way. I can’t be more proud of them.”
Manuel remains among the protagonists in much of the intrigue surrounding Michigan these last few years, from his decision to halve Harbaugh’s salary following a disastrous 2020 campaign to his implementation of Harbaugh’s self-imposed suspension over alleged recruiting violations earlier this year. It was Manuel who penned an excoriating open letter that condemned new Big Ten president Tony Petitti for choosing to suspend Harbaugh a second time when the world was introduced to Connor Stalions, a former analyst on Michigan’s staff and the perpetrator of an elaborate sign-stealing operation that decoded opponents’ signals. And it’s Manuel who continues an aggressive pursuit of Harbaugh’s signature on the lucrative contract extension that would reportedly make the 60-year-old the highest-paid coach in the conference, a reward for winning three consecutive Big Ten titles amid the omnipresent chaos.
Three years of drama and two years of failure in the College Football Playoff spilled from Michigan’s players, coaches and administrators during a full-scale unburdening once Milroe crashed to the turf. The program’s on-field prowess had been questioned and quibbled with after the Wolverines were trounced by Georgia in 2021 and embarrassed by TCU in 2022, a pair of semifinal setbacks that further eroded the Big Ten’s mystique. Then the university with the motto “Leaders and Best” was loudly and unceremoniously accused of cheating. There was something poetic about finishing Monday’s game with defense after Harbaugh and his players have been on the defensive all season.
“We can’t do it without the unity that we have,” McCarthy said. “Everything that we went through this entire year made us unbreakable, and in the biggest moments we were going to show up.”
They showed up during a steely 75-yard touchdown drive in the waning moments of regulation to knot the game at 20-20, with tailback Blake Corum hauling in a gain of 35 yards through the air, McCarthy scrambling for 16 yards and wide receiver Roman Wilson turning what might have been an interception into a daring 29-yard catch and run, nudging the Wolverines toward the end zone. Wilson crossed the goal line two plays later on a beautifully schemed, smoothly executed, misdirection pass from McCarthy. It was exactly the kind of play offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore had used to confuse the Crimson Tide earlier in the game, a pointed reminder of why he’s viewed as one of college football’s brightest coaching prospects at just 37 years old, especially when considering his 4-0 record as Harbaugh’s replacement during both suspensions. He reveled in Monday night’s celebration by wandering the field with one of his daughters perched atop his shoulders and a ceremonial rose in her grasp.
They showed up again on the first possession of overtime when Corum did what Corum does, sidestepping two defenders behind the line of scrimmage and then spinning out of two tackles for a pulsating 17-yard score. All the Wolverines needed to seize control of the extra session were two carries from the player who galvanized the team last winter by unexpectedly returning for his senior year. Since then, Corum has spoken openly about the 2023 campaign being “championship or bust” given how close the team had come in back-to-back seasons, a declaration he continued to underscore during pre-Rose Bowl interviews last week. He commemorated the win by posing for photos with Michigan greats Denard Robinson and Mike Hart, both of whom are part of Harbaugh’s staff. “Who’s the best player in that photo?” a reporter asked rhetorically. It’s difficult to answer now that all three are legends.
They showed up a final time when Alabama took the field for what proved to be the game’s last possession, keenly aware that anything less than a touchdown would send the Crimson Tide home. All month, Michigan’s coaches had preached the importance of playing attack-minded defense, of taking the game to Milroe by penetrating the Crimson Tide’s backfield as often as possible. Minter believed his players would perform better if he turned them loose on stunts, blitzes and simulated pressures rather than a more passive strategy of containment. Twister unleashed six of Michigan’s 11 defenders in the quarterback’s direction. And after it worked, Manuel lifted Minter off the ground in a bear hug.
“You put the faith in your guys and your players, trust their training,” Minter said. “And when the game is on the line, you let them go play fast and don’t overthink it and do what we said we were going to do. Game comes down to the last play, we’re going to go after them. That’s what we were able to do, and [I’m] so proud of our guys for the win.”
That it ended in what amounted to a primal display of violence on a goal-line stand was equal parts fitting and apropos for a program that knew it needed to get tougher after losing 15 times in 16 chances against Ohio State from 2004-19. Harbaugh and his staff recommitted themselves to running the football, to mauling people in the trenches, to dominating more talented opponents by relying on will over skill, though there was little doubt the Wolverines were getting better, too. They renamed their inside running drill the “Beat Ohio” drill and enlivened it with sirens, blaring music and full-strength tackling the ferocity of which, players say, reminds them of gladiator movies. When they finally toppled the Buckeyes in 2021, snapping an eight-game losing streak that spanned the entirety of Harbaugh’s tenure, they changed the name again to “Beat Georgia” in acknowledgment of how badly Michigan was walloped during the program’s first trip to the College Football Playoff. Over the last four weeks, players began calling it the “Beat Bama” drill instead. And then they did.
So satisfying and symbolic was the win over Alabama that Herbert, the man most responsible for making Michigan’s players bigger, stronger, faster and tougher, was sobbing uncontrollably during the postgame fray, tears streaming down his face. It’s why ex-Wolverine tight end Jake Butt, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, was bounding up and down the field with glee. It’s why injured offensive lineman Zak Zinter, who suffered a broken leg against Ohio State, ditched his crutches and walked all over the confetti-filled grass to celebrate with his teammates and family. It’s why Manuel made his way through the crowd to Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s father, and shared a lengthy, heartfelt embrace. It’s why the Michigan locker room was still a hive of cell phones and selfies long after Milroe peeled himself off the turf.
“Do you think this was one of the best college football games of all time?” one Wolverine shouted above the noise.
“Absolutely,” a teammate yelled back.
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