The Wolverine

February 2024

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 59 of 67

60 THE WOLVERINE ❱ FEBRUARY 2024 C onfetti fell on Michigan foot- ball three times this season — after wins over Iowa in the Big Ten championship, Alabama in the Rose Bowl and Washington in the Col- lege Football Playoff National Cham- pionship game — and it wouldn't have happened had the Wolverines not watched others celebrate the past two seasons. U-M finally got over the hump in the CFP semifinal with a 27-20 over- time victory over the Crimson Tide, af- ter falling to Georgia and TCU on the same stage in 2021 and 2022. The Wolverines were able to turn their two-year stretch of dominance into a three-season streak, winning 40 of 43 games with just one regular-season loss since 2021, and got even further, earning the program's first national champi- onship since 1997 with a 34-13 victory over Washington Jan. 8 in Houston. With a win over TCU instead of a 51- 45 loss in the Dec. 31, 2022, Fiesta Bowl, Michigan would've headed to Los Ange- les to play eventual champion Georgia, which beat TCU, 65-7. U-M would've been a significant underdog. Instead, key players such as graduate left guard Trevor Keegan, senior right guard Zak Zinter, senior running back Blake Corum and others — all at least partially motivated by falling to the Horned Frogs — decided to run it back and returned for the 2023 season. Last January, Keegan recalled a con- versation with Zinter on the field in Glendale, Ariz. "I said, 'We've got to come back and win a national championship,'" Keegan revealed. "I told him that, and he was like, 'Yeah, we have to.' That feeling alone, I couldn't go out being a Michi- gan Wolverine with that feeling." One more year of those veterans was huge, and so was the fuel the entire team had from the loss. That proved to be a potent mix. Junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who was named Rose Bowl Offensive Player of the Game, stood on the field watching TCU celebrate with purple confetti falling. That moment stuck in his mind from January on as he prepared for the 2023 campaign. He walked off the podium during his postgame press conference and proclaimed, "We'll be back, and I promise that." "We came a long way, but in order to accomplish things like this, you've gotta go to those dark places, where every- thing's not great," McCarthy said after beating Washington. "Just the response, the urgency right after that last game last year, it was different. I knew it, just from being on the podium last year and saying that we'll be back, I knew the guys that were coming back, and I just had this feeling that we were going to be where we are right now. All the credit goes to the players on this team, every- body in that facility." "When we all decided to come back, we knew what it took to get here," Co- rum, who was injured at the end of the 2022 season, said. "We had to pay atten- tion to details, and our strength coach [Ben Herbert] actually hit on it when he was talking to us [the night before the title game], but it's the little things, it's the details — and we really locked in on those details all the way back to winter workouts, summer workouts. We were always just trying to execute at a high level and pay attention to detail. I think that's what separated us a lot." Coach Jim Harbaugh saw the work his group put in to complete the mission. "There's resolution, but resolution without repetition is meaningless," Har- baugh said. "[McCarthy] said it and did it and brought that to life. That's really cool. "It was the repetition and the focus and the goal they were trying to achieve that, OK, this is cool. This is a blast. I love being around this, and let's just keep having at it, let's keep doing it." The TCU loss will always be viewed as a missed opportunity, given that Michi- gan was a touchdown favorite, but it was also a stepping stone on the journey to- ward capturing college football's ultimate prize. Keegan, Zinter, Corum and their team- mates sat on a stage at Crisler Center Sat- urday night, Jan. 13, with the CFP national championship trophy placed in front of them as they celebrated the feat together along with an arena full of U-M fans. Business was finished. ❏ SAYFIE BLITZ ❱ CLAYTON SAYFIE No Pain, No Gain The Wolverines celebrated their national championship win over Washington, but the stage was set for that triumph by watching other teams celebrate in the playoff semifinals the past two seasons. PHOTO BY DOMINICK SOKOTOFF Staff writer Clayton Sayfie has covered Michigan athletics f or T he Wolver ine since 2019. Contact him at Clayton.Sayfie and follow him on X (Twitter) @CSayf23.

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