Michigan's defense ready for CFP title game after rising up with Rose Bowl goal-line stand

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Michigan defensive back Josh Wallace (12) recovers a fumble by Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe (4) during the second half in the Rose Bowl CFP NCAA semifinal college football game Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PASADENA, Calif. – All those 9-on-7 drills paid off for Michigan.

The Wolverines built their return to national relevance on a live tackling, good-on-good, run-blocking vs. run-stopping drill that became the cornerstone of their practices. And when that very situation came up on fourth-and-goal at the 3 in overtime of the Rose Bowl on Monday, Michigan’s defense turned preparation into reality.

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“I knew we were gonna win ’cause we prepare for that,” running back Blake Corum said. “We do 9-on-7 all the dang time, and we have such a stout defense, and I knew we were gonna win.”

No. 1 Michigan (14-0) will need another resolute showing from its rugged defense to win its first national championship since 1997 in the College Football Playoff title game next Monday. The Wolverines will face No. 2 Washington (14-0) and its high-powered passing offense at NRG Stadium in Houston.

How the Wolverines fared against No. 4 Alabama indicated they will be up for the challenge. When Jalen Milroe tried to run up the middle on a keeper to extend the game, edge rusher Josaiah Stewart barreled through right tackle JC Latham, allowing edge rusher Derrick Moore to knock the quarterback down after a 1-yard gain.

Every Michigan defender assumed the ball would be in Milroe’s hands on the decisive play, whether as a runner or passer.

“I think everybody was expecting him to get the ball, to be honest with you, so the fact that everybody was able to bow up, everybody knew the situation and blocked the shrug block in, and the play played out how it did,” defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said.

It was the same as in practice, only with the highest stakes imaginable. It was the culmination of a drill that has gone through many names, starting as “Beat Georgia” after Michigan was manhandled on both sides of the line of scrimmage by future NFL draft picks in the 2021 Orange Bowl, and then evolved into “Beat Ohio” to get past rival Ohio State.

“And I guess tonight it turned into ‘Beat Alabama,’” cornerback Mike Sainristil said.

“You know, we put so many hours into those 9-on-7 drills alone, from spring ball to here, and now you really see like in the biggest moments how that takes shape,” Jenkins said. “We’re all being able to throw linemen like it’s nothing.”

Sainristil had absolute confidence the defense would be able to make the stop.

“We didn’t hope,” he said. “We knew. I feel like hope is when you can’t see, hope is when you don’t have enough belief, but we trusted everything. And we’re able to go out there and get it done.”

The defense delivered throughout the afternoon, even as its counterparts on Michigan’s offense and special teams struggled. The Crimson Tide had touchdown drives of 44 and 55 yards, the first of which came after a muffed punt and the latter following the third of four Wolverine three-and-outs.

Coordinator Jesse Minter’s unit allowed 288 yards on 66 plays, a miserly average of 4.3 yards per play. Michigan conceded just two plays of more than 20 yards, limiting an explosive Milroe-led pass game to a long of 29. They held wide receiver Jermaine Burton to four receptions for 21 yards after he came into the game averaging 22.2 yards per catch.

Facing the explosive passing of Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-31 Sugar Bowl win over No. 3 Texas, Michigan will need another strong outing from its pass rush. Five of its six sacks against Alabama came in the first half, and reliably constant pressure prevented Milroe from being able to unleash the vertical passing game that had been his best attribute.

Washington was able to keep Penix clean against the Longhorns, with its Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line holding the most productive pass rush in the Big 12 without a sack. Penix took advantage of the clean pocket to deliver five passing plays longer than 25 yards.

If Michigan can’t get to Penix, it will be on Sainristil, Josh Wallace and Will Johnson to blanket an electric trio of wide receivers in Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan.

Johnson was ready for the challenge before he knew who the opponent would be next week.

“It’s on to the next one,” he said. “Our mission all year was natty or bust, so we know we got to finish the job.”


AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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