Michigan’s Rose Bowl victory was the quintessential Jim Harbaugh game

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PASADENA, Calif. – As the evening air in Southern California cooled and descended deep into the lower reaches of the Rose Bowl on Monday, the greatest college football coach of all-time was being driven back to his locker room. 

It is something that Nick Saban has done plenty of times before, even if was in the wake of an all-time classic of a College Football Playoff semifinal contest that saw Alabama come up short 27-20 in overtime to top seed Michigan. 

Yet there was the Crimson Tide coach, along for the ride on a golf cart that was attempting semi-successfully to make its way past a throng outside the Wolverines’ locker room to reach the Tide’s. As it did, the 72-year-old coach who famously doesn’t show much emotion, let out a halfhearted grin.

Was it a twinge of jealousy mixed with a modest dash of respect? That is the moment that every opponent coach, every player, every staffer connected with a college football program relishes. 

It’s one Saban has experienced plenty but also one that had long eluded Michigan and its head coach, Jim Harbaugh, up until sophomore rusher Derrick Moore emerged through a mass of bodies in the shadow of the goal line on fourth down in the second possession of overtime on Monday, meeting Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe at the line and bringing him down. 

Now Harbaugh can soak that feeling in too.

[Michigan claws back in Rose Bowl, tops Alabama in OT to make CFP final for first time]

“When I coached with Bo Schembechler back in ‘77, ’78, ’79, we came here three times and lost all three times. On that fourth-down play, I swear to god that was flashing in my mind – the number of times that we’ve walked out of here with disappointment,” said Jack Harbaugh, the former Wolverines defensive backs coach and patriarch to a cadre of coaches that includes his son, Jim. “Today, with this win and the way it took place, there’s a good lord looking after us and he gave us that opportunity to celebrate. The beautiful thing is we’ve seen this team all year and today they just encapsulated it.” 

Indeed, this was a quintessential Jim Harbaugh game from a quintessential Jim Harbaugh team. 

Captain Comeback’s crew not only drove 75 yards in eight plays as the fourth-quarter clock wound down under two minutes, but it made light work of the third-ever CFP overtime game by outplaying the mighty SEC champions and being more physical. When a key play was needed down the stretch, it came from the players that their coach had made the focal point of this run during his ninth season at his alma mater – the very same players he and he alone was convinced were the missing pieces to get Big Blue to the big game at the end of the year.

“When we scored and forced overtime, I knew it was over,” said tailback Blake Corum, who scored the winner on a 17-yard scamper on the second play of overtime to give him the program’s single-season rushing touchdown record. “They had us on our heels, but we were able to capitalize. As soon as the game went to overtime, I knew we had the momentum. I knew that we were going to be victorious.” 

Rose Bowl: J.J. McCarthy, Michigan outlast Jalen Milroe, Alabama in OT thriller | No. 1 CFB Show

Rose Bowl: J.J. McCarthy, Michigan outlast Jalen Milroe, Alabama in OT thriller | No. 1 CFB Show

Corum, who finished with 83 yards on the ground and notched two catches (one for a score in the first quarter) was the natural focal point for an offense which has specialized in being a throwback amid more high-flying attempts to throw the ball around the yard. Though he is the smallest of the team’s starters at just 5-foot-8, it was ultimately he who proved to be the biggest despite going up against a sea of defenders who sported five-star recruiting rankings or another half dozen with first- or second-round draft grades.

At this time last year, he was sitting on the sideline of a semifinal game with crutches nearby. Everybody would have understood had Harbaugh eased him into things given the presence of the more dynamic Donovan Edwards on the roster, but there would be none of that for the overlooked Virginian whose spirit is on full display with every yard after contact or buoyant smile following a victory that is only matched by his head coach. 

Appropriately, the team is a remarkable 31-0 when Corum finds the end zone. 

“It’s just our bread and butter. I mean, we ran that play probably a thousand times,” said left guard Trevor Keegan of the final offensive snap. “[Corum] was running like an animal. Just full trust in each other and trust in our game plan.”

[Highlights from both CFP semifinal games]

That also included key plays from the quarterback’s quarterback in J.J. McCarthy, the player Harbaugh has previously said will leave as the best signal-caller in school history. Such a statement can typically elicit an eye roll given the heroics the coach had during his time as a player and the presence of a certain Tom Brady, who undoubtedly holds that title at the pro level but has a tad more complicated legacy on campus despite leading Michigan’s last prior win over Alabama back in 2000, his final college game.

McCarthy, who finished with 221 yards and three touchdowns to go with 25 yards rushing, was under siege most of the game with a hand in his face on nearly every one of his 27 attempts. After one first-half trick play where he was driven into the ground by Tide pass rusher Dallas Turner, a chunk of the hallowed Rose Bowl turf was so ingrained into the QB’s helmet that teammates had to help him pick it out of his facemask so that he could see on the next snap. 

Yet there he was, the five-star quarterback that Harbaugh had made a mission to bring to Ann Arbor three years ago, completing six of his final seven passes in the fourth quarter and leading a 75-yard game-tying effort down the field. It was a legacy drive for McCarthy as much as his coach when the pressure was at its highest, avenging the pair’s lone loss with the junior in the starting lineup across 27 games.

“The fight started Week 1. Everything we’ve been through, all the adversity, it’s a team that goes through that adversity that can’t get to the heights we’re trying to reach,” said McCarthy, putting last season’s memories of turnovers and missed opportunities in a loss to TCU in the Fiesta Bowl fully and firmly behind him. “I feel like we just did a tremendous job of responding to all that and pushing through, and we’ve got one more game left, so the job is not finished yet.”

The job he is referring to is naturally the national title game next Monday in Houston (7:30 p.m., ESPN) but might as well describe what his coach has attempted to do during this run that finds the entire Michigan enterprise on the cusp of the school’s first national title since 1997. It has been one thing to win and reach the point where the Wolverines are 60 minutes from holding up the only trophy that matters in the final game of the season. It’s another thing to do so amid the constant chaos that the 2023 campaign has brought upon Harbaugh and team.

There was the initial four-game suspension the head coach was supposed to serve as a result of an NCAA infractions case, later changed to three as the school argued with enforcement staff over just what was enough in an episode that eventually saw three different assistants elevated to the top job over the course of the non-conference slate. 

Then there was the scandal that has overshadowed everything that has gone on in the program after the NCAA and Big Ten revealed an alleged in-person scouting scheme that featured now-former analyst Connor Stalions at the heart of things. A second Harbaugh suspension ensued from there, which could have derailed the promising season amid a back-loaded slate that featured top 10 opponents such as Penn State on the road and bitter rival Ohio State hellbent for revenge at the Big House.

Players didn’t seem to pay much attention to the outside noise, genuinely believing in what their head coach was saying in terms of tuning it out and focusing on what was in front of them. “Michigan vs. Everybody” became the rallying cry and it sure seemed like that was the case whether one was outside Schembechler Hall or on Team 144 itself. 

Such an ethos was created by their head coach for moments like Monday night, where all the resiliency of the past six months paid off in not flinching during those critical moments where the Rose Bowl teetered on the line.  

“That was glorious. It was a tremendous football game,” Harbaugh said after meandering his way to eventually comment on winning in the “Granddaddy of Them All” for the first time as player or coach. “It was an epic game. Glorious is how I feel. That was a tremendous win.

“The team was just not going to be denied.”

While it will be up to either No. 2 Washington to determine that on the field next week, Harbaugh himself will be the true judge as to how the ongoing narrative around him and Michigan is written in the end. 

[Washington holds off Texas to reach CFP title game for first time]

Sugar Bowl: Michael Penix Jr. and No. 2 Washington hold off No. 3 Texas | No. 1 CFB Show

Sugar Bowl: Michael Penix Jr. and No. 2 Washington hold off No. 3 Texas | No. 1 CFB Show

Beating Saban and vanquishing the sport’s gold standard to get rid of the 0-2 monkey in the College Football Playoff is enough to solidify his place nuzzled next to Schembechler and Lloyd Carr among the annals of the winningest team of all-time in college football. Fewer still can deny that the favored son guiding his alma mater back to the mountain top would be an easy enough tiebreaker to see Harbaugh occupy an even sweeter spot among Wolverines lore. 

The bigger question might be if this run itself is it for Harbaugh, a mercurial character in his own right who has always harbored the hope to win in the NFL as much (if not more) than what he’s doing now in a place he considers his hometown. 

“To be honest, this game was far, far more exciting than the [Super] Bowl,” Jack Harbaugh said with a grin that underscored his statement in referencing the time sons Jim and John faced off against each other. “When you have two sons playing in the game, you realize at the end of the game that there’s going to be one that’s good and one that’s not good. So it’s a bit of a trying situation.”

He is not alone in feeling it’s a trying situation right now. Athletic director Warde Manuel has had a contract extension in front of his coach for weeks and confirmed he will try to get pen to paper – on the flight home from Pasadena if need be. 

Few know what Harbaugh will ultimately do. It’s possible this is just the start of the run that sees him reach the same lofty heights of the man he just beat from Tuscaloosa. There’s also a non-zero chance that the Rose Bowl was the denouement for Harbaugh’s tenure one way or another regardless of what happens in Houston.

“Like him, it’s all about the team. And we all follow his lead. I think he’s the best head coach in the world,” said assistant Jay Harbaugh, the third generation bearing his last name to wear the maize and blue around Ann Arbor as a coach. “To be able to be together the way that he models, it’s incredible. It’s a little bit hard to find the right words to describe how cool it is.”

It’s easier than you think.

The coach of the moment beat the coach of a lifetime. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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