A familiar road led the 2023 Michigan Wolverines to their first National Championship in 26 years. From an undefeated regular season that finished with a six-point win over rival Ohio State at home to a Rose Bowl victory by one score to a final game against a team from Washington, this season was eerily similar to the 1997 team that won the program’s last title.
The two teams were both led by the best defense in the country and an offense that did just enough. Star cornerbacks and a great defensive lines led both defenses to ridiculous numbers. The offense was run by a smart quarterback who relied on a strong running game and very good tight ends. The two teams mirrored each other all over the field.
The 1997 defense was one of the best ever as it held seven of its 12 opponents under 10 points and gave up 16 or less to 11 of them. Iowa, believe it or not, had the most success as the Hawkeyes scored 24 points against the Wolverines. The defense gave up just 98 total points that year for a paltry 8.2 per game.
The ’97 defense was led by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, but he wasn’t alone. Marcus Ray was also in the secondary and picked off five passes, second only to Woodson’s seven. Linebackers Dhani Jones, Sam Sword (All-Big Ten) and James Hall were ferocious, while Rob Renes and Glen Steele (First Team All-American) held down the line.
It was one the best defensive units ever, but the 2023 team was just as good. The ’23 team gave up 24 or fewer points to every team it played and held seven of their first eight opponents to single digits. Only Maryland and Ohio State scored more than 15 points against the Wolverines defense which held he high-powered Washington offense to just 13 points in the national championship game.
This Wolverines defense was also led by star defensive backs, as Will Johnson and Mikey Sainristil made it almost impossible to get a passing game going. Combined they had 71 tackles, 10 interceptions and three touchdowns. They were the best defensive back duo in the country.
They couldn’t have done it without the linebackers and line, though, as linebackers Junior Colson, Michael Barret and Ernest Hausmann were the the top three tacklers on the team. Coastal Carolina transfer Josaiah Stewart and Jaylen Harrell were also great as they led the team with 5.5 and 6.5 sacks respectively. Stewart was also instrumental in blowing up the last play by Alabama in the Wolverines’ Rose Bowl win.
The offenses were similar also as they had two very good running backs who they leaned heavily on. The ‘97 team had Chris Howard and Anthony Thomas. Combined they rushed for 1,397 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The ‘23 team leaned on Blake Corum, but Donovan Edwards came up big in the title game also. Combined they had 1,742 yards and 32 touchdowns. Corum was the better of the running backs between the two teams, but Howard and Thomas were also very good.
Brian Griese led the offense as he threw for 2,042 yards for 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He relied heavily on his running backs out of the backfield and his tight ends. His top target was Howard who had 35 receptions, but he also loved hooking up with All-American tight end Jerame Tuman. Tuman had 27 receptions for 404 yard and four touchdowns including one in the Rose Bowl against Washington State.
Griese also had one favorite wide receiver in Tai Streets. Streets had 24 catches and had two touchdowns in that Rose Bowl win. Streets was a lot like Roman Wilson this year. In a season when the Wolverines didn’t have a lot of big names in the passing game, Wilson led the team with 48 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Tight end Colston Loveland was the Tuman of this team as he grabbed 45 balls for four touchdowns and had numerous big catches throughout the year.
J.J. McCarthy had better stats than Griese, but also played in three more games. McCarthy, like Griese, was very accurate and made sure he didn’t make mistakes to lose the game for the Wolverines. McCarthy was more of a threat with his legs, though.
Overall these teams used the same type of game plan to run through their opponents and use their defense to suffocate the other team. The ‘23 team would have an edge on offense, but the ‘97 team might have the edge on defense. If they played it would probably end up 7-3 with 15 punts. It would be a boring offensive game, but a glorious one for the defense.
It is a shame it took 26 years to get back to the top for the Wolverines, but they made it to the pinnacle and the ‘23 team can now join the ‘97 team as two of the best ever to wear the winged helmet.