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From self-inflicted wounds to big plays: How Michigan overcame disaster in the Rose Bowl

Unforced errors almost proved to be disastrous for Michigan, but every mistake was made up for with a bigger play in the Rose Bowl.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 CFP Semifinal - Rose Bowl Game - Alabama vs Michigan Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Jacob Singer Jake Singer is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Political Science. He is a Michigan Football and Basketball Writer for SB Nation's Maize and Brew

The Michigan Wolverines, having steamrolled most of their opponents this season, faced their ultimate test of resilience and character in the highly anticipated game against Alabama.

Through the first three games, Michigan experienced the most self-inflicting mistakes it had during the season (against non-Power Five opponents) such as two muffed kickoffs and three interceptions against Bowling Green. Still, the Wolverines fixed these issues for Big Ten Conference play. Despite a season marked by dominant performances, Michigan’s true test of resilience and character came in the biggest game on the biggest stage.

With a month to prepare against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Wolverines played with their backs against the wall from the first snap, and a true test of adversity settled in.

On the first snap, quarterback J.J. McCarthy narrowly avoided a turnover, with the ball almost landing in Alabama’s hands close to the red zone. Despite it not resulting in a turnover due to Caleb Downs’ foot stepping out of bounds before the interception, the drive resulted in a three-and-out and Michigan looked tight.

On the subsequent Alabama possession, the Wolverines garnered two sacks on Jalen Milroe, but freshman returner Semaj Morgan muffed the punt and gave the ball right back to Alabama at the spot near the almost-interception. On the ensuing drive, Mike Sainristil took a bad angle on the Tide’s Jase McClellan that led to a 34-yard touchdown.

The tension on the Michigan sideline was palpable, yet Jim Harbaugh’s steady demeanor instilled a sense of calm in the team.

“Whatever situation that arises, (Harbaugh) has been there before,” McCarthy said. “Just having somebody that I can look to after a great play, a bad play like the first play the game, I was expecting to get chewed out and all this but with Coach Harbaugh, it was just, ‘hey man, good to get that out of your system. Let’s roll now.’ So it’s just little stuff like that where coaches that haven’t been in that situation before and haven’t had the experience of playing in the Rose Bowl maybe get emotionally off balance and just are freaking out at their quarterback, that’s not him.”

On the next drive, Michigan went down the field for a five-minute, 75-yard drive to tie the game, 7-7.

In a strategic move in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore called for a risky but inventive double-pass that made running back Donovan Edwards throw the ball back to McCarthy across the field. The throw was high, however, and the quarterback had to make a one-handed catch just to save a turnover and then proceeded to turn around and throw a 20-yard completion with Dallas Turner barreling down on him.

“J.J., I mean, the catch he made,” Harbaugh said. “I thought the one-handed catch he made on the trick play, the throwback, and then turns, wheels and throws the ball. There was a ton of great plays made in pressure moments.”

That catch and throw resulted in a 38-yard touchdown a few plays later, but more issues arose. Following that impressive score from Tyler Morris, a bad snap on Michigan’s extra point kept the lead at six instead of seven.

Despite Michigan’s mounting comeback, Alabama didn’t waver, making strategic plays that kept the game tightly contested.

Into the fourth quarter, the Wolverines faced another uphill battle. Down 17-13, kicker James Turner lined up for a 49-yard field goal. Turner had only missed two field goals and one extra point all season (weeks one and four), yet he missed in this moment, keeping the deficit at four.

The lead would grow to seven off of a made field goal by Alabama and Michigan would need to respond again. With three minutes remaining, the Wolverines were driving down the field. On a 4th-and-2, McCarthy completed a pass to Blake Corum that resulted in a 35-yard gain. However, Michigan committed another mistake, this time, Roman Wilson blocking a Tide defender in the back that negated 15 yards of the 35. Wilson would make up for this mistake, however, by catching two passes for 33 yards and scoring the game-tying touchdown.

“I am just really proud of those guys,” Harbaugh said. “Roman Wilson had a block in the back that really could have cost us in that big drive at the end he comes back and makes a phenomenal catch and scored a touchdown. The mental toughness that takes for an individual to be able to do that.”

The Wolverines had one last opportunity to score and win the game before overtime, forcing a punt with 54 seconds left. Morgan, who had been returning punts all game was replaced by freshman, Jake Thaw, who muffed the punt at the 4-yard line and fought to stay out of the end zone.

“I just kind of feel like those pressure situations are what makes teams great,” Mason Graham said. “We kind of slipped up in that (muffed punt) moment, but we were able to regain it, obviously goes down at the one (yard line), so we were able to have a chance to keep on playing so just letting us line up again. And he did his job.”

McCarthy added: “I think it was actually tremendous the way (Thaw) handled the situation. He didn’t freak out. You know, their punter was outstanding. I mean, some of the kicks he had were just like something I hadn’t seen before, but the way he handled it, not freaking out once the ball was going towards the endzone and accidentally kicking it or muffing it again, and making sure that he didn’t fumble it when he got hit by those three guys. So there’s a lot of good that he did in that scary situation that I feel like needs to be appreciated. And that’s just a testament to our training. The mindset that we’ve forged over the last year.”

In overtime, Michigan took the lead quickly on a Corum touchdown run and forced a 4th-and-goal from the three yard line. In a game filled with mistakes and self-inflicted wounds, Alabama coach Nick Saban called a quarterback draw for Jalen Milroe. While the Wolverines gave up chunk plays to the quarterback draw all game, everyone on the defense held their positions and Michigan went on to win the Rose Bowl.

“Rod Moore open field tackle on Jalen Milroe, he had three in the game like that,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, open field, game-saving tackles. That final play of the game, Josiah Stewart, what he was able to do to to a man 110 pounds heavier than him and Derrick Moore on that same play. And then there was Rod Moore with contain on the edge and Mike Sainristil contained on the perimeter. Pressure moments, our guys both stepped up in executing their assignment and executing the fundamentals and making a play. There was really the difference in the game so yeah, I thought our guys passed with flying colors when it came to handling the pressure.”

This hard-fought victory not only signifies a momentous achievement for the Wolverines but also sets a promising tone for their final game against the Washington Huskies.