PASADENA, Calif. -- Just over an hour after top-seeded Michigan had outlasted No. 4 Alabama in a 27-20 overtime thriller at the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl, Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy slipped back into the empty stadium to soak it all in.
After engineering a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter and a game-winning drive in overtime that helped secure undefeated Michigan's first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship game, McCarthy was still wearing his jersey as he stood near the Alabama end zone, gazed across the 100 yards of grass and squatted down to pick up some confetti.
"This is the greatest quarterback in University of Michigan college football history," coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, with McCarthy by his side. "Got a long way to go to get to where Tom Brady eventually got to, which is the GOAT, but in a college career there's been nobody at Michigan better than J.J. I know we talk about it, an amalgamation of quarterbacks. He is that guy."
McCarthy, like he had been all season long, was not flashy, nor did he produce plays that will fill highlight reels for years to come. But when it mattered most, the junior quarterback -- who finished with 221 passing yards and three touchdowns en route to earning the Offensive Player of the Game award -- ensured his name will be remembered in Wolverines lore.
After holding a halftime lead that the Tide flipped in their favor with a touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, Michigan's title game hopes fell on McCarthy's shoulders. The past two years for McCarthy had ended here, with his team losing in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
With a third straight year of elimination in the balance, McCarthy and the Michigan offense went to work, stitching together a gritty 75-yard drive that featured a clutch 27-yard pass from McCarthy to running back Blake Corum on fourth-and-2. With 1:34 left in regulation, McCarthy found wideout Roman Wilson for a 4-yard, game-tying TD that sent the game to overtime -- only the second overtime game in the 110 editions of the Rose Bowl.
"I was calm that fourth quarter, that overtime," Harbaugh said. "I just felt like there's nothing that we couldn't overcome inside of this stadium today."
In the extra period, McCarthy said Michigan wanted the ball to start. And then the quarterback Harbaugh declared the best in Michigan history handed the baton to one of the best running backs in program history. It took only two plays -- an 8-yard run and a 17-yard touchdown run from Corum -- to put Michigan ahead.
"It was do or die," Corum said. "I made a promise to Michigan fans before the season, and I had to stand on what I said. We were able to do what we had to do to come out victorious."
"Everything I see out of Blake on a day-to-day basis, everything that Blake is -- when everyone's tired, when it's overtime, he's going to be that guy that shows out," McCarthy said. "Just like he does in sprints when we run them in the offseason. It was nothing new for me -- it was just amazing the world got to see it."
Yet despite the effort that McCarthy and the Michigan offense put forth, in the end, it fell to the Wolverines' defense to make a stop. Alabama's first overtime possession came down to fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and his staff had a pretty good idea that Alabama was going to give quarterback Jalen Milroe the ball.
"We just wanted to try to keep him from being able to dictate the terms on that play," Minter said of Milroe. "We wanted to be the aggressor."
Milroe kept the ball and attempted to rush up the middle for what would have been a game-tying score. But as he tried to cross the line of scrimmage, a swarm of defenders stopped him in his tracks, sending the Michigan faithful at the Rose Bowl into pandemonium and the team rushing onto the field.
The call, which Harbaugh later said is called "twister," has a pretty simple directive.
"We just had everybody in there," Harbaugh said. "It was everybody. Everybody there, everybody to the ball."
"We wedged all four gaps," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "We had a feeling they'd run with him."
The stop was emblematic of Michigan's physical dominance throughout the game, which showed itself over the course of the first half. The Wolverines' defensive linemen turned Alabama's backfield into their playground, limiting the Tide's running game to 43 yards in the first half (116 passing yards in the entire game), suffocating their offensive line and sacking Milroe five times.
"The whole month, everyone was talking about Bama this, Bama that. Bama fast. Bama big," defensive tackle Kenneth Grant said. "We came out and did the unthinkable. No one believed in us from the start. We came out and did it and proved everyone wrong."
For the better part of the past 15 years, Nick Saban's Alabama teams have represented not only college football's paragon, but also the sport's most physically dominant entity. But during a season in which the Tide constantly were forced to survive rather than impose their will, Michigan's physicality on both sides of the ball proved to be the end game.
In what was a throwback game that featured 13 punts, eight fumbles (only two of them lost), a missed extra point and plenty of special teams blunders, every point, every snap and every mistake was magnified. And in the end, it was Harbaugh's team -- following back-to-back seasons of losing in the CFP semifinals -- that did enough to keep alive its undefeated season and chance to win the program's first title since the 1997 season.
"First it was Penn State, Penn State were stronger than us. We had to take care of business," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. "And then it was Ohio State, we had to take care of business. Then it was Bama. Time and time again, people doubted us. It didn't matter the situation. We had to prove to the world, we had to remind to the world what this Block M means, man. Who we are."
Inside the locker room, players shared Jenkins' sentiment. One player spoke into a phone and exclaimed, "They said Michigan can't handle Alabama. They said that!" Another recounted just how much the team had felt overlooked despite the fact it was the top seed playing the fourth seed.
"It's almost been an unfair advantage, all the things that the team has gone through. We don't care anymore. Don't care what people say. Don't care about anything that comes up. We just know we're going to overcome it." Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh
"We was getting so disrespected all season, man," linebacker Michael Barrett said. "All the bulls--- that's been thrown at us, we just overcome it all together. We got some dogs in here, man. We will not be denied."
In a season bookended by two three-game suspensions for Harbaugh -- the first issued preemptively by the school amid an investigation of possible recruiting violations, and the second mandated by the Big Ten over allegations of sign stealing and in-person scouting -- and amid plenty of backlash, Michigan's players could stand on the results that had been earned on the field. They said the turmoil actually made them a better, more cohesive team.
They needed every bit of that cohesion against the Tide, who were a couple of defensive stops away from their seventh trip to the playoff final.
"It's almost been an unfair advantage, all the things that the team has gone through," Harbaugh said. "We don't care anymore. Don't care what people say. Don't care about anything that comes up. We just know we're going to overcome it."
"Just think about how far we've come, all the hardships that we went through as a team and as a brotherhood," McCarthy said. "It's been 26 years since Michigan won in this building, and the second most appearances out of any college in the entire country playing in this game. It's just amazing the way it happened. We've got one more game left, so the job is not finished yet."
Michigan next faces No. 2 Washington, a 37-31 winner over No. 3 Texas in Monday night's Sugar Bowl semifinal, in the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 8 in Houston. The Wolverines opened as 5-point favorites at sportsbook ESPN BET with the over/under total at 55.5.
"It's what it means to these guys, to our players the most," Harbaugh said when asked what the moment means to him, and what it would mean to win the national championship. "To them, to be champions. For their parents, to have their son be a champion. Their brothers and sisters, their grandparents. For our coaches. For my kids, to have a dad be champion. Then my parents.
"Just those people that get to feel what that's like ... my ecstatic joy is for our players and our coaches and our fans and our families. That they get to experience that joy of being a champion."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.