In an exhilarating College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship game that went down to the final play, the Michigan Wolverines defeated the Washington Huskies 45-44 to capture their first national title since 1997. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy led a masterful final drive for Michigan to set up the game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired.
Back-and-Forth Game Comes Down to Final Moments
The game featured six lead changes as both offenses moved the ball effectively for most of the contest. Washington took an early 17-7 lead behind the stellar play of quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who threw for over 400 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, Michigan roared back behind McCarthy and running back Blake Corum, taking a 24-20 lead into halftime after scoring 17 unanswered points.
The second half saw Washington retake the lead twice, including a go-ahead score with just over two minutes remaining to make it 44-42. But McCarthy responded, leading Michigan on a pressure-packed 75-yard drive in the final 1:51 to get into field goal range for the win.
“It was a total team effort on that last drive,” said McCarthy after the game. “The offensive line gave me time, the receivers made terrific plays, and we just found a way to get it done.” Head coach Jim Harbaugh credited the resilience of his team. “I’m so proud of these players and how they battled,” he stated. “It’s a fantastic feeling.”
The loss was heartbreaking for Washington, who led nearly the entire way before the late Michigan rally. “You have to take your hat off to Michigan,” commented Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer. “It was an unbelievable college football game.”
Instant Classic Caps Exciting Playoff Run for Both Programs
The thrilling championship clash was the culmination of Cinderella journeys for both programs. Michigan was unranked in the preseason AP Poll but ran the table behind McCarthy’s breakthrough campaign. Their dominant 43-22 Orange Bowl semi-final win over #1 Georgia showed this team was a serious contender.
Meanwhile, Washington lost three games during the season but caught fire late behind a prolific offense led by star wideout Rome Odunze. Convincing wins over #5 Clemson and #3 TCU on the road demonstrated Washington’s ability to elevate their play when it mattered most. Their defensive stand at the end of the 51-45 Peach Bowl triumph over TCU won them a spot in the title game.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this football team and what we have been able to accomplish coming back from 3 losses,” said Coach DeBoer about his Washington squad’s journey. “The resiliency and chemistry of this group is incredibly special.”
Both Michigan and Washington were appearing in their first ever CFP National Championship game, bringing some new blood to an event often dominated by traditional powers like Alabama and Clemson. Their compelling journeys built momentum and excitement from fans nationwide heading into the clash for the coveted championship trophy.
What This Means for Both Programs Going Forward
Capturing their first national title since the glorious Lloyd Carr era signals that Michigan is officially back among the elite powers in college football. With McCarthy only a sophomore and explosive weapons like Corum returning, they appear poised to remain contenders for years to come under Jim Harbaugh.
“This puts Michigan football back on the mountaintop where we expect to stay,” declared Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel. “We fully expect to remain annual championship contenders with Jim Harbaugh leading this program.”
While certainly disappointed by the title game loss, Washington looks well-positioned for future success after their magical season. Coach DeBoer has the Huskies playing an extremely entertaining brand of offensive football led by Penix Jr. and Odunze. Their star-studded offense could make them Pac-12 favorites and contenders once again next season.
“I think we sent a message about this program and where we are headed,” said Penix Jr. after the game about Washington’s future outlook. “This sting will fuel us…we fully expect to finish the job next time we get here.”
This game showed these two outstanding teams have the pieces in place to remain national factors going forward in what could develop into a budding rivalry at the top of college football.
Title Game Ratings Soar as New Playoff Format Pays Dividends
The dramatic Michigan victory over Washington delivered a hugely successful conclusion from a ratings perspective to the first 12-team CFP format. This title game registered the highest television ratings for the National Championship game since the inaugural playoff following the 2014 season.
“These two compelling Cinderella stories coming from programs with huge fan bases was exactly the kind of matchup we hoped for when conceiving an expanded playoff,” said Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the CFP. “It really validated the new format with such an exciting final game bringing blockbuster ratings.”
The expanded playoff field allowing for upstart contenders like Michigan and Washington dramatically increased interest and viewership. Their fresh storylines enabled the championship broadcast to achieve a 16.2 rating, translating to over 25 million viewers by some estimates.
“I give so much credit to the CFP committee for having the courage to expand the playoff to 12 teams,” commented Joel Klatt, lead college football analyst for Fox Sports. “This rating just shows that fans will turn up when exciting new programs earn a shot.”
The exceptional viewer interest indicates this reformatted CFP structure can build momentum heading into the new 12-team model being launched in 2026. Hancock emphasized the importance of competitive balance to sustain engagement.
“We learned that creating avenues for more teams to contend keeps fans across the country invested,” he noted. “Seeing different programs rise up to reach the final keeps the playoff fresh.”
If future years can replicate the magic of Michigan and Washington’s dramatic clash, the long-term health of the college football postseason appears promising under this expanded structure. The exceptional championship game rating provides an early signal the playoff is headed in the right direction.
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