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By Mitch Friesenborg

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON – The awareness and presence of mind that has come to represent the defensive unit of the Michigan Wolverines was on display on November 25, the day Michigan met the Ohio State Buckeyes in the most important moment of its season to that point.

With Michigan holding on to a 30-24 lead at Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes are at their 20-yard line with 54 seconds to play. Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord drops back to pass and is hit by two Wolverines as he throws. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. catches the ball off a corner route for a 22-yard gain.

But as Harrison falls into the arms of defensive back Quenten Johnson near the sideline, Johnson wraps up Harrison, keeps him inbounds, and makes sure the clock does not stop. McCord would be picked off by Michigan’s Rod Moore two plays later to seal Michigan’s victory, the Big Ten East championship, and the hope of reaching the College Football Playoff.

Johnson’s attention to detail in that decisive moment is but one of the many examples of the way No. 1 Michigan has reached the College Football Playoff National Championship against No. 2 Washington Monday night.

The Wolverines, 14-0 for the first time in their history, are first nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 10.2 points, and second in average passing yards allowed with 150. What is possibly most impressive of all, however, is that the Wolverines have the fewest average penalties in the country 2.86 per game and are third in the nation for fewest total penalties with 40, one more than behind Minnesota and Air Force.

“We do this thing called TTG, Teach the Game,” said defensive back Mike Sainristil, one of the leaders of the Michigan defense. “You watch film on teams that have been penalized, and every week we go over the rules. Just to refresh our mind, refresh our memory, and see what it looks like when you don’t do the little things and when you do too much, when you do unnecessary things that get you penalized. [It] starts with being disciplined, and being a fundamentally sound team, which allows us to not have a bunch of penalties.”

This is no easy feat. For context, Alabama reached the Rose Bowl ranking 46th in the nation for fewest penalties per game with 5.57. The other championship contender, Washington, ranks 124th out of 130 teams with 7.64 penalties per game. Yet when Alabama came knocking on the doorstep in overtime at the Rose Bowl, when all the pressure and expectations from the multitude of Michigan fans across the nation rested on the shoulders of the Wolverines, they didn’t crack.

Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter worked as a defensive backs coach for four years on the Baltimore Ravens with Harbaugh’s brother John, and that experience has translated to teaching the young guys at Michigan. “It’s obviously a lot of correlation in what we do schematically,” he said. “I think trying to teach guys is the same at every level. I learned a lot from those guys, Eric Weddle in particular, older guys who have been in the league a long time. What do they need to know?

“Sometimes as a young coach you try to tell the guys everything,” Minter went on, “and when you teach and coach pros, you kind of start to learn what they really need to know and how you can streamline the information for the guys. So [I] certainly try to carry that here, coach our guys up and try to put them in the best position to be successful.”

Washington will become the second No. 2-ranked team Michigan will face in its final four games. Washington’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award, preventing Michigan from winning the award for a third consecutive season. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl victory over Texas.

Edge rusher Braiden McGregor is confident in the ability of the Wolverines. “It’s kind of like last week, everybody kept talking about how great Bama was, how big their O-line was, and we went out there and dominated them,” McGregor said. “We won the game on a fourth-down stop on the goal line and both our edge guys just knocked their tackles back. I think playing a team that won the award, they obviously have that sense of confidence, and they think that they are the best O-line. And it’s up to us to go out there and show them that our O-line is the best.”

One week after the emotional Rose Bowl victory, Michigan’s discipline and focus in big moments may very well become a decisive factor on a championship night.