After duplicate result, Michigan must search for what it’s missing

GLENDALE, Ariz. – As the roars of a wild, purple-splattered celebration echoed through the corridors of State Farm Stadium, where underdog Texas Christian disposed of a college football blueblood to advance to the national championship, every corner of Michigan the dressing room reflected the pain and tension of a team pushed to the limit.

Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, a possible second- or third-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, wore a right shoulder sling after entering the Fiesta Bowl with a left shoulder injury. Inside linebacker Junior Colson, whose arm was heavily bandaged during pregame warmups, wore a walking boot on his left foot with a beehive of ACE wraps over his collarbone. The Wolverines’ coaching staff couldn’t deliver ice quickly enough to the battery of players who were grappling and groaning from their most demanding game of the season.

“I could have easily been standing in our locker room at the end of our ballgame and congratulating the whole locker room on heroes,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “because that’s what they are, that’s what they’ve been all season… including this game. It was a great effort by both teams. So proud of my team. A less big play, a bigger play by us; a more opportunistic play by us, a less opportunistic play by them and it would be different. situation.”

TCU upsets Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl

TCU upsets Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl

And yet, for the second straight season and second straight College Football Playoff appearance, nothing is different for Harbaugh and Michigan. They got through another season beating teams with an offensive line so dominant that it became the first in history to win the Joe Moore Award in back-to-back years. They avenged last year’s loss to Michigan State, snapped an 11-game losing streak against Ohio State and dismantled Purdue to secure back-to-back Big Ten Championships for the first time since 2003-04. Then they flew into the Fiesta Bowl and were enveloped in the trenches by a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, a 51-45 loss that eliminated the Wolverines in the semifinals a year after Georgia gutted them in the Orange Bowl .

So has much really changed for Michigan? How much closer have the Wolverines come to winning a national championship? What ingredients are missing to finally push Harbaugh’s team over the top and into the winner’s circle for the first time since 1997, the last time his alma mater won it all?

“I was thinking about it a little bit,” said running back Kalel Mullings, a converted linebacker whose opening goal-line fumble proved crippling in what ended as a one-goal loss. “And it’s hard to say what it is. All these guys here, man, we work hard. And if you just look at the two (semifinal) games, this year and last year, they’re two completely different styles. And two things happened in a way completely different. So it’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing or kind of group of things that can lead to a recurring result.”

And to some extent this is true. The gut-wrenching nature of last year’s 34-11 loss to Georgia forced the Wolverines to acknowledge how unprepared they were to match the physicality and strength of a program that has established itself among the elite of the sport The dizzying giddiness of this year’s shootout against TCU gave viewers the impression that Michigan closed the gap in its pursuit of a national title. Quarterback JJ McCarthy, who completed 20-of-34 passes for 343 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and also ran for 52 yards and a third score, gave his team a much better chance of winning than his predecessor, Cade McNamara, but it has also crumbled. the biggest stage of his career.

And it’s the underlying details of Harbaugh’s latest misstep that cast a much darker shadow over the state of the Wolverines when viewed through the prism of a national title. Michigan is certainly better than it was in 2021, but remains plagued by serious, hard-to-fix flaws that add up to subpar recruiting.

– For the second consecutive season, an offensive line considered the best in college football was outscored at the line of scrimmage. Aside from a 54-yard rush by tailback Donovan Edwards on his team’s first offensive play, a rushing attack that gained 5.7 yards per carry over 13 plays saw its tailbacks limited to 2.6 yards per play in 27 attempts. The Horned Frogs, who entered the Fiesta Bowl with the nation’s 65th-ranked defense, infiltrated Michigan’s backfield to rack up 13 tackles for loss.

“Once you get behind in the game, especially a team the way we’re built, running the ball as much as we did, it’s hard to run the ball when you’re down 21-3,” Mullings said. “You’re pretty much forced to play on their terms.”

— A defensive line that held opponents to 85.2 yards per game under first-year coordinator Jesse Minter and first-year position coach Mike Elston proved just as porous against an out-of-conference opponent, until and all after TCU lost senior running back Kendre Miller to injury. The trio of Miller, backup running back Emari Demercado and quarterback Max Duggan rushed for 263 yards and three touchdowns in increasingly large chunks. Any plays that advanced on the second or third level of Michigan’s defense validated what head coach Sonny Dykes had been saying all week about his team’s blazing speed. And each successive missed tackle or poor angle by the defenders underscored how little of that precious commodity the Wolverines really had. TCU’s 488 yards of total offense broke the 277.1-yard average for Minter’s group this season.

“I think they took advantage of the space,” nose tackle Mazi Smith said. “I think up front we play a physical game. It wasn’t physical enough. Linebackers came in and filled the gaps. I think they got to the edges and scored ends. I think, you know, a lot of people look for things to blame of a loss, you know? But when we were winning every game, it was like nothing happened. So sometimes things don’t go your way. It’s the game of football, it’s a will versus a will. and they they wanted it too.”

— A year ago, the behavior of Michigan’s players and coaches during their week in the Orange Bowl suggested they had fallen victim to the trappings of South Florida. They spent too much time on the beach, became too enamored with the star power that provided their success on the field, and finally admitted those mistakes during interviews in Arizona before the TCU release. If last year’s trip was more of a vacation, they said, this year’s return to the CFP was all business. But not even his renewed dedication was enough to avoid an embarrassing trail of errors that cast doubt on the team’s preparation. There were two pick-6s thrown by McCarthy and a debilitating fumble by Mullings. There were odd play calls from co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss and head substitution patterns from running backs coach Mike Hart. There was an untimely intentional grounding penalty when Michigan could have cut the lead to three in the fourth quarter and a fumble on fourth down that rang in McCarthy’s shins to seal the win for TCU.

“Self-inflicted wounds, really,” Schoonmaker said. “Just a few things here and there. Obviously it’s a big stage and the spotlight is on, but I think that’s when this team shines best, and we did in the second half. But unfortunately it ran out of time and we didn’t we did. We didn’t have the success we needed in the first half.”

More troubling than all of this is Harbaugh’s abysmal postseason record at Michigan, where he’s been outplayed time and time again by opponents who have a full month to prepare. This year’s loss dropped Harbaugh to 1-6 in bowl games with six straight losses. Their only win came in their rookie season in 2015 when they beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

So how close has Harbaugh really come to winning a national title? The Wolverines gave it everything they had in 2022 and still came up noticeably short.

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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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