Michigan beaten at its own game as title dreams dashed by TCU

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GLENDALE, Ariz. – They walked towards the tunnel in a fog. Purple confetti flowed from the rafters at State Farm Stadium as a team picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, a team with a first-year head coach and the bravest of underdog quarterbacks burst into the midfield logo.

One of the best seasons in Michigan history was cut short, 51-45, in a loss to Texas Christian that will be as heartbreaking as it is exciting. Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team had been undone by a series of first-half mistakes and a defensive collapse the likes of which had not been seen in the past two seasons. An undefeated campaign spoiled, a chance at the first national championship since 1997 erased.

So they walked, slowly, sadly, in disbelief, to a dressing room that will surely be bathed in silence. Twice the Wolverines made it to the College Football Playoff and twice they didn’t have a chance to compete at all.

Too little and too late: With each passing week and each heavy demolition of another Big Ten opponent, the questions about Michigan’s passing game grew louder, just as they did last season with quarterback Cade McNamara under center. Everyone recognized the live-wire potential of true sophomore JJ McCarthy, the former five-star recruit who supplanted McNamara earlier this season, but no one knew how he would do if asked for more than 15 or 20 times in one game. That’s the luxury of an elite rushing attack: McCarthy was rarely asked to make high-pressure throws with a score deficit.

That moment came Saturday, during Michigan’s biggest game of the season, when a first-half collapse left McCarthy trailing by 18 points. Some of that blame fell on the quarterback himself after an early interception was returned 41 yards for a score. He would repeat that mistake in the third quarter, after the Wolverines trailed by 12 on a flea-flicker to Ronnie Bell, when linebacker Dee Winters caught a short pass to run 29 yards to the end zone.

And while those two mistakes will linger in McCarthy’s mind for quite some time, his high-level play is why Michigan had any kind of chance. McCarthy completed 12 of 16 passes and threw two touchdowns in the second half alone. There were long drives to Bell (34, 44) and critical passes to Roman Wilson (five catches, 104 yards). When the air route was blocked, McCarthy ran for 49 yards on back-to-back plays to find the end zone himself.

But with one chance remaining in the waning moments, and the Horned Frogs clinging to a six-point lead, a miscommunication between center and quarterback finally stifled the Wolverines. A flustered hit, a failed fourth, and a long flight back to Michigan.

A taste of your own medicine: Before kickoff, Michigan co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore sported a T-shirt that read “Toughness on Demand” across the chest and recognized the Wolverines as the winners of the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in college football. Moore, who serves as the offensive line coach, wasn’t the only one to wear this outfit. Dominance in the trenches became the show’s calling card after taking home the award for the second consecutive year.

The main beneficiary of Michigan’s mauling style, tailback Blake Corum, spent his pregame crutches around the perimeter of the natural grass surface. He posed for photos and signed autographs for adoring fans, many of whom begged him to return for another season in 2023, and kept his smile ever-present despite the knee injury that ended his year early.

But other than a 54-yard carry by Donovan Edwards on the first play from scrimmage, after which Corum was caught on camera nodding in agreement, the most potent ground game belonged to at TCU. Michigan entered this year’s playoff with the No. 3 run defense in the nation at 85.2 yards per game, and the Horned Frogs quickly shredded it for 264 yards and three scores.

That his production continued even after starting running back Kendre Miller (eight carries, 57 yards) left the game with a lower-body injury spoke to the effectiveness of the offensive line TCU, a group that includes a consensus All-American in guard Steve Avila. and at least two future professionals. Lead backup Emari Demercado gashed the Wolverines for 8.8 yards per carry on a blistering 69-yard run to set up a short Duggan touchdown drive late in the third quarter. Demercado, who carried the ball 126 fewer times than Miller this season, more than doubled his previous season-high of 65 rushing yards with 150 on 17 attempts.

The combination of Miller, Demercado and Duggan formed a three-headed rushing attack that confounded one of the best statistical defenses in college football. A group that tackled solidly all season repeatedly missed opportunities to make sure small gains never bled into bigger chunks, but TCU gobbled up yards after contact.

And when it was finally over, the Horned Frogs had outgained Michigan by 78 yards.

Losing my cool: Much of Michigan’s success during a renaissance that led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons can be attributed to the unwavering discipline Harbaugh instilled at the nadir of his tenure, a crossroads after the underwhelming Final 2 -4 until 2020 that threatened his job security. in Ann Arbor. The returning upperclassmen of 2021 did so with a commitment to sweat equity over star power. They attacked offseason workouts led by strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, a man hailed as the unsung hero of Michigan’s back-to-back Big Ten titles, and embraced building new habits. Players and coaches made repeated references to the way the footwear was perfectly aligned in the weight room as an example of the team never taking a detail for granted.

The product on the field reflected what some described as a greater level of maturity. A year ago, starting quarterback McNamara played the type of mistake-free football that maximized the two-headed rushing attack of Hassan Haskins and Corum. Any weaknesses in a much-maligned Michigan secondary, a scapegoat during the 2020 debacle, were surrounded by an elite tandem of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo that wrecked opposing game plans.

The intensity felt even more intense in 2022 after Harbaugh signed a lucrative contract extension and retained most of the coaching staff. McCarthy played with remarkable savvy in his first season as the starting quarterback to help the Wolverines finish plus-8 in turnover margin. A defense that made such incredible strides under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald in 2021 improved in what seemed like every statistical category as another former Baltimore Raven, Jesse Minter, provided the schematic continuity Harbaugh was looking for in on the way to 13 consecutive victories.

And then his composure faded against TCU. A flurry of mistakes, mental lapses and questionable play selection turned the Wolverines upside down in a crazy first half that no player or coach will be eager to watch again. The playmaking tandem of co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss compounded two seasons of red zone woes by moving away from the personnel and power that got them here. A botched play call on fourth-and-goal was designed as a punt pass to McCarthy and ended with tight end Colston Loveland being sacked before he could throw the ball. Another short-yardage opportunity went awry when they trusted Kalel Mullings to handle the ball near the goal line only to see the converted linebacker roll into the end zone.

There were additional mistakes by McCarthy, the inaccurate placement of the ball on an out route producing a pick six that opened the scoring. Minter’s defense experienced substitution and lineup problems exacerbated by insufficient matchup. The drive was punctuated by a false start in which every offensive lineman, except for the center, buckled.

Thirty minutes of prolonged implosion. Thirty minutes they will never forget.

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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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