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

GLENDALE, Ariz. – They wandered towards the tunnel in a haze. Purple confetti spilled from the rafters at State Farm Stadium as a team picked seventh place in the Big 12 preseason poll, a team with a freshman head coach and bravest quarterback surged towards the midfield logo.

One of the best seasons in Michigan history was cut short, 51-45, in a loss to Texas Christian that would prove as heartbreaking as it was thrilling. Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s side had been undone by a series of first-half errors and a defensive meltdown the likes of which had not been seen in the past two seasons. A campaign without defeat wasted, a chance at the first national championship since 1997 erased.

So they walked away – slowly, sadly, in disbelief – towards a locker room certain to be bathed in silence. Twice the Wolverines made it to the college football playoffs, and twice they didn’t have a chance to compete for it all.

Too little, too late: With each passing week and each heavy demolition of another Big Ten opponent, questions about Michigan’s passing game have intensified — just as they did last season with quarterback Cade McNamara under the center. Everyone recognized the live-wire potential of true sophomore JJ McCarthy, the former five-star rookie who supplanted McNamara earlier this season, but no one knew how he would fare if called over 15 or 20 times in a game. Such is the luxury of an elite rushing attack: Rarely has McCarthy been called upon to make high-pressure throws with a deficit on the scoreboard.

That moment came Saturday, in Michigan’s biggest game of the season, when a first-half meltdown mired McCarthy with an 18-point deficit. Some of that blame lay with 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 shot within 12 on a flea flicker to clear Ronnie Bell – when linebacker Dee Winters grabbed a short pass to travel 29 yards to the end zone.

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

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

Taste your own medicine: Prior to kickoff, Michigan offensive co-coordinator Sherrone Moore wore a t-shirt that read “Toughness on Demand” across the chest and recognized the Wolverines as winners of the Joe Moore Award for Best Offensive Line in the League. college football. Moore, who also serves as an offensive line coach, wasn’t the only one wearing the outfit. Trench dominance became the program’s calling card after winning the award for the second year in a row.

The primary beneficiary of Michigan’s mauling style, tailback Blake Corum, slung his pre-game 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 maintained his ever-present smile despite the knee injury that ended his year prematurely.

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

The fact that their production continued even after starting tailback Kendre Miller (eight carries, 57 yards) retired from the game with a lower-body injury spoke to the effectiveness of TCU’s offensive line, a group that includes consensus All-American guard Steve Avila and at least two future pros. Main backup Emari Demercado notched the Wolverines for 8.8 yards per rush inflated by a grueling 69-yard run to set up a short touchdown dive from Duggan late in the third quarter. Demercado, who carried the ball 126 fewer times than Miller this season, more than doubled his previous-season record of 65 rushing yards by snatching 150 on 17 attempts.

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

And when it finally ended, the Horned Frogs had outscored Michigan by 78 yards.

Losing their temper: Much of Michigan’s success in a revival that propelled the Wolverines to the college football playoffs in consecutive seasons can be attributed to the unwavering discipline Harbaugh instilled at the nadir of his tenure, a crossroads after the disappointing finish. 2-4 through 2020 which threatened his job security. in Ann Arbor. The upperclass members who returned in 2021 did so with a commitment to sweat equity on star power. They attacked offseason workouts led by strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, a man hailed as the unsung hero of back-to-back Michigan Big Ten titles, and embraced creating new habits. Players and coaches made repeated references to how the shoes lined up perfectly in the weight room as an example of the team never taking a detail for granted.

The product on the ground reflected what some have described as an increased level of maturity. A year ago, starting quarterback McNamara played the kind of error-free football that maxed out the rushing two-headed offense of Hassan Haskins and Corum. Any weaknesses in a much-maligned Michigan secondary – a scapegoat during the 2020 debacle – were masked by an elite rushing passing tandem of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo that destroyed game plans opposites.

The intensity felt even stronger in 2022 after Harbaugh signed a lucrative contract extension and most coaches were retained. McCarthy played with remarkable judgment in his first season as a starting quarterback to help the Wolverines finish plus-8 on the rotational margin. A defense that made such incredible progress under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald in 2021 improved in what seemed like every statistical category as another ex-Baltimore Raven, Jesse Minter, provided the schematic continuity sought by Harbaugh on the way to 13 consecutive victories.

And then their composure disappeared against TCU. An avalanche of errors, mental errors and questionable game selection rocked Wolverines in a maddening first half that no player or manager will be eager to see again. The tandem of offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss have exacerbated two seasons of red-zone issues by walking away from the personnel and power that got them here. A missed play on fourth and goal was designed as a return pass for McCarthy and ended with tight end Colston Loveland being sacked before he could clear the ball. Another short yard opportunity went awry when they trusted Kalel Mullings to handle the ball near the goal line only to see the converted linebacker fumbling in the end zone.

There were additional errors from McCarthy, whose inaccurate placement of the ball on an out route produced a pick six that opened the scoring. Minter’s defense suffered substitution and alignment problems compounded by substandard tackles. The infraction was flagged for a false start in which every offensive lineman flinched except the center.

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

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

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