Rapid Reaction: Michigan can't overcome its early blunders in CFP semifinal loss to TCU
Michigan won the first play of the game. It won all but 2 yards of the first drive of the game.
And then the No. 2 team in the country stumbled and bumbled like a New Year’s Eve reveler who had started drinking too early in the day. A bunch of bad decisions not only thwarted Michigan drives but revved up TCU quarterback Max Duggan and the Horned Frogs’ defense.
Riding a wave of momentum, the Frogs accepted the first-half charity to bolt to a 21-3 lead and held on for a wild 51-45 victory in the first of Saturday’s 2 CFP semifinals. Pulling an upset as 7.5-point underdogs, the Frogs ruined Michigan’s quest for its first national championship since the 1997 season.
Michigan’s 2nd consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff took a bunch of twists and turns, including 2 pick-6s thrown by JJ McCarthy and a couple of furious rallies, but ended short of the final game yet again. This one likely will sting more than last year’s 34-11 loss to Georgia, because Michigan was in this one to the bitter end despite shooting itself in the foot time and again.
With the win in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, TCU earned a spot in the national championship game, which will be played at 7:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The Frogs will face the winner of Saturday’s late semifinal featuring No. 1 Georgia (13-0) and No. 4 Ohio State (11-1), and they will be seeking their first recognized national title since 1938.
Normally led by its dominant offensive line, an extraordinary backup running back and a rapidly coming of age sophomore quarterback, the Wolverines looked great for about the game’s first 3 minutes. They perked up in the third quarter to close within 21-16, but then gave up a 6-play, 75-yard drive followed by JJ McCarthy’s 2nd pick-6. Dee Williams, who had wreaked havoc in the first half, returned the interception 29 yards to extend his team’s lead to 34-16. From there, Michigan would fall behind by 19, close within 3, fall back again and close to 51-46 with 3:18 remaining.
TCU ran 3 times to gain a first down as UM 8th-year coach Jim Harbaugh kept his timeouts in his pocket. He finally stopped the clock with 1:08 remaining and the Frogs facing a 2nd-and-8. He stopped it again at 1:03 with a 3rd-and-4 awaiting. Michigan got a stop, forcing a punt, and burned the final timeout with 59 seconds left.
Michigan’s final chance began from its 25-yard line with 52 second left. McCarthy ran for 5 yards, then threw an incompletion. After a false start and another incompletion, Michigan mishandled the snap and was stopped well short of the first-down line.
Against the Horned Frogs, Michigan tried to play to its strength, pitting its running game, No. 4 in the nation at 243 yards per game going in, against TCU’s No. 64 rush defense.
But with mid-season Heisman candidate Blake Corum on the sideline recovering from surgery, the Wolverines had trouble moving the ball on the ground. Donovan Edwards, who had 401 rushing yards in his past 2 games, had carried 19 times for 101 yards through 3 quarters. But UM did little else on the ground until McCarthy busted a 46-yarder late in the third quarter. Even with the sophomore quarterback’s contributions, Michigan had just 144 yards rushing entering the final 15 minutes.
Behind a line that has won consecutive Joe Moore Awards as the best in the nation, Michigan couldn’t consistently overpower the Horned Frogs of the Big 12. The line — from left to right Ryan Hayes, Trevor Keegan, Olusegun Oluwatimi, Zak Zinter and Karsen Barnhart — couldn’t facilitate a 10th game of 200+ rushing yards this season.
Instead, TCU (13-1) was gashing the Michigan defense, even with star RB Kendre Miller dinged up and out of the game. The Frogs had 240 rushing yards on 30 carries through 3 quarters. Miller’s backup, Emari Demercado, had 138 yards on 12 carries, including a 69-yard romp.
Edwards went 53 yards straight up the middle on the first play of the game, seemingly setting the tone for Michigan.
With the ground game sporadic, McCarthy took a greater burden onto himself, making a lot of positive plays outside the 2 pick-6s. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, he already had 316 yards and a TD on 17-of-26 passing plus another 40 yards and a TD on 7 carries. Despite the efforts, he couldn’t produce points as fast as the UM defense was ceding them and lost for the 1st time in his 13 starts for the Wolverines.
Like McCarthy, TCU’s Duggan also threw 2 interceptions, but Michigan was only able to turn 1 of them into a touchdown. Duggan, the Heisman runner-up, threw for 2 TDs and ran for 2 more despite mediocre numbers. Midway through the fourth quarter, he was 11-of-26 for 219 yard and had 46 rushing yards on 11 carries.
The Horned Frogs, coming off an overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, exceeded their 6th-in-the-nation scoring average of 40.3 points and were closing in on 500 yards with 8 minutes still on the clock. Michigan gave up 38 more points and 200+ more yards than their averages, which ranked 4th and 3rd in the country entering the game.
Michigan’s first-half bumbling
Michigan couldn’t overcome its rough first half. Receiver Roman Wilson left the game briefly after making the team’s first catch of the day, and a few plays later a trick play failed miserably on a 4th-and-goal from the 2. After the defense forced a 3-and-out, McCarthy threw a pick-6, with Bud Clark stepping in front of an out-route and taking the ball 41 yards to the house.
The momentum swing continued with TCU’s defense forcing a 3-and-out, and then star RB Kendre Miller scooting 14 yards for the Frogs’ 1st first down. Suddenly on its heels, Michigan’s defense then ceded a rushing first down to Duggan followed by 21-yard completion.
Riding a surge of confidence, Duggan completed 4 straight passes and finished a 12-play, 76-yard drive with a 1-yard run to put the Frogs up 14-0. Duggan went 4-5 for 38 yards and ran 4 times for 17 yards on the march.
Meanwhile, Michigan blew a 1st-and-goal from inside the 1, with McCarthy and reserve RB Kalel Mullings mishandling an exchange that led to TCU recovering a fumble in the end zone. Like the failed “Philly Special” reverse play on UM’s first drive, the play not only meant no points but kept TCU from being backed up against its own goal line. Both were questionable play calls. On the first, Michigan chose to run side-to-side and try to spring McCarthy free as a receiver. With McCarthy covered, the play lost 7 yards. On the second, trying a quick handoff to the inexperienced Mullings backfired when a sneak or going to Edwards for 18 inches would have made more sense.
A couple possessions later, Duggan marched his team 83 yards on 10 plays, capping the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Taye Barber for a 21-3 lead. At that point, the time of possession was almost even, and Michigan’s defense seemed winded and on its heels.
Even when it got a break, Michigan couldn’t cash in. Junior Colson deflected a pass that was subsequently picked off by Rod Moore. McCarthy hit Wilson (back from his injury scare) for 50 yards. But the Mullings/McCarthy fumble followed on the next play.
The momentum swing jump-started TCU’s defense too. After Edwards went straight up the gut for 53 yards on the first play of the game, the Frogs started finding clean lanes into the backfield on run and pass blitzes. Linebacker Dee Winters, in particular, wreaked havoc, making 2 tackles for losses.
It took a 59-yard field goal by Jake Moody on the final play of the half to get Michigan within 21-6 and give it a little oomph going into the break.
On its first drive of the second half, Michigan again moved the ball but stalled in the red zone, settling for a 21-yard field goal. Edwards had 91 rushing yards at that point, but the rest of the team had minus-17.
TCU first-year coach Sonny Dykes and first-year defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie seemed to have figured something out that none of UM’s 13 previous opponents this season could not.