After a back-to-back, Michigan must look for what’s missing

GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the roars of a wild and purple-splattered celebration echoed through the hallways of State Farm Stadium, where underdogs from Texas Christian disposed of a college football blue-blood to advance to the national championship, in every corner of Michigan locker rooms reflected pain and the pressure of a team pushed to the brink.

Luke Schoonmaker, a potential second- or third-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, wore a sling on his right shoulder after entering the Fiesta Bowl with a left shoulder injury. Junior inside linebacker Colson, whose arm was heavily bandaged in pregame warmups, wore a walking boot on his left leg with a hive of ACE wraps wrapped over his collarbone. The Wolverines coaching staff couldn’t provide ice fast enough to the battery of players who are reeling from their toughest game of the season.

“I could easily stand in our locker room at the end of our game and congratulate the whole locker room,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “because that’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s been all season. including this game. It was a great effort from both teams. Really proud of my team. One less big play, one more big play from us, one more opportunistic play from us, one less opportunistic play from them and it would have been a different situation.”

And yet, for the second straight season and second straight College Football Playoff appearance, nothing is different for Harbaugh and Michigan. They spent another season forging 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 to Ohio State and upset Purdue to secure back-to-back Big Ten Championships for the first time since 2003-04. Then they flew into the Fiesta Bowl and got rolled 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.

Has much really changed for Michigan? How close 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 that a little bit,” said Kalel Mullings, a linebacker whose early hit on the goal line proved crippling in what ended as a one-score loss. “And it’s just hard to tell what it is. All these guys in here, man, we work so 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 completely different . So it’s hard to point the finger at a specific thing or kind of group of things that might lead to a repeatable effect.”

And to some extent this is true. The grueling nature of last year’s 34-11 loss to Georgia forced the Wolverines to acknowledge how ill-prepared they were to match the physicality and power of a program entrenched among the sport’s elite. The incredible stunner of this year’s shootout against TCU gave onlookers the impression that Michigan had closed the gap on its quest for 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 to win than his predecessor, Cade McNamara , but also shrank. the biggest stage of his career.

And it’s the underlying details of Harbaugh’s latest mistake that cast a much darker shadow on the Wolverines’ state when viewed through the lens of a national title. Michigan is undeniably better than it was in 2021, but it remains hampered by serious, hard-to-fix flaws, exacerbated by underwhelming recruiting.

— For the second straight season, an offensive line rated as the best in college football topped the line of scrimmage. Aside from a 54-yard punt return by tailback Donovan Edwards on his team’s first offensive play, a rushing attack that gained 5.7 yards per carry in 13 games was limited to 2.6 yards per play on 27 attempts. The Horned Frogs, who entered the Fiesta Bowl with the 65th-best rushing defense in the nation, penetrated 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 do — 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, even as TCU lost its leading running back Kendre Miller in harm’s way. The trio of Miller, backup running back Emari Demercado and quarterback Max Duggan ran for 263 yards and three touchdowns in increasingly large plays. Any play that went to the second or third level of Michigan’s defense validated what head coach Sonny Dykes had been saying all week about his team’s incredible speed. And each successive missed tackle or bad corner by the defenders underscored how little of that precious commodity the Wolverines actually had. The 488 yards of total offense for TCU broke Minter’s team average of 277.1 yards this season.

“I think they took advantage of the space,” said Mazi Smith, who works on the nose. “I think up front we’re playing a physical game. It wasn’t physical enough. The linebackers came in and covered the gaps. I think the ends came in and put the tight ends in. I think, you know, a lot of people are looking for the things to blame on a loss, you know? But when we won every game, it was like nothing was wrong. So sometimes things just don’t go our way. It’s the game of football, it’s a will against a will, and they wanted it too.” .

— A year ago, the behavior of Michigan’s players and coaches during their Orange Bowl week showed they had fallen prey to the trappings of South Florida. They spent too much time at the beach, became too enamored with the star power that success on the field afforded them, and finally admitted those mistakes during interviews in Arizona before the opener with TCU. If last year’s trip was more of a vacation, they said, this year’s return to CAP was all business. But even their renewed commitment wasn’t enough to prevent a nagging trail of mistakes that called into question the team’s readiness. There were two pick-6s thrown by McCarthy and a crushing blow by Mullings. There were odd calls from co-offensive coordinators Sharon Moore and Matt Weiss and substitution patterns from the head of running backs coach Mike Hart. There was a missed intentional grounding penalty when Michigan could have cut the lead to three in the fourth quarter and a missed snap on fourth down that hit McCarthy in the shins to seal the win for TCU.

“Self-inflicted wounds, really,” Schoonmaker said. “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, time ran out and 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 has repeatedly run away from opponents who have a full month to prepare. This year’s loss dropped Harbaugh to 1-6 in bowl games with six straight losses. His only win came in his first season in 2015 when they beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

So how much closer has Harbaugh gotten to winning a national title? The Wolverines gave it their all in 2022 and still fell well 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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