College football and basketball writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — They wandered towards the tunnel in a mist. Purple confetti poured from the State Farm Stadium rafters as a team picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, a team with a first-year coach and the most charismatic outside linebacker, rushed toward 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 to be as harrowing as it was thrilling. 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 last two seasons. An undefeated campaign ruined, a chance at a first national championship since 1997 erased.
So they walked—slowly, sadly, incredulously—to a locker room that was sure to 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, 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 livewire potential of true sophomore JJ McCarthy, the former five-star recruit who replaced McNamara earlier this season, but no one knew how he would perform if he was called upon more than 15 or 20 times a game. Such is the luxury of an elite rushing attack: McCarthy was rarely called upon to make high-pressure throws with a deficit on the scoreboard.
That moment arrived Saturday during Michigan’s biggest game of the season, when a first-half collapse sank McCarthy into an 18-point deficit. Some of that responsibility rests 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 got to the 12 on a flea-flicker to running back Ronnie Bell — when linebacker Dee Winters caught a short pass to race 29 yards to the end zone.
And while those two mistakes will stick in McCarthy’s mind for some time, his high-level playmaking is the reason Michigan had any chance. McCarthy completed 12 of 16 passes and threw two touchdowns in the second half alone. There were long connections to Bell (34, 44) and crucial passes to Roman Wilson (five catches, 104 yards). With the air route blocked, McCarthy raced 49 yards on back-to-back plays to find the end zone himself.
But with a chance left in the waning moments — and the Horned Frogs clinging to a six-point lead — a miscommunication between center and quarterback ultimately suffocated the Wolverines. A botched snap, a botched fourth down and a long flight back to Michigan.
A taste of their own medicine: Before kickoff, Michigan co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore wore a T-shirt that read “Toughness on Demand” across the chest and recognized the Wolverines as the winners of the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in college football. Moore, who doubles as the offensive line coach, wasn’t alone in donning the attire. Dominance in the trenches became the program’s calling card after winning the award for the second year in a row.
The main beneficiary of Michigan’s scrimmage style, tailback Blake Corum, spent his pregame on crutches around the perimeter of the natural grass surface. He posed for pictures and signed autographs for fans – many of whom begged him to return for another season in 2023 – and kept his ever-present smile despite a knee injury that ended his year prematurely.
But aside from a 54-yard carry by Donovan Edwards on the first play from scrimmage, after which Corum was caught on camera shaking his head, the strongest ground game belonged to TCU. Michigan entered this year’s playoffs with the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense at 85.2 yards per play, and the Horned Frogs promptly shredded it for 264 yards and three scores.
That their production continued even after starting tailback Kendre Miller (eight carries, 57 yards) left the game with a lower-body injury spoke volumes for the effectiveness of TCU’s offensive line, a group that includes a consensus All-American in guard Steve Avila. and at least two future professionals. Senior backup Emari Demercado paced the Wolverines for 8.8 yards per carry, buoyed by an impressive 69-yard drive to set up a short rush by Duggan late in the third quarter. Demercado, who carried the ball 126 fewer times than Miller this season, more than doubled his previous season high with 65 rushing yards, gaining 150 on 17 attempts.
The combination of Miller, Demercado and Duggan formed a three-headed rushing attack that confused one of the best statistical defenses in college football. A group that tackled hard all season repeatedly missed opportunities to ensure small gains never translated into bigger ones, but TCU gobbled up yards after contact.
And when it was finally over, the Horned Frogs had outgained Michigan by 78 yards.
They lose their temper: So much of Michigan’s success during a renaissance that led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons can be traced to the unwavering discipline Harbaugh instilled at the nadir of his tenure, a crossroads after a disappointing 2-4 finish to 2020 that threatened his safety. in Ann Arbor. The seniors returning in 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 Big Ten titles, and embraced building new habits. Players and coaches repeatedly referenced the way the shoes were neatly lined up in the weight room as an example of the team never taking a detail for granted.
The product on the ground reflects what some have described as an increased level of maturity. A year ago, starting quarterback McNamara played the kind of mistake-free football that maximized the two-headed rushing attack of Hassan Haskins and Korum. Any weaknesses in a much-maligned Michigan secondary — a scapegoat during the 2020 disaster — were masked by an elite pass rush from Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo that destroyed opposing game plans.
The tension became even more intense in 2022 after Harbaugh signed a lucrative contract extension and most of the coaching staff was retained. McCarthy played remarkably smartly in his first season as the starting quarterback to help the Wolverines finish +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 sought on the way to 13 straight wins.
And then their composure disappeared against TCU. An avalanche of mistakes, mental lapses and questionable play selection propelled the Wolverines into a crazy first half no player or coach will want to see again. The group of co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss compounded two seasons of red zone woes by moving away from the personnel and force that got them here. A failed trick play on fourth-and-goal was designed as a return pass to McCarthy and ended with Colston Loveland being sacked before he could release the ball. Another small chance went awry when they trusted Kalel Mullings to handle the ball near the goal line only to watch the converted linebacker in the end zone.
There were additional mistakes by McCarthy, whose imprecise ball placement on an out route led to a pick-6 that opened the scoring. Minter’s defense had turnover and alignment issues exacerbated by tackles down the stretch. The offense was flagged for a false start in which all offensive linemen fumbled except for center.
Thirty minutes of sustained explosion. 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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