It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not here. Not now. Winners of 13 straight, Michigan was making its second consecutive appearance in the college football playoffs. The Wolverines had a dominant rushing attack and a top ten defense. They had taken all comers all season - and survived unscathed. The undefeated Big Ten champions had been playing for this moment all season.
For TCU, this game couldn’t have been further from its radar four months ago. Coming off a 5-7 season, the Horned Frogs were picked to finish seventh - in their own conference. Led by first-year head coach Sonny Dykes and swashbuckling quarterback Max Duggan, the 13-1 Horned Frogs have been one of the best stories of the college football season. A deserving playoff participant to be sure. But capable of contending with the powerful Wolverines? Not many outside Fort Worth thought so.
Michigan was the prohibitive favorite according to pundits and oddsmakers alike. Yet, in a Fiesta Bowl thriller that featured nearly 100 combined points and more than 1,000 combined yards, it was TCU that looked like it had been there before. That looked like it was ready for the moment. And after holding off a final Michigan rally and holding onto a 51-46 victory, it’s the Horned Frogs who advance to the national championship game and the Wolverines who go home.
How, in a season in which so much went right for Michigan, could things have gone so wrong?
For starters, a Michigan team that made so few mistakes all season long made them with reckless abandon against TCU. Defensively, there were missed assignments and missed tackles. Blitzes that didn’t get home and coverage switches that didn’t switch. Offensively, it was even worse. A team that turned the ball over just seven times all season turned it over three times Saturday - with all three turnovers directly leading to or preventing touchdowns.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw four interceptions through 13 games. He threw two against TCU, both of which were returned for touchdowns. Michigan lost three fumbles all season. McCarthy and linebacker-turned-running back Kalel Mullings mishandled a handoff on a first-and-goal play from the one, turning the ball over to TCU and forfeiting what was an almost certain touchdown.
It’s tough to win any game in which you hand over 21 points to your opponent. To do so against a talented team like TCU is close to impossible. In the end, those 21 points proved too much to overcome.
But it was more than that.
For all of its frills and offensive innovations in recent years, football remains a relatively simple game. Football games, with very few exceptions, are won and lost in the trenches. This is a large part of why Michigan has had the success it’s had over the past two years and why it was such a prohibitive favorite against TCU, because of its strength at the point of attack.
The Wolverines boast the best offensive line in the country two years running and are stout along the defensive front. Strength up front wasn’t supposed to be TCU’s strength. The Horned Frogs’ much-maligned, three-man defensive front was supposed to be easy pickings for Michigan’s bruising offensive line. Instead, TCU defensive linemen spent the afternoon absorbing double-teams and TCU linebackers spent the afternoon firing through gaps and making life miserable for McCarthy and tailback Donovan Edwards. For the game, TCU registered 13 tackles for loss (compared to Michigan’s three).
“We heard all week that they were going to out-physical us,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said after the game. “It definitely gave us a little extra motivation.”
Sufficiently motivated, TCU, and not Michigan, was the more physical team. And that, more than anything, was both the story and the surprise of the game. TCU dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage. Bottling up Michigan’s rushing game on one side while gashing the Wolverines on the ground on the other.
Just how dominant was TCU’s run defense? Edwards began the game with a 54-yard run. Michigan’s next 25 rushes totaled a mere 30 yards. Barely a yard per carry. It got to the point where Michigan couldn’t convert third-and-ones. Completely flummoxed by TCU’s rush defense, Michigan and McCarthy were forced to step out of their comfort zone and take to the air.
To their credit, the Wolverines didn’t quit. McCarthy may have played a significant role in digging the hole(s) in which Michigan found itself, but he also led the charge back. “Fought our hearts out, “McCarthy said of Michigan’s comeback effort, and he was right.
It wasn’t McCarthy’s best performance, but with no running game on which to lean, the sophomore signal-caller performed valiantly in trying to keep Michigan in the game. McCarthy finished with a career-high 343 passing yards and added another 52 yards on the ground, making throws all over the field.
But while Michigan didn’t give up, it also never really looked comfortable. The confidence and composure with which Michigan played all season was replaced by a measure of panicked desperation.
To borrow a bit of boxing vernacular that’s made its way into the football lexicon, TCU struck first and punched Michigan in the mouth, forging a 21-6 halftime lead. The mettle of a team is often gauged by how it responds to being punched in the mouth, so to speak, and to continue the boxing metaphor, the Wolverines didn’t stay on the canvas. “I’m really proud of our guys,” Harbaugh said after the game. “Talked to our guys (in the locker room) about how they don’t quit, don’t give up. Really proud of them. Really proud of the fight.”
And Harbaugh was right, the Wolverines never quit. But they never really regained their footing either. Michigan never looked like … well, never looked like Michigan.
And give credit for that to TCU. After the game, Dykes said that his was the more physical team. He was certainly right about that. But TCU was also the better prepared team. And the team that played with more poise and composure. Whenever the Wolverines threatened to swing the momentum to their side, Duggan and the Horned Frogs responded.
In the end, Michigan just didn’t have enough. Couldn’t overcome its mistakes on offense. Couldn’t get the stops it needed on defense. And as a result, a season that looked to have another chapter in it, comes to a sudden end.
While all losses are difficult, and those in the playoffs even more so, this loss is particularly devastating for Harbaugh and Michigan. Last season, Michigan also lost in the playoffs, but under very different circumstances. Even the Wolverines knew they weren’t at Georgia’s level last season. But this season - this game - was Michigan’s to be had.
Michigan could very well be back next season. With the amount of returning talent the Wolverines have, they should compete for another conference championship and could find themselves back in the college football playoffs. But they will likely never again be in a position like this: A decided favorite to advance to the national championship game.
Everything lined up for this season. For this game. That Michigan squandered this opportunity will haunt the Wolverines.
“We’ll be back,” a dejected McCarthy said after the game, “I can promise that.” Maybe Michigan will be back. But it will never have a chance like this again.