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Michigan can’t keep up with TCU in CFP shootout, 51-45

The Wolverines just didn’t have enough.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines like to play football as a game of inches. Their College Football Playoff contest against TCU was anything but. After a 13-0 regular season, the Wolverines didn’t have enough in a Big 12-style shootout with the TCU Horned Frogs.

Everything that could have gone wrong for the Wolverines went wrong in the first half. This team did not come prepared for a College Football Playoff matchup against one of the four best teams in the country. Jim Harbaugh got too cute on the goal line, leaving points off the board. They also stuck to the run in odd situations as TCU’s defense quite literally dared them to open up and throw it. Then, a pair of uncharacteristic turnovers made a first half that could have been close looking like a blowout in the early goings. In a game that the Wolverines should have been at their best, they opened with their worst performance of the season.

The first Michigan drive started off exceptionally as Donovan Edwards shot through a gap for a 54-yard gain on the games’ opening play. But, the Michigan offense was stymied for most of the rest of the half on the ground. They picked up only 19 net yards on their next 19 carries. For a team that was expected to win up front, they were out-schemed and beat by the TCU defense in the first half.

In this situation, Jim Harbaugh decided to get cute on 4th down and called a “Philly special” that was snuffed out by the TCU defense.

After a quick three-and-out forced by the Michigan defense, the Wolverines took the field for their second possession. J.J. McCarthy stepped up to throw an out route to the opposite hash that was picked off by TCU safety Bud Clark, and returned for a pick-six. The Horned Frogs took the 7-0 advantage.

Michigan was supposed to be the physically dominant team, but the Horned Frogs came out and punched them in the mouth. The 4th-and-goal stop, a pick six, and then TCU’s offense went on a 12-play, 76-yard drive where they ran the rock right through the Wolverines’ defense. A Max Duggan run on the goal line made the game 14-0, TCU. It felt like both the Michigan players and coaching staff were surprised that TCU came ready to play, and they were scrambling early in this game down two scores.

It was clear early on that this game would rely on the arm of McCarthy. He tossed a ball to Luke Schoonmaker for a 32-yard pickup and then had a ridiculous throw to Colston Loveland for another 18. But in plus territory, and with TCU stacking the box, Michigan continued to run up the gap and get stuffed by a Horned Frogs defense that was ready for it. A 42-yard field goal from Jake Moody made it 14-3.

Desperate for some momentum, Rod Moore interception off a tipped pass set up a bomb from McCarthy-to-Roman Wilson for a 50-yard throw down to the 1-yard line.

But for the second time in the game, Michigan was left without points just footsteps from the endzone. A handoff to Kaleel Mullings was fumbled and recovered by TCU for a touchback, swinging momentum right back to TCU.

Even with the pick-six, it could have been 17-14, Michigan. Instead, the Horned Frogs maintained the 14-3 advantage amid a wild first-half.

That scored remained until late in the second quarter as TCU rattled off another 10-play, 83-yard drive. Michigan’s defense was not getting the break it usually did as several of the offenses’ possession in the first half were short. This, of course, led to mistakes.

A corner blitz left Quentin Johnston, the most dangerous player on the field, wide open down the sideline for a 32-yard gain. Duggan continuously ducked and ran out of the pocket, and moved the sticks. Inside the goal line, the TCU quarterback rolled right and extended the play just enough to find runningback Taye Barber streaking over the middle of the field. He caught the ball and turned up for an easy touchdown. The Horned Frogs took what felt like a commanding 21-3 advantage.

Right before the half, Michigan took over with 42 seconds desperate for some points. McCarthy tossed the ball up to Cornelius Johnson deep down the field which drew a pass interference call. It set up a 59-yard field goal for Moody, a career long and school record attempt. As the clock wound down, Moody drilled it through the uprights. A small victory in a 21-6 half that saw TCU in control.

The first half numbers told a massive lie. Michigan out-gained TCU 221-202 and out-possessed the Horned Frogs by three and a half minutes. Because they shot themselves in the foot, they were down 21-6 and TCU got the ball out of the break.

That did not matter as the Michigan defense forced a stop out of the gate after just four plays. They relied on the deep ball again to get them inside the redzone. This time, it was to Ronnie Bell on 43-yard pass down the middle. For the third time in the game, Michigan was inside the 5-yard line. However, once again, the TCU defense kept them out of the endzone and Michigan settled for another field goal. The score early in the third quarter was 21-9.

On the next TCU possession, Duggan dropped back to pass on 3rd & 10 and threw it behind his receiver and into the hands of cornerback Mike Sainristil. After a few runs to Edwards, Michigan executed the perfect flea-flicker for a 34-yard touchdown:

All of a sudden, the Wolverines had a ton of momentum and the score was within a touchdown, 21-16.

TCU was never just going to go away. They showed a strong response as Duggan had a lot of time and hit Johnston on a 46-yarder. Then it was all no huddle, and the Horned Frogs trapped a favorable formation on the field to run the ball up the gut and score. They went 75 yards in just over two minutes and regained a two-score advantage, 28-16.

Then, the collapse continued, McCarthy stepped back and threw right into the hands of safety Dee Winters who ran it back for a touchdown. It was his second pick six in the game, both against zone coverage. A failed extra point made it 34-16, TCU. Still, the Horned Frogs had every ounce of momentum in the stadium.

Somehow, the first-year starter didn’t appear rattled, and he started to use his feet. He scrambled for a 39-yard pick up and a play later took a designed run to the house on a 20-yard touchdown. A failed 2-point conversion made it 34-22 and we were still in the third quarter.

Just 58 seconds later, TCU was on the board again. Michigan sent a blitz on both ends of the offensive line and neither came up with the tackle. Emari Demercado took it 69 yards to the 1-yard line and punched it in on the very next play. The score was back up to three scores, 41-22.

Just wait, the third quarter still wasn’t over and McCarthy hit Bell over the middle for 44-yard pickup, just short of the goal line after review. Kaleel Mullings would finally get Michigan their first redzone score of the night by rumbling in for a score. A two-point conversion made it 41-30, with three seconds to go in the third quarter.

It was a hilarious 44-point quarter where both sides forgot how to play defense, until the literal last second. Michigan defensive lineman Mazi Smith stripped Demercado on the final play of the third, and would take possession inside their own 30-yard line heading into the fourth. TCU made it a Big 12 game, and for the time being, the Wolverines were hanging in the highest-scoring quarter in College Football Playoff history.

The chaos continued into the fourth. A sweep to Roman Wilson left a huge hole on the outside and he carried it all the way into a helicopter-dive for a touchdown.

Michigan ran the exact same play to Bell on a two-point conversion attempt which was successful. The Wolverines just would not go away, and the score was 41-38 after Michigan trailed by three scores with less than a minute to go in the third quarter.

The Michigan defense had the opportunity to get off the field. It was 3rd & 7 for Duggan and the Horned Flogs. Jesse Minter dialed up a blitz that didn’t get home. He had just enough time to hit Johnston again, and a missed tackle from DJ Turner left nothing but green grass between the TCU wideout and the endzone. 76-yards later, and TCU had a two score advantage again, 48-38.

After a bad possession for Michigan, TCU made it worse with a 31-yard punt return down inside of the redzone. But, the Wolverines’ defense held them to just three points. The score was 51-38, but still a two-possession game.

TCU’s defense showed up again forcing a second-straight three-and-out for McCarthy and the Michigan offense. A fantastic punt from Brad Robbins flipped the field, and TCU was pinned at their own 10-yard line. The Michigan defense took advantage by forcing a three-play drive from TCU.

McCarthy took over around midfield and hit Johnson for a 15-yard pick up. A play later, they gained another 15 yards on a defensive pass interference penalty. On 3rd & 4, Michigan put it in the hands of Edwards for a big conversion, just their second of the game. They pushed it inside the 10-yard line, when McCarthy hit Roman Wilson, wide open in the endzone. Michigan put themselves down six, with just 3:18 to go in the fourth quarter.

With three timeouts left, the Wolverines needed a stop to keep their season, and championship hopes, alive. They started off by lining up in an onside kick formation and Moody pooched it down to the 1-yard line. It stayed in play, and TCU had to return it, this time just to the 10-yard line.

Three plays and a first down for TCU, but Harbaugh refused to use any of his timeouts. The clock was milked down to just a 1:08 remaining in the game before the first was used. On third down, TCU passed the ball to Johnston who was tackled short of the first down. It was 4th & 1 and they lined up to go for it but they ran out the clock and took a five yard penalty.

Michigan would gets its chance to win the game with just 52 seconds of gameplay left and 75 yards to go. A false start made it 3rd & 10 and then Michigan fumbled the snap on 4th down in a disaster of a final drive. But, a game can never end without controversy. The fumbled play was under review for targeting after a TCU defender led with the crown of his helmet, but was not called.

The Wolverines’ season would come to an end in Arizona in a heartbreaking loss, 51-45. After a lot of fight from Michigan, who put themselves in a huge hole in the College Football Playoff, they didn’t have enough to come back and win this game.