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What Went Wrong Part 3: Revisiting Michigan’s upset loss to TCU

We finish the dive into Michigan’s three losses over the last two seasons to better understand what happened and how Michigan can prevent it from happening again.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the confetti fell and the postgame celebration got underway, fans of the Michigan Wolverines were left in utter disbelief. The previously undefeated Wolverines had just fallen 51-45 to the TCU Horned Frogs and had lost in the opening round of the College Football Playoffs for the second consecutive year.

What the hell happened? Michigan entered as 7.5-point favorites but was overwhelmed by a scrappy underdog quarterback and an agile 3-3-5 defense. The blame game immediately got underway online.

“JJ’s pick-sixes cost us the game!”

“If only DJ Turner could tackle…”

“The refs screwed us reversing Roman’s touchdown!”

Truth be told, this game and the Michigan performance were a complete comedy of errors. From self-inflicted wounds to injuries to savvy schematics by TCU to officiating, the odds were never in favor of the two-time Big Ten Champions.

However, let’s play the blame game and work through how this loss occurred.

It was the offense’s fault…

Michigan’s offense accounted for zero touchdowns on its first seven drives. This was the first time this had happened since Georgia in the previous year’s Orange Bowl but somehow felt worse against the Horned Frogs.

Michigan had the ball inside the two-yard line twice and came away with no points, furthermore, Michigan’s offense scored more touchdowns for TCU in the first half than itself.

Quarterback J.J. McCarthy chipped in his second pick-six in the second half, while the offensive line took turns cosplaying as matadors letting the TCU linebackers run freely through the A and B gaps.

Running back Kalel Mullings ran the wrong direction on the “Philly Special,” and added a fumble the next time Michigan was inches away from a touchdown.

Michigan’s defense forced three turnovers, forced two punts on TCU’s final possessions, and held the Horned Frogs to 34 points – the lowest amount scored by an offense in the opening round of the 2022 College Football Playoff.

The Michigan defense didn’t play great, but if Michigan’s offense doesn’t spot the Horned Frogs 14 points, the Wolverines win this game.

It was the defense’s fault…

Michigan’s defense had allowed only 5.7 points per game in the second half of games all season and gave up 30 to TCU. The Horned Frogs ran the ball at will (263 yards, 6.4 average), passed the ball at will (225 yards, 7.8 average), and blew up Michigan’s defense with timely explosive plays.

The Wolverines were unable to generate pressure with their front four and had to constantly blitz six or more players in order to force any disruption. Michigan’s blitz philosophy forced the secondary to play heavy man coverage and somewhere in Massachusetts Don Brown was wincing as third-down crossers continually broke free for touchdowns.

The stars on Michigan’s defense were indecisive, missed assignments were littered from sideline to sideline, and missed tackles served as a hockey assist for every TCU point.

Michigan’s offense featured a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher, two 100-yard receivers, and scored 45 points – the highest amount scored by an offense in the opening round of the 2022 College Football Playoff.

The Michigan offense didn’t play great, but if Michigan’s defense doesn’t allow five plays over 20 yards –including two over 65 yards in the second half– the Wolverines win this game.

The refs screwed Michigan…

Most, as they should, will clamor for the process of completing a catch on the Roman Wilson touchdown. But let’s go one play before that. Safety Rod Moore intercepts TCU quarterback Max Duggan off of a deflection and lands on the TCU 49-yard line.

The official –despite having a clear view – mistakenly spots the ball at the Michigan 49-yard line.

A six-foot difference resulted in a six-point difference on the next play. There is no subjectivity here, this is just an inexcusable miss.

So whose fault is it?

Michigan’s offense scored the most points of any CFP team in the semi-finals (45) and its defense allowed the fewest (37) of any CFP team in the semi-finals, yet the Wolverines still lost.

Is it Harbaugh’s fault for not having the team more prepared? Could Michigan just not overcome the injuries to Blake Corum, Erick All, and Luke Schoonmaker (lost in the first quarter)? Did one wrong call in the second quarter change the entire complexion of the game?

This loss is the most frustrating of the three from the last two years because it was an inconsistent team collapse. As soon as the defense would make a stop, the offense would throw a pick-six. When the offense would bring the game within reach, the defense would allow another big play.

It’s like the postgame interview from the 90s classic BASEketball, “It was a team effort and I guess it took every player working together to lose this one.”

Last year’s Fiesta Bowl was a comedy of errors and TCU got the last laugh.

Commonalities from Michigan’s last three losses

Across all three losses over the last two seasons, a few commonalities stood out. Firstly, when Michigan loses the battle on the line of scrimmage –the rushing battle in particular– the Wolverines will have a hard time winning.

Michigan was out-rushed in each of its three losses and lost the battle in total 652-423. A key indicator of early success or failure is right guard Zak Zinter. While the guard position is not as highly valued in most schemes, Zinter is integral to communication and execution. If Zinter is sharp, so is the offense; if Zinter struggles, the rest of the team is quick to follow.

On the defensive side of the line, Michigan has run into problems as well. Despite winning the battle against Michigan State in terms of backfield havoc (sacks + tackles-for-loss + forced fumbles + QB hits) 7-4, the Wolverines experienced long droughts where their star pass-rushing duo was completely neutralized as the Spartans wiped out a 16-point second-half deficit.

In the two CFP bowl games, Michigan’s defensive line has been rendered useless. According to the same backfield havoc metric above, the Wolverines were dominated by Georgia (15-4), and again by TCU (18-7). Losing the rushing battle is one thing, but losing both sides of the line of scrimmage to this degree will all but guarantee a loss.

The second thing that stood out in all three games was Michigan’s struggle with up-tempo power running offenses. Any time Michigan State, Georgia, or TCU, had the Michigan defense reeling, the three teams would run either a version of hurry-up, or “sugar huddles” to further exploit a disoriented unit.

The problems with tempo were mitigated under defensive coordinator Jesse Minter compared to his predecessor Mike Macdonald, but the issues lingered nonetheless.

Lastly, untimely turnovers have devastated the Wolverines at the worst times in each of the three losses. Think of the second pick-six from McCarthy against TCU; the Cade McNamara interception against Georgia when Daylen Baldwin stopped running; the mesh-exchange fumble between McCarthy and Corum against Michigan State.

All turnovers are costly, but these in particular served as weighted vests for a team treading water in a close game.

A sharp Zinter, a quick-thinking defense, and late-game ball security are three pillars required for this team to team to win 15 consecutive games. Without one, the Wolverines can still likely still win, but without all three, it’s back to the blame game.

Thank you to those who read through this three-part series reanalyzing each of Michigan’s most recent defeats, I know it was rough. As a reward, here are a few videos I turn to for a pick-me-up: Victors, Victors II, and Basking in the Pain of Others.