After duplicate result, U of Michigan must search for what it’s missing

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

Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, a potential second- or third-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, sported a sling on his right shoulder after entering the Fiesta Bowl with an injury to his left shoulder. Inside linebacker Junior Colson, whose upper arm was heavily bandaged in pregame warmups, wore a walking boot on his left foot with a hive of ACE wraps arcing over his collarbone. The Wolverines’ training staff couldn’t deliver ice fast enough to the battery of players wincing and groaning from their most taxing game of the season.

“I could have been easily standing in our locker room at the end of our ballgame and congratulating the whole locker room of heroes,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “because that’s what they are, that’s what they have been this entire season — including this game. It was a great effort by both teams. Really proud of my team. One less big play, one more big play by us; one more opportunistic play by us, one less opportunistic play by them and it would be a different situation.”

And yet, for the second consecutive season and the second consecutive College Football Playoff appearance, nothing is different for Harbaugh and Michigan. They breezed through another season by hammering 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 road losing streak against Ohio State and dismantled Purdue to secure consecutive Big Ten Championships for the first time since 2003-04. Then they flew to the Fiesta Bowl and got walloped in the trenches by a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, a 51-45 defeat eliminating the Wolverines in the semifinals a year after Georgia eviscerated them in the Orange Bowl.

So has much really changed for Michigan? How much closer have the Wolverines gotten to winning a national championship? Which 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 running back Kalel Mullings, a converted linebacker, whose early goal-line fumble proved crippling in what finished as a one-score defeat. “And it’s just hard to say 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 differently. So it’s hard to point a finger to one specific thing or one kind of group of things that might lead to a recurring result.”

And to some extent that’s true. The cowering nature of last year’s 34-11 defeat to Georgia forced the Wolverines to acknowledge how ill-prepared they were to match the physicality and strength of a program that has entrenched itself among the sport’s elite. The seesawing dizziness of this year’s shootout against TCU gave viewers the impression that Michigan narrowed the gap in its quest for a national title. Quarterback J.J. 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 of winning than his predecessor, Cade McNamara, yet also shriveled on the biggest stage of his career.

And it’s the underlying details of Harbaugh’s latest misstep that cast a far darker shadow over the state of the Wolverines when viewed through the prism of a national title. Michigan is unquestionably better than it was in 2021 yet remains hamstrung by serious, difficult-to-fix flaws that are compounded by subpar recruiting.

— For the second consecutive season, an offensive line deemed the best in college football got outplayed at the line of scrimmage. Aside from a 54-yard burst by tailback Donovan Edwards on his team’s first offensive play, a rushing attack that gained 5.7 yards per carry through 13 games saw its tailbacks 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 country, infiltrated the Michigan backfield to amass 13 tackles for loss.

“Once you go 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 rushing yards per game under first-year coordinator Jesse Minter and first-year position coach Mike Elston proved equally porous against an out-of-conference opponent, even after TCU lost top running back Kendre Miller to injury. The trio of Miller, backup running back Emari Demercado and quarterback Max Duggan ran for 263 yards and three touchdowns by gouging out larger and larger chunks. Any play that advanced to the second or third level of Michigan’s defense validated what head coach Sonny Dykes had said throughout the week about his team’s blazing speed. And each successive missed tackle or poor angle from defenders underscored how little of that precious commodity the Wolverines actually had. The 488 yards of total offense for TCU shattered the average allowance of 277.1 yards for Minter’s group this season.

“I think they took advantage of space,” nose tackle Mazi Smith said. “I think up front we play a physical game. It wasn’t physical enough. The linebackers came and filled the gaps. I think that the edges came and set hard edges. I think that, you know, a lot of people look for things to place blame on a loss, you know? But when we were winning every game, it was like nothing was wrong. So sometimes things just don’t go your way. It’s the game of football, it’s a will versus a will, and they wanted it too.”

— A year ago, the demeanor of Michigan’s players and coaches during their week at the Orange Bowl suggested they’d fallen victim to the trappings of South Florida. They spent too much time at the beach, became too enamored with the star power their on-field success supplied and finally admitted those mistakes during interviews in Arizona ahead of kickoff with TCU. If last year’s trip was more of a vacation, they said, this year’s return to the CFP was all business. But even their renewed dedication wasn’t enough to prevent an embarrassing trail of mistakes that called into question the team’s preparedness. There were two pick-6s thrown by McCarthy and a debilitating fumble by Mullings. There were bizarre play calls from co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss and head-scratching substitution patterns from running backs coach Mike Hart. There was an ill-timed intentional grounding penalty when Michigan could have trimmed the lead to three in the fourth quarter and a mistimed snap on fourth down that clanged off McCarthy’s shins to seal the win for TCU.

“The self-inflicted wounds, really,” Schoonmaker said. “Just 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 its best — and we did that in the second half. But, unfortunately, ran out of time and didn’t have the success that we needed in the first half.”

More concerning than all of that is Harbaugh’s abysmal record in the postseason at Michigan, where time and again he’s been outfoxed by opponents who have a full month to prepare. This year’s loss sunk Harbaugh to 1-6 in bowl games with six consecutive defeats. His lone victory came in his debut season, in 2015, when they pummeled Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

So how much closer has Harbaugh really gotten to winning a national title? The Wolverines gave everything they had in 2022 and still fell noticeably short.

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