GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP)J.J. McCarthy had the corner stall, right next to the exit of Michigan’s locker room. So as his teammates slowly got dressed and left – one after the other – the quarterback embraced each with tears in his eyes.
He and the Wolverines had nearly pulled off a crazy comeback. Instead, they’ll rue some missed opportunities, particularly early in the game, that helped No. 3 TCU pull off a 51-45 upset win over the second-ranked Wolverines on Saturday night in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
”They made their fair share of mistakes. We made ours,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. ”They made their big plays. We made our big plays.
”And we just had one fewer big play.”
That’s true, but Michigan’s inability to execute on some of the smaller plays hurt just as much.
The Wolverines fell into a 21-6 hole by halftime after two offensive opportunities at the goal line resulted in no points.
”Those were definitely gut punches,” Michigan guard Trevor Keegan said. ”You could tell it took the life out of the team a little bit.”
Michigan (13-1) came into the Fiesta Bowl with an offensive line that was supposed to be the best group in the country, winning the Joe Moore Award for a second season in a row. But instead of playing to their strength on some of the most crucial plays of the first half, the Wolverines elected to get cute, and it meant they had to play from behind the entire afternoon.
On the game’s opening drive, Michigan faced a fourth-and-goal on the 2-yard line. The Wolverines surprisingly elected to go with a long-developing trick play: McCarthy took the snap and handed the ball off before a reverse to tight end Colston Loveland, who was supposed to hit McCarthy with a pass in the end zone.
But the Horned Frogs weren’t fooled, covering McCarthy and tackling Loveland well short of a touchdown.
”We thought it would work,” Harbaugh said. ”I take full responsibility for it not working, and should have had something different called. Put that one on me. They had it wired and they had it well-defended.
”Sitting here now, definitely wish I would have called a different one.”
The next questionable Michigan decision came in the second quarter. It looked like the Wolverines had scored a touchdown on a long throw from McCarthy to Roman Wilson, but officials instead controversially ruled Wilson down less than a yard from the end zone.
That shouldn’t have been a problem for Michigan, but instead of running simple play for six points, McCarthy turned for an awkward handoff to Kalel Mullings, who fumbled into the end zone and TCU recovered. Mullings was the team’s 10th leading rusher heading into Saturday’s game.
”Adversity hit and I’m proud of the way we responded,” Michigan guard Zak Zinter said. ”But yeah, we definitely needed to capitalize on some of those chances.”
The Wolverines had a third chance to punch in a touchdown from close range in the third quarter, but could only gain two yards on the next three plays. They settled for a 21-yard field goal from Jake Moody, pulling within 21-9.
From there, it was frenetic fight to the finish, but those early miscues loomed large. McCarthy threw for 343 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Wolverines outgained the Horned Frogs 527-488.
”Fought our hearts out,” McCarthy said. ”There’s a lot of things that we could have done better. Can’t wait to watch the tape. But we’ll be back, and I promise that.”
The loss extends Harbaugh’s misery in the postseason. The Wolverines have now dropped six straight bowl games and Harbaugh’s personal record in the postseason is 2-7, dating to his time at Stanford.
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