Dec 31, 2022
Chris LowESPN Senior Writer
College football reporter
Joined ESPN.com in 2007
Graduate of the University of TennesseeGLENDALE, Ariz. — Michigan junior receiver Roman Wilson echoed what most of his teammates were saying in some form or fashion Saturday in a somber Wolverines locker room.
For the second straight year, Michigan beat bitter rival Ohio State and won the Big Ten championship. But for the second straight year, the Wolverines lost in the College Football Playoff semifinal, this one a 51-45 heartbreaker to TCU in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl.
“Just too many mistakes, too many times where we had chances and didn’t make plays or messed plays up,” Wilson said. “I mean, they’re a good team. I still think we’re the better team, but they got the best of us. Everything they did on film is how they played in the game. So we weren’t surprised. We just didn’t get it done.”
Junior offensive guard Zak Zinter was even more succinct.
“We didn’t lock into some little details. We hurt ourselves. … We beat ourselves out there,” Zinter said.
One by one, Michigan’s players did their best to assess their second straight CFP semifinal loss, which saw the Wolverines fall behind early and try to play catch-up the rest of the way. The Wolverines trailed 21-3 in the second quarter and 41-22 late in the third quarter and kept fighting back. In the end, they couldn’t overcome two interceptions returned for touchdowns, three first-and-goal situations that produced a total of three points and a rushing defense (ranked third nationally) that gave up 263 yards on the ground.
“To be the defense we are, giving up 51 points isn’t up to our standard,” said senior defensive back Mike Sainristil, part of a Michigan defense that allowed seven plays from scrimmage of 15 yards or longer. “I think that’s just the summary of the game. We didn’t play at our level.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns and kept bringing the Wolverines back every time it looked like they might be out of the game. But his two interceptions returned for touchdowns were costly, as was Kalel Mullings’ fumble at the TCU 1-yard line in the second quarter. On the play before Mullings’ fumble, Wilson hauled in what Michigan thought was a 51-yard touchdown pass. But the play was reviewed, and officials ruled his knee was down at the 1.
“I thought I was in, but I don’t know,” said Wilson, who had five catches for 104 yards.
The loss extended Michigan’s woes in the postseason. The Wolverines have now lost six straight bowl games. They lost 34-11 to Georgia a year ago in the playoff semifinal.
But this one, given the Wolverines’ miscues, hurt even worse, according to the players.
“I’m sure in hindsight, maybe when I’m older, that I’ll appreciate, you know, having won the Big Ten championship and all that for the second year in a row and beating Ohio State for the second year in a row,” Mullings said. “But, right now, man, it just feels like there was a lot left on the table for us.”
Senior defensive lineman Mazi Smith said the Wolverines waited too late in the game to start playing “complementary football,” and that despite the turnovers on offense, the defense ultimately allowed it to become a shootout. Before Saturday’s game, Michigan had not given up more than 27 points in a game all season.
“I mean, I just looked up and was like, ‘There’s been a lot of kickoffs,’ you know what I’m saying?” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Damn, this might be as many kickoffs as we had all season.’ But at some point, the scoreboard don’t matter. You’ve just got to go play your heart out.”
Smith also pushed back at any talk that Michigan underestimated TCU and thought it could push around the Horned Frogs physically.
“You look at TCU, and they play good football,” Smith said. “They’ve got big guards. They’ve got big tackles. They’ve got a good center, and they’ve got a real big back [Emari Demercado] who runs like Derrick Henry. So I’m looking at them like they can play, these boys can play. … This is a College Football Playoff game, and you don’t get there by sucking.”
As bitter as the loss was for the Wolverines, they said it would only push them that much harder this offseason.
“We’ll be back,” Wilson said. “This is going to be the new steppingstone for this program, the culture, the new guys and everyone here, just the dedication and the hard work everyone puts in. This might be the new future for us.
“This is what we’re supposed to do, go out there and get it done in these games.”
Said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: “There were big plays being made, mistakes being made, by both teams. We just had one less than we needed. They had one more, and that ended up being the difference in the game.”