GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, the Michigan football team experienced agony.
After a long, arduous season, tears ran and hopes were broken after the Wolverines had their spirits crushed by Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
Everything Michigan worked toward was washed away by red and black confetti.
Saturday, a full year later, Michigan got another chance.
Once again, the Wolverines were enveloped in their opponents’ colors. No. 3 seed TCU’s purple and white permeated the air while No. 2 seed Michigan looked down at the ground — the site of another disappointment. In the 51-45 loss, the score didn’t matter as much as the outcome; any margin of defeat spelled the same result: the Wolverines’ season, and any hope of a national championship, would be over.
And now, it is.
“When we were winning the games, it was like nothing was wrong,” senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith told The Daily. “So sometimes, things don’t go your way. It’s the game of football. It’s a will versus a will, and they wanted it too.”
The evidence that something was wrong, though, appeared early. At the beginning of the game, Michigan looked lost.
The Wolverines capped their first three drives with a turnover on downs at TCU’s two-yard line, a pick six and a three-and-out. The Horned Frogs quickly jumped out to a 14-point lead and Michigan was floundering.
For the remainder of the half, the Wolverines squandered drives.
Most notably, junior running back Kalel Mullings fumbled on the goal line after the defense brought in an interception against quarterback Max Duggan. The play before the turnover, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy delivered a bomb to junior receiver Roman Wilson. Initially, the play was called a touchdown. But after review, the call was overturned, placing the ball on the half-yard line.
Whether the initial play should’ve resulted in a touchdown or not, Michigan’s next job was simple.
“We got to execute on the goal line there and put it in,” senior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan told The Daily. “And that’s what we’ve done all season. There’s no excuse for us not to get in there.”
Between gut-wrenching turnovers and anemic Wolverine drives, Duggan began to work his magic. While the ship Duggan commanded sailed to another touchdown, Michigan’s mistakes sank it to depths where it would eventually drown — no matter how close it got to resurfacing.
“We were so close,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins told The Daily. “(But) we made too many mistakes — they kind of got the best of us.”
A last second 59-yard field goal by graduate kicker Jake Moody made it 21-6 at the half, but the Wolverines were still flailing. For any chance of a turnaround, Michigan needed to change something during the break — and fast.
At first, the Wolverines appeared to do that.
Out of half time, the defense got a stop. A sputter in the red zone, and Moody made it 21-9. A flea-flicker touchdown to graduate receiver Ronnie Bell cut the game to five points. But just as Michigan gained momentum, TCU took it away. A marching touchdown drive and their second pick six of the day put the Horned Frogs up 34-16.
Then, all hell broke loose.
In three minutes and forty seconds, there were five touchdowns. McCarthy and Duggan rushing touchdowns went back-to-back, followed by a touchdown run from Mullings. After Smith forced and recovered a fumble, an 18-yard rushing touchdown from Wilson cut the deficit to three. Then, a 76-yard touchdown reception from receiver Quentin Johnston put TCU back up by 10.
“In the moment, I can’t lie, it’s kind of exciting,” Wilson said. “Battling with my friends, my teammates, and just bouncing back. It sucks that we lost, but it’s fun going back and forth, being there just playing football.”
And the back and forth simply continued.
The Horned Frogs notched a field goal, while Michigan’s offense briefly stalled. Then, the Wolverines marched down the field, and with McCarthy rolling right, a TCU pursuer nipping at his heels, he lobbed the ball to a wide-open Wilson in the end zone.
With everything on the line, the Michigan defense took the field down by six. Paper-thin all day, it had its chance at redemption. Despite giving up a first down, the defense came through.
With 52 seconds left, McCarthy and the Wolverine offense got the ball.
A National Championship appearance and all the glory in the world were there for the taking.
And TCU took it.
McCarthy and Michigan folded on the greatest stage, anticlimactically trying a desperate hook-and-ladder after a fumble on fourth and 10 on the snap. The play was reviewed for targeting over a hit on freshman tight end Colston Loveland, giving the Wolverines a final glimmer of hope, but it was ruled a legal hit.
“At the end of the day, you got to give officials credit,” Horned Frogs coach Sonny Dykes said after the game. “They got it right. They got the call right. And it was a hell of a way to end a ballgame.”
There was no bail-out for Michigan.
Despite not losing for a calendar year, despite fighting tooth and nail after a dismal start, despite having the ball with a chance to take home everything they’ve ever wanted, the Wolverines weren’t the best team on the field Saturday.
While TCU hoisted their trophy and bathed in purple and white, Michigan heard the same tune as it did last New Year’s Eve.
And once again, it was a dirge.