GLENDALE – Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach of the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines was once defined by his glaring inability to beat top rival Ohio State, but that hurdle was overcome last season.
Now, the Michigan coach is faced with the same underlying question after a second straight loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal – this time a 51-45 defeat to the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs in the Fiesta Bowl, capping a standout season in disappointing fashion.
Is Harbaugh capable of leading Michigan to its first national championship since 1997?
Michigan rode high expectations into the Fiesta Bowl semifinal, while TCU entered the contest seemingly playing with house money. TCU coach Sonny Dykes reminded the press following the game his team was predicted to finish seventh in the Big 12.
Saturday afternoon’s battle at State Farm Stadium opened with a first half filled with Michigan’s mistakes, including J.J. McCarthy’s interception returned for a touchdown and a goal-line fumble to help TCU to a 21-6 halftime lead.
Harbaugh’s halftime adjustments have been a staple of Michigan’s biggest wins this season at Ohio State and in the Big Ten championship against Purdue, but despite a valiant 39-point effort in the second half, the Wolverines fell short by a touchdown.
“We just had to bring our energy up, that was it,” said Michigan running back Donovan Edwards. “That’s what we addressed on the field. Just had to bring it up. We didn’t quit, as you can see.”
Michigan dialed up a flea flicker to start building momentum in the second half, with McCarthy’s 34-yard touchdown pass hitting wide receiver Ronnie Bell to cut the deficit to one score with 6:32 left in the third quarter.
“I thought it was really well executed,” Harbaugh said. “It was something we had game-planned, and it was a great call. The guys executed it as good as you can execute it.”
However, McCarthy’s second interception returned for a touchdown nearly four minutes later pushed TCU ahead 34-16.
The finger can easily be pointed at McCarthy for Saturday’s loss, but the finger should be equally pointed at him for clawing the Wolverines back into the game, even making it a three-point game early in the fourth.
On the drive immediately following the second pick-six, McCarthy rushed for a touchdown on a combined 59 yards on two plays to strike back in just 58 seconds. After another quick response from TCU, McCarthy led two touchdown drives in the blink of an eye to make it a three-point game entering the fourth quarter.
McCarthy would add another touchdown pass late in the fourth, but some questionable crunch-time clock management from Harbaugh left the Wolverines with little time for a game-winning drive, which inevitably stalled in four plays.
What’s next for Michigan, Harbaugh?
Entering the season, the quarterback battle between McCarthy and senior Cade McNamara left Harbaugh with a tough decision.
Harbaugh took the risk, dethroning his already-proven starter who led the team to the CFP a year ago. The Wolverines offense leaned heavily on the run game throughout the season, but an injury to starting running back Blake Corum in the Big Ten championship brought Michigan to Glendale shorthanded in the run game.
In Saturday’s clash, Donovan Edwards broke a huge run on the first play of the game, but TCU quickly corrected its early defensive woes, virtually shutting down the Michigan backfield the rest of the way.
Despite McCarthy’s two costly mistakes, his efforts through the air and with his legs kept Michigan within striking distance the entire game. He finished with 343 yards passing and two touchdowns and rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown.
“It was a titanic effort. Just a phenomenal effort by J.J., a titan of an effort. I am so proud of him, just like he was my own son, what a competitor he is,” Harbaugh said. “The J.J. McCarthy that I know on a day-in, day-out basis, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, he’s a great, talented player, great athlete, great leader. The best thing about him is he always puts the team above himself.”
The Michigan quarterback proved that he can take over a big-time game against a legit opponent, something he hadn’t had to do prior to Saturday.
“He fought. He played his ass off. He did what he could to help this team out,” said Michigan senior defensive back Mike Sainristil. “That’s who he is. He’s going to come back and learn from this one, same way he did at the end of last year. Just come back and do what it is he does. He’s special.”
McCarthy is expected to return to the Wolverines next season. The same isn’t as certain with Harbaugh, as reports surfaced Sunday that the Denver Broncos are interested in hiring the former San Francisco 49ers head coach.
Harbaugh previously said he has unfinished business in the NFL, but Michigan heads into next season as loaded as ever under Harbaugh’s tenure. Michigan has the third-ranked incoming transfer class and the 17th-best recruiting class, 247Sports reports.
The buyout on Harbaugh’s contract is $3 million, and some speculate this could open the door for a seamless transition back to the NFL. As NFL Black Monday nears, an answer about Michigan’s future as coach should come in the next couple weeks.
Despite Saturday’s result, Harbaugh would depart having completely transformed the Michigan football program, returning the blue blood back to championship contention. And if this was Harbaugh’s final act in Ann Arbor, Michigan can confidently say the program is in a better place.