I’ll admit it. All season long I expected TCU to stumble. They seemingly came out of nowhere and just kept winning. Often, they didn’t win by much. But when it was time for the Big 12 championship game, the Horned Frogs were undefeated and a frontrunner for a playoff spot. As we all know, the Kansas State Wildcats hung on to beat TCU in overtime (more on that game later). With only that one loss, TCU claimed the No. 3-seeded position in the playoff. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, they’ll face the Michigan Wolverines in the Fiesta Bowl, in Glendale, Arizona.
Michigan. Naturally, I don’t even like to utter the word. TTUN finds itself in the playoffs for a second consecutive year. After the shellacking that they suffered last year at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, Jim Harbaugh’s squad has appeared to be on a mission. Beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten wasn’t enough. The Wolverines were determined to return to the little four-team tournament that we call the CFP. Going undefeated for the season was the only way to assure participation – and that’s what they did. Ready for TCU? Absolutely.
What to look for
These two teams have high-powered offenses. Balanced offenses, strong in both the run and the pass. TCU averages 40.3 points a game, good enough to rank sixth in the nation. Michigan is right behind. Their 40.1 points per contest rank the Wolverines seventh.
The Michigan defense, though not as ferocious as the team that they put on the field last season, is still stout and may provide the edge in this game. Yielding only 13.4 points per game, the Michigan D allows the Wolverines to play low-scoring close ones, while the offense is explosive enough to fuel a high-scoring shootout. Personally, I expect a game with both teams scoring at least in the 30s. But I could be wrong.
TCU offense against the Michigan defense
The Frogs are led by second team All American and Heisman finalist Max Duggan. Duggan has led his team all year and is the primary reason for their being where they are now. He’s a legitimate dual-threat quarterback and can win games with his arm or feet. Witness the comeback that he led against K-State. When I look back on that game, I see coaching errors as the reason for the loss. Duggan was playing like a madman.
Even totally exhausted, he wouldn’t be denied – getting the pass off, gaining the first down on a run. When overtime came, however, TCU chose to go for the touchdown on fourth and short, rather than take the three points. OK. Not what I would do, but I could accept it. But then Duggan handed the ball off. Handed it off! The runner was stopped short, and the Wildcats maneuvered for the winning field goal on their possession.
Duggan completed 65% of his passes for 3321 yards and 30 passing touchdowns, against only four interceptions. He’s averaging nine yards per passing attempt. Pretty impressive. He also rushed for over 400 yards (remember that this figure is net and includes sacks, though there weren’t many) and six more TDs. Duggan’s stats aren’t dissimilar to those of the Buckeyes’ C.J. Stroud.
Stroud completed 66.2% of his throws for 3340 yards (in 12 games, to Duggan’s 13) and a 9.4 yards per attempt average. Stroud has 37 TDs and six interceptions. With these numbers and leading their respective teams to the playoffs, they deserved to be Heisman finalists.
Max Duggan, however, isn’t a one-man show when TCU has the ball. Their top rusher, Kendre Miller, ran for 1342 yards during the season, with a 6.2 yards per carry average. Miller has racked up 17 rushing touchdowns. Duggan also has a trio of wide receivers, capable of creating the long play.
Quentin Johnston has pulled in 53 passes and averages 17 yards a completion. Taye Barber’s 17.4 average indicates a second long-ball threat, while Darius Davis rounds out the receivers with 34 catches. Combined, the three have 14 touchdown receptions.
How does Michigan counter this firepower? I’m sure that they will try the same tactic that worked so well against Ohio State (and against Purdue). First, neutralize the running game. I think that TCU’s running game is better than the Buckeyes’ so TTUN will be challenged. Linebackers Junior Colson and Michael Barrett, who have led the Wolverines in tackles all season, will be primarily responsible for stopping the run, at least for preventing ball carriers from running free in the secondary.
Secondly, the Wolverines will try to pressure Duggan and make him make passes that he doesn’t want to make. The risk here is Duggan’s scrambling ability – and QB-designed runs. Someone will need to keep an eye on Duggan, who is shrewd and experienced.
Finally, Michigan will attempt to prevent long pass plays by keeping a couple of safeties deep. For this strategy to work, they will need to be able to handle the running game without safety help.
The TCU offense is diverse and talented. I think that they’ll gain yards and score points.
Michigan offense against the TCU defense
There aren’t many teams that can lose a first-team All-American and actually improve. That’s what Michigan has done since star running back Blake Corum went down. Donovan Edwards stepped up big time, rushing for 400 yards in the final two games, against OSU and Purdue. Against the Buckeyes, Edwards averaged 9.8 yards for his 22 carries. He dropped off to a “mere” 7.4 yards for 25 rushes against the Boilermakers. One wonders whether he, rather than Corum, would have been All-American if he had been the featured back all year. The offensive line is that good, all ball carriers get yards.
For the past several years, Michigan’s primary problem was the lack of an elite quarterback leading the offense. That’s largely why they couldn’t beat the Buckeyes. J.J. McCarthy was recruited (and then highly touted) to be that guy. While McCarthy doesn’t have the stats of Stroud or USC’s Caleb Williams, he’s been efficient and very successful this year. He’s completed over 65% of his throws for nearly 2400 yards, 20 TD passes, and three picks. With the Wolverines’ running attack, McCarthy doesn’t throw as much as the headliner QBs. But when he does, he’s usually on target. And he’s very nimble, very quick, difficult to sack.
McCarthy passes to his tight ends more often than Duggan does. TE Luke Schoonmaker is one of his favorite targets, especially when a crucial third-down reception is needed. Schoonmaker’s 34 catches are second on the team to wideout Ronnie Bell’s 56. Bell, a good route-runner with strong hands, is UM’s downfield threat. The Frogs will probably need to double-team him when they can.
As I noted above, TCU’s defense isn’t their strength. Especially the pass defense, which gives up 236 yards a game. 149 yards rushing isn’t so hot, either. The Horned Frogs will have their hands full, obviously. The Buckeye defense played strong, physical ball against Michigan for most of the first half. Then collapsed. Burned by the big play. Multiple times. TCU will have to try to keep Edwards and Bell from bursting loose. Not sure that they have the speed to do that. So, they’ll have to focus on schemes. Michigan’s offensive versatility then comes into play. A formation to stop one play is vulnerable to another.
Michigan has a distinct advantage here. I doubt that TCU can stop the offense. If not, their hope is for a shootout, where they’re able to simply outscore UM.
I think that it will be a good one. I’m thinking that it will be closer than the spread and may even go to overtime. The key will be whether Duggan, Miller, and Johnston will provide enough firepower for the Frogs to keep up. I’m betting (not real money, mind you) that they can.
Michigan 38, TCU 35