No. 2 Michigan heads into the Fiesta Bowl as roughly touchdown favorites against No. 3 TCU after completing the program’s first unbeaten regular season since 1997.
Already, the Wolverines have been pegged as the biggest threat to No. 1 Georgia’s quest for back-to-back national championships. But before this anticipated matchup with the Bulldogs can take place, they’ve got to get past one of the great Cinderella stories in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
Picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll, the Horned Frogs opened 12-0 under new coach Sonny Dykes before losing in overtime to Kansas State in the conference championship game. Seasoned by a run of close games in league play, TCU is comfortable playing from behind thanks to one of the most potent offenses in the Bowl Subdivision.
The matchup of quarterbacks Max Duggan and J.J. McCarthy is just one factor that will determine the first of two College Football Playoff semifinals. There’s also how each team defends the run and whether Michigan can control the line of scrimmage on both sides after a dominant run through the Big Ten.
These are the keys to the Fiesta Bowl between the Wolverines and Horned Frogs:
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Bottling up Donovan Edwards
Stopping Michigan’s ground game will be next to impossible. The Wolverines head into the playoff ranked fifth nationally in rushing yards per game (243.0) and second nationally in touchdowns (38), with at least 165 yards in every game and nine games with at least 225 yards. The Horned Frogs’ run defense has had moments, including a terrific performance to pull off a close win against Texas, but gave up at least 200 yards in two of the last three games of the regular season, including 205 yards on 4.7 yards per carry against Kansas State.
The key will be limiting the big plays. And good luck with that: Donovan Edwards has stepped in for an injured Blake Corum and brought major explosiveness to the Michigan running game. He wrote himself into program history with 216 yards and 9.8 yards per carry in the blowout win against Ohio State and then was named the MVP of the Big Ten championship game with 185 yards and a score against Purdue.
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J.J. McCarthy playing a clean game
In this case, a clean game doesn’t necessarily mean just avoiding turnovers, something McCarthy does extremely well. He’s tossed just three interceptions in 288 attempts, with just one coming since the Wolverines’ win on Oct. 15 against Penn State. Only four quarterbacks have 20 or more touchdowns and fewer than four interceptions: McCarthy, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall and Fresno State’s Jake Haener. McCarthy also picked up his game in recent weeks, with six touchdowns and an average of 10.3 yards per attempt against the Buckeyes and Boilermakers.
Instead of focusing on turnovers, TCU can try to fluster McCarthy with pressure and slow down Michigan’s passing attack. There are examples of Big Ten defenses successfully taking him out of his comfort zone, including a run of mediocre performances in November against Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois. The Frogs aren’t great at getting the quarterback on the ground – they’re tied for 70th nationally with 26 sacks – but the pass defense has 14 interceptions while allowing passers to complete just 53.9% of their attempts, good for ninth in the country.
Getting Max Duggan involved on the ground
The running game doesn’t really go through Duggan, who went for 404 yards during the regular season with two games of at least 100 yards. The second of those came in an epic performance in the Big 12 championship game loss against Kansas State. While all-conference pick Kendre Miller (1,342 yards) does most of the work, keeping Duggan involved on the ground could keep the Wolverines’ defense off balance and open things up for the entire TCU offense. With the Frogs’ chances increased dramatically by maintaining possession and putting together extended drives, it seems almost mandatory that Duggan carries over his role from their last time out.
Making it a four-quarter game
With boundless confidence and a never-quit attitude, TCU has found a comfort zone in close, four-quarter games and also coming from behind. Hanging around with Michigan and not getting pushed into an early deficit would play in the Horned Frogs’ favor and put the Wolverines into pretty unfamiliar territory – they’ve played only one truly close game, beating Illinois 19-17, and are fresh off beating Ohio State and Purdue by a combined 43 points. A semifinal decided by a single possession in the fourth quarter favors TCU.