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Fiesta Bowl 2022: Breaking down Michigan-TCU clash

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — The Post’s Ethan Sears breaks down the Fiesta Bowl (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN) between No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 TCU: 

When Michigan has the ball 

The Wolverines are missing star running back Blake Corum, but their bread and butter is still going to be handing the ball off — to sophomore Donovan Edwards instead. TCU had a middle-of-the-road run defense, and that was in the quicker, less physical Big 12. Finding a way to keep up with Michigan’s offensive line, which won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best for the second straight year, will be vital. Otherwise, Edwards can win this game by himself. The Wolverines’ J.J. McCarthy is a formidable quarterback, but the sophomore has been inconsistent at times. Keeping Michigan off schedule and forcing the ball into McCarthy’s hands is the best route here, but it’s an uphill climb and the quarterback’s talent shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Edge: Michigan 

J.J. McCarthy
J.J. McCarthy
Getty Images

When TCU has the ball 

First and foremost, this is about Max Duggan. The senior quarterback isn’t as purely talented as Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, whom Michigan slowed down enough to beat the Buckeyes, but he is a much tougher player and one who may be better fit for a big game. Under head coach Sonny Dykes, TCU is running an RPO-heavy offense that can outnumber defenses and present easy decisions for Duggan. That has worked to give the Horned Frogs the 13th-ranked offense in the country, and the trio of Quentin Johnston, Taye Barber and Derius Davis catching passes is formidable as well. Running back Kendre Miller is another star, with 1,342 rushing yards this season. Michigan’s defense has answered the call on every occasion this season, but stopping the Horned Frogs completely probably won’t happen. 

Edge: TCU 

Max Duggan
Max Duggan
Getty Images

Special teams 

Michigan might have the best kicking in the country. Jake Moody won the Lou Groza Award for best college kicker last year, has a perfect record on extra points and went 26-for-32 on field-goal attempts this season. TCU’s Griffin Kell has a slightly better percentage, but with far fewer attempts (16-for-18), and has missed two extra points. Michigan’s Brad Robbins also has a slightly higher average yards per punt (42.0) than TCU’s Jordan Sandy (39.6). Both team’s primary returners — Davis for the Horned Frogs and A.J. Henning for the Wolverines — can be dynamic at times, but Michigan has a decisive advantage in kicking and punting. 

Edge: Michigan 

Coaching 

Jim Harbaugh is prone to the occasional clock management mishap or ill-fated idea, but what he has done to bring Michigan back from the dead over the last two seasons stands on its own as a feat, and his game-planning against Ohio State was a masterstroke. Sonny Dykes deserves a lot of praise himself for turning TCU from a 4-8 program at rock bottom into a playoff team, and has navigated a lot of close victories this season, but Harbaugh has coached on the biggest stages before and should be well-equipped here. 

Edge: Michigan 

Players who could decide the game (non-quarterbacks) 

Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU 

Johnston might be the best receiver not named Marvin Harrison Jr. the Wolverines have faced all year. The junior is 6-foot-4, 193 pounds and has the explosiveness to go make a play when needed. The trio of Gemon Green, Mike Sainristil and D.J. Turner has performed in every matchup so far this year for Michigan, but this will be another tough ask. Johnston (as well as fellow WRs Taye Barber and Derius Davis) can make a lot happen — and they’ll be needed for the Horned Frogs to win this game. 

Ronnie Bell, WR, Michigan 

Bell is the old soul on this Michigan team — his debut came back in 2018, when he was an unheralded freshman the staff had convinced to come to Ann Arbor to play football instead of taking a basketball scholarship at Missouri State. After tearing his ACL in the opener last season, Bell has been McCarthy’s favorite target this season with 56 receptions for 754 yards, 22 more catches than the player with the next most, tight end Luke Schoonmaker. Expect McCarthy to look for him as a security blanket in tight spots. 

Dee Winters, EDGE, TCU 

The senior outside linebacker has 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, both of which lead the Horned Frogs. His tackling has been suspect at times, but Winters might be TCU’s best chance to get some pressure on McCarthy. He’ll face a tough matchup in Michigan left tackle Ryan Hayes, and it’ll be worth keeping an eye on where the pendulum swings between the two of them. 

Prediction 

Unlike most CFP semifinals in recent years, this won’t be a blowout. Both offenses prove able to move the ball and TCU hangs in until late in the fourth quarter. Duggan will be up to the moment and might provide another performance to remember after his bloody-faced, overtime-forcing effort in the Big 12 title game. But that ended in a TCU loss, and so will this game. Michigan ultimately has too much physicality, too much talent and too much experience — a sizable chunk of its roster suffered defeat in last year’s Orange Bowl and wants redemption — to lose this game. 

Michigan 34, TCU 23

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