TCU earns championship berth after besting Michigan in electric Fiesta Bowl

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The team nobody expected produced a result few predicted in a manner no one envisioned.

No. 3 TCU, a months-long subject of “Do they belong?” debates, knocked off No. 2 Michigan 51-45 on Saturday in a wacky College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. The Horned Frogs will face No. 1 Georgia in the championship game Jan. 9 in Inglewood, California.

A first-half slog turned into a second-half track meet. Yet whatever the pace or circumstance, TCU holding the lead was the only constant. Name it, and the Horned Frogs provided it: Deep passing plays, yards after catch, wild scrambles, defensive stops and scores. They needed it all to upset Michigan, which fell into a 21-3 hole that proved too deep to escape.

“What this group did tonight is what they’ve done all year,” first-year TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “Just play really tough football, hard-nosed football. Believe in each other, in their teammates. And we found a way to overcome adversity, so kind of what we’ve done all year. That’s who we are as a football team.”

TCU quarterback Max Duggan, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, made timely plays. The Horned Frogs’ defense stifled Michigan early, daring first-year starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy to beat them while subduing the Wolverines’ acclaimed rushing attack. TCU’s defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns and held Michigan scoreless twice inside the 2-yard line, allowing the Frogs to build their sizable lead. Michigan didn’t score a touchdown during its first nine possessions.

The Frogs’ second-half defense, however, was throttled for 39 points – but produced that needed last stop. TCU punted to Michigan with 52 seconds left. The Wolverines needed 65 yards to win it; they produced zero in four plays. TCU’s pressure got to McCarthy and forced a loose ball on fourth down that Michigan couldn’t turn into a miracle. Officials reviewed the play for possible targeting, but opted against making the call, ending the game.

This one seemed to deserved a stressful finish. It was the highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl in history, creating a new highlight every few minutes. TCU had a halftime advantage (21-6) that it protected as the third quarter went off the rails. The teams combined for 44 points in the third, which included touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. Context to the bedlam: TCU led 34-16 early in the quarter. It led 41-30 entering the fourth.

“The thing we did over and over and over again was answer,” Dykes said. “It was kind of an old-fashioned Big 12 shootout in some ways.”

Much of the preconceived thoughts on TCU were off the mark. Michigan, supposedly with a physical advantage, was outmuscled throughout the afternoon. Michigan, with veteran coach Jim Harbaugh, was outsmarted by Dykes and his staff in every pivotal situation. In the defining sequences, TCU always responded. Michigan (13-1) hurt itself with a cluster of self-made mistakes.

“(TCU) did an outstanding job, made some really big plays,” Harbaugh said. “We just didn’t get fitted right. That was disappointing. Big plays being made, mistakes being made. Both teams. We just had one less or more than we needed, and that ended up being the difference in the game.”

One year after Georgia trounced Michigan in the semifinals, the Wolverines’ quest for redemption ended in similar fashion: The No. 3 team dismantling them in the semifinals. For all TCU’s jubilation, Michigan is feeling equivalently bitter. The Wolverines will lament their miscues. The two thrown pick-sixes. The oodles of blown coverages that will torment defensive coordinator Jesse Minter through the spring and summer.

And those empty trips inside the 2: Michigan squandered a fourth-and-2 when it ran a botched “Philly Special” play in the first quarter. In the second, Roman Wilson’s 50-yard touchdown catch was called back – on a questionable call – and placed at the 1. Michigan lost a fumble on the next play.

TCU didn’t have such inefficiencies. Duggan was a magician, finding plays and yards when none appear visible. The numbers weren’t illustrious – 14-of-29 passing for 225 yards, two touchdowns and a pick – but his backyard style helped TCU continue scoring. The Wolverines, considered a bigger and meaner defense than what TCU typically would face in the Big 12, looked out of sorts.

“We heard all week how they were going to out-physical us, so it was motivating,” said linebacker Dee Winters, the game’s defensive MVP with seven tackles, three tackles for loss and a pick-six. Receiver Quentin Johnston won offensive MVP with six catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.

This was a game that will be referenced for years. Like Boise State’s stunning victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or Georgia’s comeback against Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose Bowl. The crowd of over 71,000 – which seemed more purple than maize – was treated to early fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The teams combined for 1,016 yards, with Michigan outgaining TCU by 40 yards, and 12 touchdowns.

TCU feels like the first true underdog – or underfrog, if one prefers – to make the CFP Championship game. The title game itself has been loaded with bluebloods regardless of seeding: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Oregon are the only teams who’ve made the CFP Championship game in its eight-year existence.

The Horned Frogs now become the “Which of these isn’t like the other?” on that list. They already were the first Texas school to make the CFP, a notable accomplishment given the state schools’ resources. They’re now the Big 12′s first representative in the championship game. They were picked seventh in the conference in the preseason poll.

“At some point, you stop caring about what everybody says,” Dykes said.

TCU (13-1) has a penchant for winning close games, but in a sport of style points, that often left them underappreciated. When the Frogs played at Texas in November, they weren’t even favored. They won that game 17-10 to become 10-0. It was their fourth of five one-possession victories during the season.

The Frogs defeated SMU, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor by a one possession. They needed a walk-off field goal to top the Bears. Their schedule won’t be compared with the SEC West, yet as other highly ranked teams lost around them, they kept figuring out ways to stay unbeaten. Perhaps it’s only appropriate their win Saturday was by one-score despite leading by double digits much of the game.

TCU’s undefeated record gave them little margin for error on conference championship weekend, when they lost in overtime to Kansas State. They didn’t win the Big 12, but they made the CFP anyway. The only other possible option was a two-loss Alabama, which shredded that same Wildcats team earlier Saturday, but that never truly felt in play.

“That stung for everybody,” Duggan said of the loss to Kansas State. “For us to battle back and avenge that loss and win this tonight against a great opponent, have an opportunity to play for a national championship, that means so much to the guys in the locker room, the coaching staff, the fans.”

TCU quelled its critics with an electric win in Arizona. Dykes noted, “It validates the committee.” The Frogs sliced through a vaunted Michigan defense and proved better in every facet. Even the greatest TCU skeptic must tip their cap. Amid the craziness, TCU never relinquished the lead.

Next, TCU returns west for the national championship against Georgia. They will be underdogs – just how they would like it. With the Bulldogs making it to Inglewood, they’ll see college football’s feel-good team across the sideline.

Just remember, Georgia, this Cinderella prefers horns to heels.

“(The underestimating) isn’t going to stop now,” Dykes said. “We play again in (nine) days, and we’re going to hear the same crap we heard leading into this game. We have to do what we did in this game, answer the criticism and do what we’re supposed to do.”

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