TCU wide receiver Taye Barber (4) runs for a touchdown against Michigan during the first half at the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022.

HOLLYWOOD BOUND: No. 3 TCU outlasts No. 2 Michigan 51-45, rides roller coaster season to within one win of its first CFP championship

No. 3 TCU 51, No. 2 Michigan 45

As No. 3 TCU took the field at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona for its first-ever College Football Playoff game versus No. 2 Michigan, it was greeted by a capacity crowd split between fans in maize and blue and those in purple. The moment ahead for TCU felt appropriately massive, the opportunity of a lifetime for a team picked by most to finish in the middle of the Big 12 before the season began.

Unlike Michigan or No. 1 Georgia, TCU’s path to the Playoff was littered with adversity. The Horned Frogs trailed in the second halves of more games than any other team in the College Football Playoff and won five games by just one possession. While many college football fans and media members viewed that adversity as proof that the Frogs did not belong, there was never any doubt within the program that TCU deserved the opportunity. The Horned Frogs survived a rigorous schedule, going 5-1 against ranked opponents, with their only loss coming at the hands of a top 10 foe in overtime.

Horned Frogs’ head coach Sonny Dykes spoke pregame about the Frogs’ preparation, proud of his team’s body of work despite the knowledge that 90% of the team had never played in a bowl game. Dykes knew his team could take a punch and bounce back, and it wasted no time showcasing that ability Saturday afternoon.

Michigan received the opening kickoff, and the Frogs were pushed onto their heels within seconds. The Wolverines’ first offensive play was exactly the type of explosive run TCU’s defense hoped to avoid, a 54-yard gallop down the middle of the field by Donovan Edwards. Michigan eventually faced a fourth-and-goal from the TCU 2-yard line, an early opportunity for the Frogs to prove their mettle physically. Instead of running the football up the gut, Michigan attempted its version of the “Philly Special,” a double-reverse designed for a wide receiver to throw the ball toward quarterback J.J. McCarthy. TCU blew the play up, getting the turnover on downs and a massive early momentum boost.

Although TCU’s offense couldn’t get anything going on its opening possession, the Frogs’ defense made its mark again moments later. TCU defensive back Bud Clark picked off Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s first throw of the possession, returning the ball for a 41-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Michigan’s offense continued to struggle with TCU’s defensive pressure on the next drive, going three-and-out. The Horned Frogs began to march downfield with their own power run game following the stop, as Kendre Miller and Max Duggan each broke free for chunk plays on the ground. Duggan would eventually burrow into the end zone from 1-yard out, extending TCU’s first quarter lead to 14-0 – the largest deficit the Wolverines had faced all season.

Michigan finally responded with a field goal early in the second quarter, capping off a drive mostly built through passes downfield. Max Duggan’s first pass of the ensuing drive was intercepted after being tipped into the air, and suddenly momentum had begun building against the Frogs. Hoping to take advantage of the shift in energy, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy immediately hurled a deep pass toward the end zone. The pass was caught by Wolverines’ wide receiver Roman Wilson at the TCU 1-yard line, setting Michigan up with a golden opportunity to pull within four.

TCU’s defense stood tall again, this time forcing a turnover. Michigan running back Kalel Mullings fumbled, and the Horned Frogs took over at their own 20-yard line after recovering the football in the end zone. TCU punted the ball away just five plays later, but the change in field position was an important net positive for the Frogs.

Michigan would punt on its next possession, and TCU continued to apply pressure. The Horned Frogs marched 83 yards over 10 plays, eventually extending their lead to 21-3 when Max Duggan escaped a sack to connect with Taye Barber for a 6-yard touchdown with five minutes left in the half.

Michigan reduced the deficit to 21-6 on the final play of the half when kicker, Jake Moody, set a school record with his 59-yard field goal. The game remained close statistically at the break despite the Frogs’ two-touchdown lead on the scoreboard. Michigan held a slight yardage advantage, but the story of the game through two quarters was the TCU defense’s ability to bend but not break and take advantage of the opportunities it was given.

TCU failed to get anything going on its first drive of the second half, and the Wolverines threatened quickly on their next chance with the football. A deep pass from J.J. McCarthy to Ronnie Bell set Michigan up inside the TCU 5-yard line, but TCU’s defense continued its stellar play when backed into a corner. After three plays gained nothing, the Wolverines settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-9 with 9:33 to go in the third quarter.

Michigan got the football back after an accurate pass by Max Duggan tipped off wideout Derius Davis’ hands and into the hands of Wolverines’ cornerback Mike Sainristil for an interception. Michigan continued its habit of taking deep shots toward the end zone with a flea flicker just three plays after the turnover, a 34-yard strike from McCarthy to Ronnie Bell to make it 21-16 Frogs.

Suddenly nursing a much smaller advantage, the Horned Frogs did not back down in the slightest. Max Duggan quickly connected with future NFL wide receiver Quentin Johnston on a 46-yard pass to put the Frogs in Michigan territory, and running back Emari Demercardo plowed his way into the end zone moments later to re-extend the TCU lead to 12 points. The touchdown was only the third allowed by Michigan in its last nine second halves of action.

TCU linebacker Dee Winters electrified the purple portion of the sellout crowd on Michigan’s next offensive series, sending Frogs’ fans into a frenzy with a 29-yard pick-six to extend TCU’s lead to 34-16. In a game many pundits expected Michigan to physically dominate, the Wolverines seemed to be crumbling under the pressure of the Horned Frogs instead.

To Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s credit, he single-handedly willed the Wolverines to a touchdown on their next drive. McCarthy broke free on runs of 39 yards and 20 yards, the latter of which found the end zone – but after Michigan’s attempt at a 2-point conversion came up short, TCU’s lead was 34-22 with two minutes left in the third.

Michigan’s vaunted defense continued to look overmatched by TCU on the Frogs’ next drive when Emari Demercado broke free on a 69-yard scamper to the Wolverines 1-yard line. Max Duggan sneaked into the end zone for his second rushing score on the next play, and TCU pushed its lead to 41-22 while its rushing yardage advantage ballooned to 240-143. 

The back-and-forth offensive fireworks display continued when the Wolverines next possessed the ball, as yet another deep ball found its target. J.J. McCarthy’s 44-yard completion to Ronnie Bell set Michigan up at the TCU 1-yard line, and Kalel Mullings ran in for a score on the next play. This time, Michigan’s 2-point conversion was successful, making it 41-30. Moments later, the Wolverines’ defense forced and recovered a fumble on the final play of the third quarter. Once again, momentum had shifted squarely toward the maize and blue – and within two plays, Michigan WR Roman Wilson cruised into the end zone on an end-around from 18 yards out, and Ronnie Bell caught a pass to convert the 2-point conversion. TCU’s lead was just 41-38 early in the fourth quarter.

Max Duggan turned to his uber-talented wide receiver to stop the bleeding. Duggan connected with Quentin Johnston on a short pass to the sideline, but one broken tackle was all Johnston needed en route to a 76-yard touchdown catch and run to put TCU up 48-38. A terrific punt return by Derius Davis put the Frogs back in scoring position at the 16-yard line less than a minute later, and a Griffin Kell field goal extended the TCU lead to 51-38 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The 51 points scored by the Frogs set a new school record for points scored in a bowl game, and it felt inevitable that they’d add to it.

Each defense finally picked up a stop as the fourth quarter clock began to wind down, but the pressure of the game remained squarely on Michigan’s shoulders. The Wolverines worked their way into TCU territory with less than six minutes to go, but precious time oozed away as Michigan tried to bully its way forward. J.J. McCarthy finally connected with Roman Wilson in the end zone with 3:18 to go, making it 51-45 Horned Frogs.

TCU’s offense, which leaned on its ability to run the football all afternoon, came up two yards short of a first down that could have iced the game. The Frogs punted the ball back to the Wolverines instead, who took over at their own 24-yard line with 52 seconds left and no timeouts, needing a touchdown.

Despite allowing 45 points, it felt all afternoon like TCU’s defense came up with big plays when it needed them. The Horned Frogs appeared to have made a fourth down stop to complete the victory with 25 seconds left, but a targeting review left the entire stadium in limbo. Targeting was not ruled, and TCU’s defense celebrated a victory that clinched a trip to the National Championship.

TCU, doubted all season, now finds itself one win away from its first-ever national championship. Awaiting the Horned Frogs will be either No. 1 Georgia or No. 4 Ohio State at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. Surely, Sonny Dykes’ team will be a big underdog once again.

Saturday’s College Football Playoff Semifinal was everything TCU’s season has been. The Frogs experienced a season’s worth of highs and lows but never gave in as the Wolverines pounded on the door all game long. Somehow, TCU never trailed, because somehow, TCU scored 30 second-half points against the best second-half defense in college football.

The Frogs weren’t perfect. Max Duggan was victimized by two interceptions that hit his wide receivers in their hands, and Emari Demercado lost a fumble right as the Wolverines seemed ready to sprint past the Horned Frogs. TCU’s defense allowed a 54-yard run on the game’s first play and more than 500 yards of offense on the night. But every time the game seemed to be slipping from TCU’s hands, the Horned Frogs responded with another huge play.

TCU opened the season with Chandler Morris as its starter at quarterback and Kendre Miller as its starter at running back. Yet when the offense needed big plays to pull away from the talented Wolverines, it was two players who started the season as backups in Max Duggan and Emari Demercado making the majority of them.

Plenty of others contributed to the Frogs’ landmark win as well. Quentin Johnston finished the game with six receptions, 163 yards, and a touchdown. Senior Dylan Horton sacked J.J. McCarthy four times, and Dee Winters and Bud Clark each returned interceptions for game-changing touchdowns.

TCU’s season has been a roller coaster, and its New Year’s Eve triumph over No. 2 Michigan was no different. Quarterback Max Duggan and head coach Sonny Dykes have become accustomed to the emotional swings of a TCU football game, each perfect representatives of a Horned Frogs team that won’t back down from anyone.

It’s only fitting that the Horned Frogs are heading to Hollywood to finish their story, a tale that will be retold for generations in Fort Worth and throughout Texas. Every expert will pick either Georgia or Ohio State to beat them, and maybe they’ll be right. Sonny Dykes’ team won’t be listening, though – they’ll be preparing to match the physicality of another team that thinks it can run them over.

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