TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan: GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the biggest upset since the advent of the College Football Playoff, third-seeded TCU rode its underdog status to a 51-45 win over undefeated and No. 2 Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. The win continued TCU’s storybook season and made the Horned Frogs the first Big 12 team to reach the title game in the CFP era.
Highlighted by a 44-point third quarter between the two teams, the semifinal matchup was a back-and-forth affair that saw TCU nearly lose an early 18-point lead, a pair of pick-sixes, two fumbles, a 76-yard touchdown pass, eight scores in just about eight minutes, a record-setting 59-yard field goal and the highest combined score in Fiesta Bowl history.
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“What a hell of a football game,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “Big play after big play after big play, after momentum swing. But the big thing we did: We answered.”
TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan: Despite being outgained by 40 yards on offense, the Horned Frogs never trailed in the game and found success beating Michigan at its own game. TCU outgained Michigan on the ground by nearly 80 yards and converted eight of 16 third-down attempts while the Wolverines converted only three of 13.
“I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the field tonight,” Dykes said. “We almost outrushed Michigan by 100 yards. Our ability to stop the run I think was a difference in the ballgame.”
TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan
TCU will face No. 1 Georgia, a 42-41 winner over No. 4 Ohio State, in the national title game on Jan. 9.
The signs of an explosive game were there early. Starting in place of injured star running back Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards ripped off a 54-yard run on the first play of the game, yet the Wolverines walked away with zero points after a fourth-down try near the end zone was stopped.
On the next Michigan offensive drive, quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw a telegraphed pass to the outside that was picked off by sophomore safety Bud Clark and returned for a touchdown. It was the Frogs’ third pick-six of the season and put them up 7-0.
“They made their fair share of mistakes. We made ours,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They made their big plays. We made our big plays. And we just had one fewer big play.”
The Frogs’ defense was the star of the first half, as Michigan entered the TCU red zone three times and came away with only nine points by way of three field goals thanks to two huge stops and a fumble at the 1-yard line by Kalel Mullings.
“We came up with a lot of energy, we were physical,” defensive lineman Dylan Horton, who had three sacks in the game, said of the start. “I feel like it just showed our confidence. We had confidence coming into the game already.”
TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan: TCU’s offense, meanwhile, used the advantage of the Air Raid’s pace and speed to get out in front. A 12-play, 76-yard drive culminated with quarterback Max Duggan rushing into the end zone from the 1-yard line to put the Frogs up 14-0 in the first quarter. Under coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan had allowed more than 14 points in the first quarter and gone on to win just once, in 2016 against Colorado, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I think they never played the team as fast as us and I think they didn’t realize that,” running back Elmari Demercado, who ran for 150 yards and a touchdown, said. “They did a little premature talking, not really knowing what we’re capable of.”
While Michigan struggled to capitalize, on the other side of the ball, Duggan — the Heisman runner-up — was pulling out all the stops. Duggan wasn’t particularly accurate through the air (he completed 14 of 29 passes for 225 yards), but with his legs, he danced his way to first downs and kept pushing TCU downfield as the Wolverines struggled to mitigate his mobility. He finished with 57 yards on the ground.
TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan: No play was more indicative of that problem than when Duggan rolled out of the pocket with 4:56 left in the second quarter and avoided the Michigan blitz to find Taye Barber for six yards and six more points. The touchdown culminated a 10-play, 83-yard drive that gave the Frogs a commanding 21-6 halftime lead and put the Wolverines in their biggest deficit of the season.
Both teams came out of the tunnels after halftime like they were shot out of a cannon, combining for a 44-point third quarter that featured a flea-flicker touchdown from McCarthy, the second pick-six of the game from the Michigan quarterback, another pick from Duggan and three touchdown drives of under three minutes.
McCarthy and Michigan, who had two of those drives, were not going away. But just as the Wolverines were attempting to claw back, TCU kept responding. This time, it was Demercado who broke loose for a 69-yard run that Duggan finished off with another 1-yard touchdown sneak. The Frogs finished with 41 points through three quarters. All season, the most points Michigan had given up in an entire game was 27, and going back to last season, the most the Wolverines had surrendered in a game was 37.
TCU, ‘the most physical team on the field,’ stuns Michigan: The high scoring was just one of the ways in which the game played to TCU’s liking more so than Michigan’s. All week long, the Wolverines had talked about playing their type of game — a run-focused affair that TCU’s 3-3-5 offense would be unable to stop thanks to Michigan’s offensive line, which had been named the best in the nation. Instead, it would be the Frogs who would win the battle up front.
“What this group did tonight was what they’ve done all year,” Dykes said. “They just played really tough football, hard-nosed football, believed in each other, believed in their teammates, and just found a way to overcome and persevere.”
Dykes said he was “bothered” by how Michigan was being penciled into the final. And if it felt like the Big Ten champions were overlooking TCU, the Frogs surely noticed it too. A video of Michigan linebacker Junior Colson appearing to not know what conference TCU played in was passed around the TCU team at the hotel in the lead-up to the game. Postgame, multiple players talked about how that energized them even more.
“From that moment on, I’ve never seen the coaches that fired up,” Demercado said. “It was a little premature talking, but it backfired on them.”
“I feel like we were being disrespected [by Michigan],” Clark said of the video. “One of the linebackers was like, ‘TCU in the Big 12?’ Well, you know now. You know now.”
The path to a historic victory wasn’t easy. After Michigan cut the TCU lead to three points early in the fourth quarter, Duggan, as he has done all season, responded by making the throw of the game. While facing a blitzing defender in his face and a long third down, Duggan found a crossing Quentin Johnston in stride. Johnston sped his way to the sideline and took it 76 yards to the end zone to put the Frogs back up 10. A field goal extended that lead to 13 early in the fourth quarter.
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Another methodical Michigan touchdown drive by McCarthy cut the margin once again, this time to six points with 3:18 left, setting the stage for TCU and Duggan. The Frogs needed two first downs to finish the game with the ball in their hands. They could get only one, and the Wolverines had 52 seconds to go 75 yards and make a miracle happen.
“It was scary,” linebacker Johnny Hodges, who watched from the sideline, said. “But that’s how football is.”
On fourth-and-10 with 35 seconds left at its own 25, Michigan fumbled the ball and recovered, but the ball did not make it past the first-down marker. As TCU assistant coaches in the upstairs box yelled and screamed, “We’re going to the Natty!” all Duggan had to do was take a knee. The upset of the season — and of the era — was complete.
“We are going to celebrate tonight,” Duggan said. “But we know there is a bigger one we really want.” Read more