GLENDALE, Ariz. — The TCU Horned Frogs will be playing for a national championship.
In one of the wildest games in college football history, No. 3 TCU upset No. 2 Michigan, 51-45, in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. It was highest scoring Fiesta Bowl game and one of the most significant wins in program history.
The Horned Frogs will face the winner of Georgia and Ohio State on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. As the score tells you, it was yet another TCU game that featured drama you would think you’d only see in the movies.
Four touchdowns were scored in four minutes in the third quarter. TCU scored two defensive touchdowns and still rushed for more than 260 yards despite losing Kendre Miller to a first-half injury. The Horned Frogs gave up points, but TCU’s defense came up clutch when it mattered.
With a 51-45 lead, the Horned Frogs needed one last stand. Michigan got the ball back with 52 seconds and no timeouts. With about 75 yards to go for the game-winning score, TCU didn’t allow a first down.
On fourth down Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy fumbled the snap, leading to a wild, sloppy final play that resulted in a loss of a yard.
The Horned Frogs are the first Big 12 team to win a playoff game.
Johnston is WR1
If there was any doubt that Quentin Johnston should be the first receiver selected in the 2023 NFL draft then it is surely gone after he lit up one of the best defenses in the country. Johnston was a big-play machine and made one of the most crucial plays in the game.
The Wolverines had the momentum after they cut TCU’s lead to 41-38 at the start of the fourth quarter, but it was gone in a second. Quarterback Max Duggan (14 of 29, 225 yards, two TD, two INT) hit Johnston (six receptions, 163 yards) on a simple drag route and watched the star do what he’s done all season: Johnston made a defender miss and then outraced the Michigan defense for a 76-yard touchdown. He finished the run with his arms outstretched, gliding into the end zone.
His touchdown was one of three chunk plays that went for 30 yards or more. He did it against the best corner pair TCU has seen all season with All Big Ten corner D.J. Turner and five-star freshman Will Johnson shadowing him most of the game.
When Miller was ruled out early in the second half, it was supposed to be a blow to TCU’s offense. Instead, backup running back Emari Demercado stepped up with his best game of the season. It’s not like Demercado hasn’t been productive this year with just under 500 yards and five touchdowns. But his performance against Michigan was eye-opening.
Demercado rushed for a touchdown, and late in the third quarter he ripped off a 69-yarder right up the middle to the 1-yard line. Duggan punched it in on the next play to put TCU ahead 41-22.
The senior finished with 150 yards and was just the second running back to rush for 100 yards against the vaunted Wolverines defense, and he only needed 17 carries to do it.
Roller coaster third quarter
The Wolverines had never been in a position where they were down 18 points. In fact, a Jim Harbaugh-coached team has never overcome such a deficit in the NFL or NCAA. After falling behind 21-3 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half, TCU had to hold on as Michigan began to whittle down the lead.
A field goal to close the first half and one early in the third quarter brought Michigan within 21-9. Then disaster hit for TCU as Duggan threw a nice pass to an open Derius Davis on third down for a would-be conversion. But Davis bobbled the pass and it was intercepted by a Wolverine defender.
Michigan immediately made the most of the blunder with a trick play. McCarthy (20 of 34, 343 yards, two TD, two INT) used a flea flicker to hit an open Ronnie Bell for a 34-yard touchdown. Now only ahead 21-16, things were beginning to get dire for the Horned Frogs. Duggan had been struggling with his accuracy and touch all afternoon yet when the game tightened up, the Heisman Trophy runner-up made his best throw of the day.
Duggan stood in the face of the blitz, stepped up in the pocket and hit Johnston for a 46-yard pass that was easily his best of the day. Demercado scored to move TCU back ahead 28-16 with 4:25 remaining in the third quarter. You would think the scoring would be about done, right?
The two teams would combine to score four touchdowns in the final four minutes, including a pick-six from Dee Winters that put TCU ahead 34-16. Michigan ended the quarter down 41-30 and then forced a fumble on the final play of the quarter.
TCU safety Bud Clark wasn’t a big fan of some of the comments McCarthy made in the week before the game. The clip of him saying there was “going to be some smashing” if TCU stayed in its base 3-3-5 defense was likely one of them.
The Horned Frogs knew forcing turnovers would be key and Clark came up with the first one as he intercepted McCarthy returned it 41 yards for the first points of the game. On Michigan’s first drive, Clark made one of the game’s biggest plays on the first defensive snap. Donovan Edwards took off and appeared to be headed for a touchdown, but Clark chased him down.
Despite getting all the way to the TCU 2, Michigan failed to score any points as TCU came up with a stop on fourth and goal.
Momentum swings define first half
The first half was wacky, intense but ultimately successful for TCU as the Horned Frogs had a commanding 21-6 lead at halftime. How they got there was equally impressive and surprising. After almost allowing a touchdown on the first offensive play of the game, TCU buckled down and held Michigan without points as the defense wasn’t fooled by the Wolverines attempt at the ‘Philly Special’ on fourth-and-goal.
TCU jumped to a 14-0 lead after Clark’s touchdown and a one-yard touchdown run by Duggan late in the first quarter. The tide was about to turn against TCU after Michigan responded with a field goal. Duggan tried to force a pass into Taye Barber that was eventually deflected in the air and picked off by Michigan’s Rod Moore.
On the next play McCarthy threw a strike to Roman Wilson for what was originally ruled a 51-yard touchdown. However, replay review determined he was a half yard short of the end zone. With Michigan’s offensive line the Wolverines surely would score from the half yard line, right?
The Wolverines fumbled on the next play and TCU recovered for a huge swing. A few series later, TCU capitalized on the Michigan blunder. The Wolverines sent a corner blitz at Duggan, but left Johnston wide open for a 32-yard gain. A few plays later, Duggan avoided the blitz just enough to find Taye Barber for a six-yard touchdown on a crossing route.
Duggan passed Andy Dalton in the TCU record books for touchdown passes as a result. The wonky half ended with Michigan’s Jake Moody breaking a Michigan and Fiesta Bowl record with a 59-yard field goal as time expired.