GLENDALE, Ariz. – The little school that could is now one victory away from the top of the college football world.
Underdog TCU stunned Michigan and pretty much everybody outside of the Fort Worth city limits, upending Big Ten champion Michigan 51-45 in the College Football Playoffs at the Fiesta Bowl. The Horned Frogs (13-1) advance to the national championship game in Los Angeles on Jan. 9 against the winner of Georgia (13-0) and Ohio State (11-1).
Purple pride was on full display in the postgame victory celebration at State Farm Stadium.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Max Duggan threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more to lead the victory. His 76-yard touchdown pass to Quinton Johnston in the fourth quarter gave TCU a 48-38 lead. The Horned Frogs built the margin to 51-38 on a 33-yard field goal by Griffin Kell.
As had been the pattern throughout a second half gone mad, Michigan responded on a 5-yard touchdown pass from JJ McCarthy to Roman Wilson with 3:18 remaining. After TCU punted, the TCU defense stymied Michigan on its final possession, forcing a fumble.
When Duggan took the snapped and knelt after a strange delay for a targeting review, TCU was LA bound.
The Horned Frogs become the first team from Texas and the first from the Big 12 to win a CFP game.
TCU was 5-7 last season and parted ways midway through the season with Gary Patterson, the winningest coach in school history.
Enter Sonny Dykes from SMU with an upbeat philosophy and a wide-open offense. Few believed. Unranked and unheralded, TCU was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12.
After beginning the season as the team’s backup, Duggan moved into the starting lineup and never relinquished the QB1 label.
There were plenty of other heroes. Johnston was named the game MVP with six catches for 163 yards and the touchdown. Emari Demercado ran for 150 yards and a touchdown, stepping in for the injured Kendre Miller. Defensive end Dylan Horton had four sacks, and linebacker Dee Winters contributed three tackles for loss to go with a return for a touchdown.
TCU more than held its own in the trenches.
“All week long we heard about Big Ten football and how they were going to line up and run over us,” Dykes said. “We did a great job stopping the run and forcing them to do some things they probably weren’t comfortable doing.”
TCU held Michigan to 185 yards rushing, 58 yards under its average.
For all the drama that came in the fourth quarter, nothing could match the epic goofiness of the third quarter.
Stranger Things has nothing on those 15 minutes.
The teams combined for 44 points, Michigan outscoring TCU, 24-20, in a video game come to life. The two teams combined for 420 yards of total offense, 239 by Michigan.
Blink and you missed a touchdown. Or two.
It was crazy and compelling and everything that CFP football should be and seldom is. Consider: Four touchdowns came in the final 2:52 of the quarter.
Winters returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown and an apparently safe 34-16 TCU lead. Michigan then went 69 yards in three plays, with McCarthy scoring on a 20-yard touchdown run.
TCU answered that quick drive with one of its own, with Duggan scoring from a yard out to finish a 78-yard drive. The Wolverines had one response left, going 75 yards in three plays with Kallel Mullings finishing it from a yard out.
TCU led 21-9 at halftime thanks to some bizarre red zone play-calling that may have cost the Wolverines 14 points.
The Horned Frogs, making their first CFP appearance, looked at home in taking advantage. A 41-yard interception return for a touchdown by Bud Clark on Michigan’s first offensive play was followed by a 1-yard Duggan run to cap a 76-yard drive led to a 14-0 TCU lead late in the first quarter.
TCU added another touchdown when Duggan bought time against the Michigan pass rush and found Taye Barber for a 6-yard touchdown.
The Wolverines settled for three Jake Moody field goals, including a Fiesta Bowl record 59-yarder to end the first half.
As weird as the first half was, things were just beginning.