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TCU tops Michigan in wild CFP semifinal that had just about everything

For all the drama of the fourth quarter, nothing could match the epic goofiness of the third.

TCU
TCU wide receiver Taye Barber (4) celebrates his touchdown against Michigan during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz.(Rick Scuteri / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By Chuck Carlton

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The little private 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 Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9 against Georgia (14-0).

“We look forward to teeing it off again in 10 days and having a chance at a national championship,” first-year coach Sonny Dykes said.

Expect TCU to be a substantial underdog in the title game just like it was Saturday.

“We know we’re going to hear it again,” Dykes said. “We play again in 10 days, and we know we are going to hear the same crap we did leading up to this one.”

Purple pride was on full display in the postgame victory celebration at State Farm Stadium and in the stands, where fans had battle travel headaches to reach the game.

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 Quentin 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 snap and knelt after a strange delay for a targeting review, TCU was LA bound. The playoff snub from 2014 had been exorcised. The long journey through multiple conferences to get into the Big 12 was more than worth it.

The Horned Frogs become the first team from Texas and the first from the Big 12 to win a CFP game. The school’s last national championship came in 1938.

TCU was 5-7 last season and parted ways midway through the season with Gary Patterson, the winningest coach in school history.

Enter 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. He was despondent, fighting back tears after the Big 12 title game loss to Kansas State in overtime.

“This one feels a bit better,” Duggan said.

There were plenty of other heroes. Johnston was named the game MVP with six catches for 163 yards and the touchdown. Emari Demarcado 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.

“We wanted to show everyone what the Big 12 was all about,” Winters said.

TCU more than held its own in the trenches after hearing all week long how Michigan would grind up the Horned Frogs into submission. Dykes admitted afterward that all disrespect to his team bothered him.

“We were definitely the most physical team on the field tonight,” Dykes said.

TCU held Michigan to 185 yards rushing, 58 yards under its average. No team had scored more than 27 points on Michigan all season. Even with two interception returns for touchdowns, TCU’s offense put up 37 points.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called TCU “a very opportunistic team, they’re a resilient team. They’re really a great football team and played great football no doubt.”

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 two 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.

Dykes compared it to an old-school Big 12 game and mused that his late coaching buddy Mike Leach would have “gotten a kick” out of third quarter.

“Big play after big play after big play after momentum swing,” Dykes said. “But the big thing we did – we answered.”

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, Kalel Mullings finishing it from a yard out.

“There were big plays being made; mistakes being made,” Harbaugh said. “Both teams, we just had one less than we needed, and they had one more. And that ended up being the difference in the game.”

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 and TCU led 14-0 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.

The two 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.

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