TCU shocks Michigan, advances to CFP title game

TCU shocks Michigan, advances to CFP title game


GLENDALE, Ariz. – The tough old college football playoff, long the province of kingdoms, top predators and chalk, hatched itself one dear Saturday. Somehow, it will send a living group of purple frogs to the Los Angeles finals. How maddening of that.

Never in the previous eight years of semifinals rich in humdrum had an underdog changed all known minds like the Texas Christian Horned Frogs did in their crazy 51-45 deprogramming of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinals. Now TCU, not even close to ranked at the start of the season, with an enrollment of just 12,273, and hardly fancy even in the state full of football snobs, will play in the national championship against either Georgia or Ohio State.

It will try to build on the previous national championship, the one in 1938.

After weathering the crazy struggles of a loved one during the season, this TCU (13-1) managed a crazy game against a foe familiar to football freaks since the dawn of football. A team from Michigan that was more used to law and order found itself in a cursed mess. When the last chance ended 75 yards from victory on a snap that spooked quarterback JJ McCarthy into making a punt and a broken play, it had become something of a figure.

An outlawed 7.5-point underdog from Fort Worth had quick leads of 21-3 and 41-22. The Frogs refused to be bothered as the lead became 21-16 and 41-38. They maintained a sense of belonging through an absurd third quarter in which Michigan (13-1) put up 24 points, but TCU chimed in with a useful 20. They had returned two interceptions for touchdowns, both on excellent read swings — one to Bud Clark for 41 yards to open the scoring and one by Dee Winters for 29 yards in the third. Against a defense ranked fourth in the nation allowing 277 yards per game and 4.5 yards per play, TCU gained 488 and 7 yards per snap. Against a team considered a maestro in the running game, it outrebounded Michigan 263-185.

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Then, at its most needy, with that 41-38 lead and the fourth quarter still fresh, it got a blitz and a late throw from star quarterback Max Duggan and perhaps the best player, wide receiver Quentin Johnston, cutting just ahead .

Johnston caught the ball around the TCU 24-yard line, headed right and headed up the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown. In TCU lore, he’ll run forever, and his chaos piles on top of all the chaos.

The 71,723-strong State Farm Stadium crowd, TCU aligned in purple and the Michigan crowd in maize and blue, had every turn to practice hysteria. Michigan fans even had the rare experience of feeling absolutely certain of defeat and then getting welcome uncertainty back.

Still, TCU didn’t care too much. Michigan wriggled from 21-3 to 21-16 in the third quarter, and Duggan, the TCU quarterback and Heisman finalist with vessels rich in grit, immediately went 46 yards to Johnston’s deep right, starting a six-play, 75 -yard run. Winter’s interception followed that, for a 34-16 lead. Michigan went 69 yards on three plays, TCU 78 on three, Michigan 75 on three, and Michigan 27 on two after a TCU fumble.

Whatever. On third and seven, Duggan and Johnston got their 76-yard connection. Experienced but lesser-known coach Sonny Dykes, who just came across town last offseason from SMU, surpassed experienced and wildly popular coach Jim Harbaugh, who has gone to two straight playoffs and looked to go further than last time.

Of course, Michigan spent the first half appearing to swirl halfway down the drain even in moments of apparent prosperity. The strange reality began with a man-old Michigan handoff to Donovan Edwards, which made sense and then made more sense as Edwards roamed the middle of the field for 54 yards. But when Edwards reached the TCU 21-yard line, something happened.

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Defensive back Bud Clark caught him from behind.

Michigan advanced to the 7-yard line and third down, where the first of many wild plays ensued, as quarterback JJ McCarthy eluded rushers all the way back to the 32, then ran around to the left sideline down to the 2. All of this may have gotten the Wolverines to to think of their invincibility, never a wise tact.

On fourth-and-2, Michigan tried something straight out of a different place than Michigan, a double reverse of a special atrocity that Winters interrupted until it ended with wide receiver Colston Loveland going out at the 7, then sacked by lineman Dylan Horton.

Not long after, McCarthy threw from his own 34-yard line, sent a pass to the right of Ronnie Bell who looked read to the shaft, and saw the same Bud Clark rip off an interception and carry it 41 yards.

Half went sideways like this. Duggan held TCU on drives of 76 yards in 12 plays and 83 yards in 10, both drives full of a variety that Michigan couldn’t hack. Somewhere in the middle Michigan intercepted Duggan – Rod Moore dove to catch a tipped pass – and McCarthy immediately threw deep to Roman Wilson for an apparent 51-yard touchdown, but then a review showed Wilson down at the 1, and then a handing a Michigan fumble into the end zone.

It looked like there were three of Clark’s.

Nothing looked as it should. Where did the benefits in musculature go? TCU found its way through Michigan lines. Horton had three sacks before halftime. TCU ran the ball decently, including when Duggan went ahead and did so out of habit. Michigan missed tackles. Michigan had a second and two – a second and two! — and ended up with a fourth and four. Michigan threatened Duggan a few times, like when he turned it around Taye Barber’s rush for a 6-yard touchdown where Barber slipped into the right pylon.

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This made it 21-3. Only Jake Moody’s 59-yard field goal could make it 21-6, and while Michigan had trailed quite often this season — in seven different games — it had never lagged so drastically.

It managed well to lag drastically behind, for an unfamiliar team. Somehow, in a college football playoff that was being overhauled, it couldn’t catch up to a loved one.

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