NCAA FB

No. 3 TCU out-duels No. 2 Michigan in highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl in history

Dec 31, 2022, 9:07 PM
TCU players celebrate after the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Mi...

TCU players celebrate after the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Michigan, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. TCU defeated Michigan 51-45. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The stands at State Farm Stadium vibrated as No. 3 TCU and No. 2 Michigan put together the highest-scoring show in Fiesta Bowl history and the second-highest scoring College Football Playoff game to date on Saturday.

TCU came away with a 51-45 victory to advance to the National Championship Game on Jan. 9, a dramatic turnaround after going 16-18 over the past three seasons.

The Horned Frogs (12-1) never trailed the 13-0 Wolverines, withstanding big swing after big swing in what became an outrageous second half. In the third quarter, 44 points were scored but 41 of those occurred halfway through the period.

“It was a very unusual game,” TCU’s first-year head coach Sonny Dykes said postgame. “The last couple of minutes of the third quarter seemed like it lasted about an hour. It was wild, just big play after big play and big play, momentum swing. But the thing we did over and over and over again was answer.”

Michigan cut the deficit to 21-16 with under seven minutes on the clock in the third, getting into the end zone for the first time all game with a 34-yard flea flicker from quarterback J.J. McCarthy to receiver Ronnie Bell.

After surrendering 13 unanswered points, TCU responded beautifully with a 75-yard touchdown drive that only took 2:07.

McCarthy was intercepted by linebacker Dee Winters on the ensuing drive, who took it to the house for TCU’s second pick-6 of the ballgame — the first by Bud Clark opened the Fiesta Bowl’s scoring in the first quarter.

The score was 34-16, but this game’s outlook changed on a dime over and over during the next three minutes:

  • McCarthy picked up 59 yards on two rushes when he got the ball back and broke the goal line just over a minute after throwing what could have been a game-sealing pick.
  • TCU followed with a 58-second touchdown drive propelled by a 69-yard rush from running back Emari Demercado.
  • Michigan took all but 46 seconds to respond as McCarthy found Bell again for 44 yards to set up a short TD run.
  • Demercado fumbled to give the ball back to Michigan in the final seconds of the third quarter.

Six touchdowns in less than seven minutes, three in under two minutes. The energy in the stadium could not crescendo any higher.

But the fireworks didn’t yield. Wolverines receiver Roman Wilson helicoptered into the end zone less than a minute into the fourth quarter on a reverse rush.

Michigan, which trailed by three scores less than four game minutes prior, was down 41-38.

TCU’s next drive was critical, but Glendale was chunk play city on Saturday night, and the Horned Frogs had one more in them.

On third-and-7, TCU faced a cover-zero blitz, and quarterback Max Duggan took contact and hit his top receiver Quentin Johnston in the flat.

Johnston made a man miss and had nothing but green grass ahead of him, and he was gone.

The 76-yard touchdown gave TCU a 10-point lead once again with 13:07 remaining.

The Wolverines were not finished, though, as a touchdown with 3:18 left and a defensive stop gave them a chance to steal the game. They just needed to march 75 yards in 52 seconds without any timeouts.

On fourth down, a fumbled snap and wild chase with laterals ended Michigan’s prayer. A review for targeting ensued because nothing about Saturday’s game went normally, but the officials ruled in favor of the Horned Frogs. It was time for purple confetti to rain at State Farm Stadium.

“Continuing to fight, continuing to believe, not worrying about what that last play was, whether it was a successful play, whether it was a bad play — just playing that next play,” Duggan said postgame. “I think that’s kind of our mindset, which helped us kind of fight through some of the momentum swings.”

Johnston was named offensive MVP with six grabs for 163 yards and the touchdown. Winters got the nod for defensive MVP after amassing three tackles for loss, the pick-6 and for generally being everywhere on the defensive end.

Duggan finished 14-for-29 with 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions each. McCarthy was 20-for-34 with 343 yards and two touchdowns and interceptions each.

The Wolverines entered the game with a clear profile, one that matches the identity of a stout Big 10 team. They leaned on a hugely productive running game and won in the trenches.

But, as Dykes pointed out postgame, TCU was the most physical team on Saturday. It was the faster team.

The Horned Frogs picked 263 rushing yards to Michigan’s 185.

Wolverines halfback Donovan Edwards rattled off a 54-yard run to start the game, but Michigan was held to 3.4 yards per carry the rest of the way.

It also came away empty-handed on two trips inside the 2-yard line in the first half, a major factor in its halftime deficit.

“I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the field tonight,” Dykes, a former Arizona offensive coordinator, said. “Our ability to run the ball, we almost out-rushed Michigan for 100 yards.

“Our ability to stop the run, I think, was the difference in the ballgame. … 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.”

TCU was aware it entered the game as underdogs, and Dykes said that wasn’t lost on his team.

He has brought up many times this week alone that TCU was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason poll.

“We heard all week that they were going to out-physical us,” Winters said postgame. “I think it just gave us a little bit of motivation.”

“We just wanted to come out and showcase what the Big 12 is all about,” Winters added.

For Michigan, Saturday was about getting over the hump after it lost in the CFP semifinal last season vs. Georgia.

After coming short, head coach Jim Harbaugh praised his team’s effort, saying despite having made mistakes, the Wolverine were a couple of bounces away from walking out of Glendale winners.

“Really proud of the fight,” Harbaugh said. “They have been locker room heroes the entire season. … Great season that ends one week early.”

“Our whole season preparation has been to win a national championship, and this is the second year that we have lost in the 14th game of the season,” Edwards added. “So we’re just like, ‘We will be back.’ Same thing we said last year.”

TCU will celebrate until it gets back on the plane to Forth Worth, and that’s when the attention will turn to wining the school’s first National Championship since 1938.

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