By Jamie Plunkett
Frogs Today staff writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in the modern college football era, TCU is going to play for the national championship.
Call it a heavyweight battle. A slugfest. A knock-down, drag-out fight. A Waffle House showdown. Whatever you’d like.
Saturday afternoon at State Farm Stadium was everything fans wanted a College Football Playoff game to be. TCU and Michigan delivered, and at the end of the game the Frogs were victorious, 51-45.
TCU is now the first team from the Big 12, and the first team from the state of Texas, to reach the national championship game in the playoff era.
In many ways, the back-and-forth affair reminded people of a bygone Big 12 era, which was nothing if not appropriate. After all, the Frogs honored late Mississippi State Mike Leach on their helmets and it certainly seemed as though the game was destined to honor him.
“There was a time there, right when we took a knee, where I thought about my dad [Spike Dykes], thought about Coach Leach,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “It’s pretty special when you can win one of these games. And you certainly wish you could share it with them. You feel their presence, you really do. And it was, like you said, an old-fashioned shootout and something he would have gotten a kick out of, for sure.”
Ninety-six combined points. 1,015 combined yards. Both Fiesta Bowl records.
Each team took turns throwing haymakers at one another, like two prizefighters determined to deliver the final blow.
TCU threw the biggest punches in the first half.
The Frogs stopped Michigan on a fourth-and-goal “Philly Special” from the TCU 2-yard line on the first drive of the game. Then, after a TCU punt, Bud Clark intercepted J.J. McCarthy and returned it 41 yards for the opening touchdown of the game. Clark’s team-leading fifth interception of the season brought the purple-clad half of State Farm Stadium to its feet.
Minutes later, after another defensive stand from TCU, Duggan plunged in from 1 yard out, running over Michigan safety Rod Moore in the process. The Frogs had several moments throughout the night when they needed 1 yard, and more times than not Duggan did it himself.
TCU continued to pound away at Michigan in the second quarter, mounting a 10-play, 83-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Duggan to Taye Barber, putting the Frogs up 21-3. One more Michigan field goal brought the score at halftime to 21-6.
In the second half, all hell broke loose.
Michigan spent all season pounding teams into submission in the second half of games, and it looked for a moment as if that would be the case again. Ten consecutive points from the Wolverines to open the half had Frogs fans feeling uneasy.
McCarthy, who finished the game with 395 total yards, three total touchdowns and two interceptions, found Ronnie Bell on a flea-flicker to bring Michigan within five, 21-16.
With momentum shifting back to the Wolverines, TCU needed a quality drive. Emari Demercado delivered.
After Duggan connected with Quentin Johnston for a 46-yard gain, Demercado took five consecutive carries 29 yards to paydirt, putting TCU up 28-16.
TCU’s bellcow for the bulk of the season has been Kendre Miller. Miller’s 1,300-plus rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns have paced TCU, and the junior carried a 14-game touchdown streak into Saturday.
But in the second quarter, Miller was twisted up by two Michigan defenders on his way to the goal line. He immediately limped off the field to get looked at by trainers, and was spotted on the stationary bike.
He tried to play in the third quarter, but came out after two plays and did not return to the game with what he said was a minor MCL injury in his knee. He expects to play in the Jan. 9 national title game.
Demercado stepped up in his absence, finishing the night with 150 rushing yards and a touchdown. It was the most rushing yards by a single player against Michigan all season.
“He’s one of those guys that’s ready every week,” Dykes said. “When he gets the opportunity, he always makes the most of it. I’m not surprised that he did what he did tonight because that’s what he’s done all year when he gets an opportunity.”
It didn’t take long for the Frogs to deliver their next body blow to Michigan.
Just three plays into the Wolverines’ next drive, Dee Winters intercepted McCarthy and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. It marked the second time in the last three games that TCU has returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game. Prior to this season, the Frogs hadn’t accomplished the feat since 2009.
Winters, the Fiesta Bowl Defensive Player of the Game, finished with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception and a pass breakup.
Things accelerated even further following Winters’ big play.
The next three drives, two for Michigan and one for TCU, each needed just three plays to reach the end zone.
The Wolverines, trailing 34-16, needed a big play, and McCarthy delivered. He rattled off two big runs for a total of 59 yards, scoring a touchdown and bringing Michigan to within 12. The Wolverines went for two, but a big play from Johnny Hodges kept Michigan out of the end zone.
The Frogs followed that up with a 69-yard run from Demercado and a 1-yard touchdown run from Duggan.
Michigan responded again, scoring a touchdown and making the 2-point conversion less than a minute later to cut their deficit to 41-30.
Disaster seemed to strike as the third quarter came to a close, when Demercado fumbled the ball away on the TCU 27. Michigan needed just two plays to score, cutting the Frogs’ lead to 41-38 just moments into the final frame.
As they have all season, though, the Frogs maintained their composure.
“I think what Coach Dykes and our strength coach, Coach Kaz [Kazadi] do so well is preaching next play,” Duggan said. “If you walked up and down our sideline you are going to hear everybody on the sideline saying ‘Next play.’ 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. I think that’s kind of our mindset, which helped us kind of fight through some of the momentum swings.”
TCU’s “next play,” of sorts, was a 76-yard touchdown pass from Duggan to Johnston. Johnston, the Fiesta Bowl’s Offensive Player of the Game, finished the night with 163 yards and a touchdown on six catches, bringing his season yardage total to over 1,000.
Johnston’s score proved to be the game-winner.
A Griffin Kell field goal extended TCU’s lead to 51-38. Michigan scored one more touchdown, but the Frogs did just enough down the stretch to hold on.
A Jordy Sandy 50-yard punt with less than a minute left gave the Wolverines a 75-yard field to try and win the game. But on fourth-and-10, McCarthy fumbled the snap. Donovan Edwards picked it up for Michigan, scrambled around and threw it to Colston Loveland, but Millard Bradford dragged him to the ground.
Duggan took one knee as Frogs fans celebrated, and the purple and white confetti began to fall from the ceiling.
“This is a big win,” Duggan said. “We’re going to celebrate it tonight as a team and as a fan base. But we know that we got a bigger one coming up, and that’s the one we really want.”
Jamie Plunkett, email@example.com