By David Beaudin
Frogs Today staff writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The talk leading up to this one was all the same.
From national pundits, to Walmart Wolverines fans who hadn’t sniffed the University of Michigan cafeteria (never mind a classroom) was that the Big Ten was simply too big and physical.
Sure, TCU may have some Big 12 speed in “7-on-7 country,” but that is no match for the big boys in blue and their ground-and-pound approach.
That is, if they even knew what conference the Horned Frogs play in.
When Michigan starting linebacker Junior Colson was asked about the TCU offense earlier in the week, he paused before expounding on their play.
“The type of defenses they played in the Big 12 — uh, they’re in the Big 12, right?” he said.
Colson was actually better than most. The others who thought in TCU is a nice, little-engine-that-could story continued to harp on the fact that the Big 12 just was not built to play with the powerful Big Ten.
That’s a storyline that is lazy at worst and antiquated at best. The days of the Big Ten consisting of big and lumbering farm boys from the Midwest are far gone. In contrast, the Big 12 simply being a league that plays no defense, has an outdated defensive scheme and throws the ball to set up the run is no more.
Regardless, TCU players and coaches answered questions all week about how they would possibly go toe-to-toe with the Michigan big men. For the Wolverines, there was a clear confidence — well, arrogance and cockiness — in the way they talked about pushing around a bunch of “finesse” guys in purple.
The Wolverines’ offensive line, winners of the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s top line unit, were continually talked about being so much bigger and nothing like the Frogs have ever seen.
Yet, had the experts — along with those in their brightest yellow “M” tee shirt from the “Rollback” section — had just done a little research, they would have found out that the Frogs defense did see a bigger offensive line across the board … in practice.
When you compare the two starting offensive lines, TCU averages 6-foot-5 1/4 and 317 pounds to Michigan’s 6-foot-5, 308 pounds.
OK, but what about physical play?
Go ahead and put on the Big 12 championship, or the first TCU-Kansas State game, or the TCU-Baylor game, or Texas. Any need to continue?
The fact remains, to be fair, that there is physicality throughout the country in college football when looking at the highest levels. And to be fair to those who wanted Loyd Carr fired four years after delivering Wolverines fans a national championship for going 8-4, there is also speed everywhere.
Michigan, under coach Jim Harbaugh, has recruited at an elite level. With that comes size and speed. Hence, you get great players and physical specimens that can do it all.
This is especially true when you are recruiting on a national level, which Michigan surely is.
In fact, many of the modern-day recruiting restrictions were instituted as a direct result of Harbaugh’s outside-the-box thinking that many argued crossed the line. Hiring and overpaying recruits’ high school coaches and trainers for lower level jobs, speaking at a recruit’s high school graduation and taking your team to recruiting hotbeds for spring practice — ultimately even taking them overseas for the spring to become more “cultured.”
It all worked. He made a splash. In addition to NCAA restrictions nationwide, recruiting results were also a byproduct of his antics, albeit all legal at the time.
All of that is a story in itself, but the point is Michigan came into this game with speed and TCU walked in big and strong.
Regardless, it didn’t sway the false narrative leading into this one.
In the first half, it did indeed look more like a traditional Big Ten battle … for TCU. The Frogs ran the ball 13 times for 113 yards, while Michigan had 40 less rushing yards in the half but outgained the Frogs in the air by 59 yards in the first half.
Two passes from Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy accounted for 82 of his 148 yards, with 50-yard and 32-yard completions.
It did not end with some run stats in order for TCU to “pretend” to be the better Big Ten foe. Let’s face it, if UCLA and USC can represent the fearsome Big Ten legitimately starting in 2024, TCU can certainly fake it for a night.
The Frogs certainly fooled many. Whether it was TCU quarterback Max Duggan running over Michigan safety Rod Moore in the end zone for a score or running back Kendre Miller trucking the same Michigan safety as an exclamation point to a 14-yard run in the first quarter, Frogs physicality was abound.
That aforementioned big offensive linemen for the Frogs? They were getting underneath Michigan defenders and consistently getting movement.
Dykes admitted that while he expected a lot of the noise and felt his team kept a level head, it wasn’t like he did not know it existed.
“Look, I heard it,” he said. “It frustrated me. Again, I believe in our players. I think we’re a physical and tough-minded football team. It bothered me that we heard all week that we were going to get lined up and run through and all that stuff. I am sure these guys were extra motivated.”
In addition, TCU defensive lineman Dylan Horton recorded three first-half sacks against that vaunted Big Ten Michigan offensive line.
You might look at the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Horton and think it may not be fair to highlight his sacks given his size. Well, if that is the case, look no further than the “undersized” Dee Winters, who is just a tick under 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. Granted, Winters is not considered small for a linebacker, but once again the talking heads kept saying that he would have to play at the line of scrimmage quite a bit against the jumbo Wolverines personnel packages. They were right in one regard: He did have to play at the line of scrimmage a lot in the first half.
Of his five tackles, two were for loss and one was at the line of scrimmage. I’d say that is pretty Big Ten of him.
Maybe you can point to the third-and-goal from the TCU 3-yard line, where the mighty Wolverines decided to do a very traditional Big 12 move in throwing a screen to wide receiver Ronnie Bell as he motioned into the ball.
It was at this point that Frogs’ safety Abe Camara triggered as soon as the ball was thrown, meeting Bell violently for a one-yard loss. Boy, he resembled a Big Ten hitter.
The Wolverines had to settle for a field goal on the next play, making it three goal line stands for the Frogs. Wait — is this the same TCU team that plays in a conference that “doesn’t play any defense?”
The first half featured a very quintessential Big Ten battle and the Frogs went into the break with a 21-6 lead.
OK, so TCU can Big Ten. But what if the Frogs had to play a Big 12 style? Maybe that is more of the challenge?
Luckily, in order to put the debate to bed, we had to look no further than the second half of this one.
After the final horn sounded, the 51-45 TCU victory was part of a Fiesta Bowl record for combined points. The 51 points were a bowl record for the Frogs.
For Michigan in the third quarter alone — McCarthy while taking “shot” plays continuously — was able to complete seven passes of 20 yards or more. Four of those were 30 yards or more, including a 43-yarder. This is not mentioning the 50-yard completion in the first half.
The Big 12 was alive and well in the second half, and TCU not only withstood the flurry, but was able to counter punch its way out and punch its ticket to the national championship game.
The back-and-forth track meet to close this one out featured TCU quarterback Max Duggan hitting wide receiver Quentin Johnston for a 76-yard score and earlier had the Frogs’ offense in a “spread ’em and shred ’em” with running back Emari Demercado splitting the Wolverines defense for a 69-yard run. This was Big 12 football that would have certainly made recently deceased legend Mike Leach proud.
Dykes. who considers Leach his primary mentor, commented on that after this thriller.
“He probably would have gotten a kick out of it, yeah,” Dykes said.
He went on to talk about the emotion of games like this and that he thought about his dad, Coach Spike Dykes, and Leach.
At times in this game, the Frogs had to play what was thought of as what the Big Ten once was. Later in the game, it was a wide-open Big 12 shootout. That is the point. In today’s world of college football, you must be somewhat of an amoeba simply doing what it takes to win football games. TCU has morphed and adapted all year long.
To be fair to Colson, maybe that is the reason he did not know the conference TCU plays in.
Almost on cue to close out the third quarter, TCU lined up with four wide receivers — spread wide to their right, one outside the numbers to their left. Shotgun formation, with Demercado set to Duggan’s left. Wide splits for all five offensive linemen.
The Michigan defense brought both outside linebackers for a total of a six-man pressure. The Wolverines fit every gap perfectly, and there Colson stood in the middle of the defense one-on-one with a backup running back in Demercado, and he missed. So apropos for the soundbite of the week to find himself chasing him down the field, only to lunge to make a tackle and come up with only turf.
It wasn’t all Big Ten football after all. It wasn’t exclusively Big 12 football. It was TCU football, and that has worked for this team all the way to winning 13 games.
This time around, let’s see if they can “SEC” their way to a win over Georgia.
“We know we’re going to hear it again,” Dykes said. “It’s not going to stop now, you know what I’m saying? We’re going to play again in 10 days and we’re going to hear the same crap for 10 days that we heard leading up to this ballgame.”
This team has proven that it can find a way to win under the guise of any conference — whether or not their opponent knows which one they are actually in.
For the Frogs, that is just the way they like it.