Fiesta Bowl: TCU scores wild 51-45 victory over Michigan to advance to national title game

TCU survived Michigan’s frenzied second-half comeback attempts to win a wild Fiesta Bowl, 51-45, and advance to the national championship game.

The Horned Frogs took a 21-6 lead into halftime before all hell broke loose in the third quarter. The teams combined for 44 points in the quarter and 41 points over the final seven minutes of the period after Michigan had briefly cut TCU’s lead to five points.

TCU scored three TDs in less than four minutes in the quarter and Michigan scored with three seconds to go in the third. After recovering a fumble that ended the quarter, Michigan shaved TCU’s lead to a field goal at 41-38 with 14:13 to go.

The lead was three points for all of 66 seconds. TCU QB Max Duggan found WR Quentin Johnston on a third-down crossing route and Johnston broke a tackle and raced 76 yards to the end zone to restore TCU’s two-score lead.

Michigan cut the lead to six points with 3:18 to go and got the ball back with 52 seconds and no timeouts remaining. But the Wolverines had a bad snap on a fourth down with 25 seconds to end the slim chances of the comeback being complete.

The Fiesta Bowl victory means TCU will be playing for its second national title in school history. TCU’s only previous national title came in 1938 when it went 11-0 as Davey O’Brien won the Heisman Trophy. The Horned Frogs are the first Big 12 team to play for the national title since Texas at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

TCU entered the game as an 8-point underdog and its win is the biggest upset of the playoff era. The six-point margin of victory is also just the fourth time a semifinal game has been decided by single digits in 17 matchups.

J.J. McCarthy throws two pick-sixes, Michigan struggles near end zone

TCU opened the scoring when Bud Clark intercepted Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy and ran it back 41 yards for a score. McCarthy then threw his second pick-six of the game in that wild third quarter when Dee Winters returned an interception 29 yards for a score.

That pick-six extended TCU’s lead to 34-16 before Michigan scored 65 seconds later to cut the lead back to 12.

Michigan also had a rough go of it in the red zone. The Wolverines got inside the five on the opening drive of the game but ran Philly Special on fourth down. The play was snuffed out by TCU.

The Wolverines then fumbled later in the first half when Kalel Mullings couldn’t handle a handoff from McCarthy (more on that in a second). And the Wolverines had to settle for a short field goal in the third quarter after getting inside and being unable to punch the ball into the end zone.

Officials have a rough day

The fumbled handoff between McCarthy and Mullings came after what looked to be a long TD pass from McCarthy to Roman Wilson was overruled on replay.

Wilson fell to the ground just short of the goal line as he caught the ball. But he didn’t appear to possess the ball after it bounced off his arm until he was in the end zone. The play was ruled a TD on the field but officials apparently saw indisputable evidence that fans didn’t at home to overturn the call and put the ball inside the one.

That TD pass that wasn’t was set up by a poor spot on Rod Moore’s interception a play before. Moore picked off the ball just inside TCU territory, but the ball was spotted inside the 50 on Michigan’s side of the field. TCU fans would also argue that Michigan committed a pass interference penalty to cause the deflection that Moore caught.

That replay sequence wasn’t the only head-scratching moment for the SEC officiating crew. They called roughing the passer against TCU’s Johnny Hodges in the first half on a hit that wasn’t late or vicious. And there was a catch on Michigan’s final TD drive of the game that clearly should have been reviewed but wasn’t.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines is seen on the sideline during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Michigan has now lost in the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen via Getty Images)

TCU plays a lot without Kendre Miller

Star TCU running back Kendre Miller left the game in the first half after he was awkwardly tackled by the right leg. Miller appeared to be dealing with either a knee or ankle injury and attempted to come back into the game in the second half. But it was clear that he wasn’t 100% and he sat out much of the final 30 minutes.

Miller, who had scored a TD in all 13 of TCU’s games until Saturday, was replaced by Emari Demercado and Demercado had his best game of the season. He rushed 17 times for 150 yards and his 69-yard run in that third-quarter frenzy set up a short TD run.

Heisman finalist Duggan was 14-of-29 passing for 225 yards and two TDs. Both of his interceptions came off deflected passes. Johnston finished the game with six catches for 163 yards. The Horned Frogs entered the game leading the nation in plays of 50 or more yards and the long TD pass to Johnston and Demercado’s big run added to that tally.

The TCU defense also deserves a ton of credit. The Horned Frogs had a dozen tackles behind the line of scrimmage and Winters played one of the best games you’ll see from a defensive player all season. While Michigan racked up over 500 yards of offense, TCU’s defense caused just enough havoc to offset Michigan’s big plays.

Michigan now 0-2 in the playoff

It’s a second straight year of playoff failure for Michigan. The Wolverines were overmatched a season ago against eventual national champions Georgia in the Orange Bowl. And what happened on Saturday night was largely self-inflicted.

Michigan was still in the game despite the two pick-sixes and the iffy call that set up the fumbled handoff. But the Wolverines simply made too many massive mistakes to overcome. The officials overruling Wilson’s TD didn’t cost Michigan the game.

But failing in the playoff is also a new lofty standard for a Michigan program that is now just one of seven programs with multiple playoff appearances. Making the playoff is the new standard at Michigan and teams that make the playoff on a regular basis find ways to win games in the postseason. Of the five programs with three or more playoff appearances, only Oklahoma has gone winless.