No. 3 TCU toppled No. 2 Michigan 51-45 for the biggest upset in College Football Playoff history and one of the most exhilarating semifinal games the format has seen since it made its debut in 2014. The Horned Frogs were eight-point underdogs at kickoff of the 2022 Fiesta Bowl, but the same DNA that helped them overcome more than a handful of second-half deficits during the regular season has the Frogs now sitting 6-1 in one-score games after eliminating the previously undefeated Wolverines.
Saturday's first CFP semifinal was not only the highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl (dating back to 1971), it featured the highest-scoring quarter in CFP history (44 points, third quarter) and stands as the highest-scoring playoff game through regulation.
TCU led by as many as 18 points in the first half and took a 21-6 lead into halftime before that third quarter for the ages. Michigan not only reached the end zone for the first time all game, it tacked on two more touchdowns and a field goal during a 15-minute showing that, in a vacuum, would have suggested the Big Ten champions were making their move at one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history.
But at nearly every turn, TCU had a response.
When Michigan cut its deficit to 21-16, TCU first marched down the field in about 2 minutes to score a lead-extending touchdown. Then it intercepted UM quarterback J.J. McCarthy for its second pick six of the game. McCarthy got off the mat and led led two touchdown drives in the final 3 minutes of the third quarter, but another TCU touchdown came in between.
Michigan even cut its deficit to 41-38 -- the closest it would come all game -- early in the fourth quarter before the Horned Frogs came right back with 10 unanswered points to pad their lead further. The first of those two scores, a 76-yard touchdown pass from Duggan to Quentin Johnston, gave TCU a 48-38 lead that appeared to be the nail in the coffin. It was Duggan's fourth touchdown of the game (two passing, two rushing), giving the Heisman Trophy finalist yet another highlight in his season full of them here in 2022.
Johnston finished the game with six catches for a game-high 163 yards, 111 of those yards coming after the catch.
Of course, the Johnston touchdown was not the final twist in this thriller. Michigan used field position from a key defensive stop to set up McCarthy and the offense for a 56-yard touchdown drive, cutting TCU's lead to 51-45 with 3:18 to play. However, TCU was able to pick a first down and bleed enough clock to limit Michigan's chances at stealing the win in the final minute.
McCarthy had one of the most electric performances of his career, throwing for 343 yards and, rushing for 52 yards and totaling three touchdowns. Both Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson had more than 100 yards receiving (135 for Bell, 104 for Wilson) and a touchdown each, but ultimately the mistakes (two interceptions, failures in the red zone) and slow start created a deficit that even an impressive second half could not overcome.
A few things to know about TCU's win, Michigan's loss and what it means moving forward ...
TCU remains one of the best stories of 2022
Sonny Dykes took over a team that lost its footing as a Big 12 title contender and a roster that found itself on the outside looking in come bowl season. (TCU last played a bowl game after the 2018 season.) There were a couple notable transfers, but for the most part, the same group of players banded together in Year 1 under Dykes and flipped a 5-7 showing in 2021 into 13 wins and a run to the CFP National Championship.
TCU has been doubted and talked about as illegitimate all season long despite proving, time and again, it is one of the best teams in the country. Sometimes, it was criticism over the Frogs' inability to win with large margins. Other times, it would be pointed out how frequently an opposing starting quarterback got knocked out of the game. However, TCU showed it could win in all kinds of ways, and that's what's led to this storybook season.
This team has won shootouts and also low-scoring grinders. It has overcome second-half deficits and crucial in-game injuries. Dykes credits the players and their belief in one another as reasons why this team continues to win despite facing adversity. Their commitment to keeping the focus on what is happening inside their own building has allowed the Frogs to keep success from tainting the magic that's powered this amazing run.
Michigan's miscues set the tone
Michigan running back Donovan Edwards broke free on a 54-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. The rumble was eerily similar to the pair of long runs he had in the second half against Ohio State, and it seemed to foreshadow the potential for Michigan's offense to continue its trend of riding an explosive ground game. But the tide turned when Michigan was stopped on fourth-and-goal trying to run its version of the Philly Special that involved McCarthy as the intended receiver with tight end Colston Loveland looking to throw the touchdown pass.
McCarthy got the ball back after a Michigan defensive stop, but TCU quickly turned the entire momentum of the game with its first pick six of the evening.
Then, early in the second quarter, Michigan was gifted great field position after it intercepted Duggan. The Wolverines responded with McCarthy immediately delivering a 50-yard pass to Roman Wilson that appeared to be a touchdown. Referees, however, overturned their call in the field, ruling that Wilson was down at the 1-yard line -- a controversial decision that permeates even after the game. It was compounded the next play as Michigan running back Kalel Mullings fumbled the ensuing first-down handoff into the end zone for a TCU touchback.
Nearly everything positive for Michigan seemed to be offset by something negative in the first half, initially forecasting doom for the Wolverines. With McCarthy's impressive comeback falling six points short, those missed opportunities at the margins loom large. This is a Michigan team, after all, that out-gained TCU 527-488 in total yardage with six more first downs (25-19) and an identical yards per play mark (7.0). All the miscues piled on top of one another made a comeback feel monumental because the Wolverines were in a hole on the scoreboard -- frequently double digits -- the entire game.
TCU logs Big 12's first CFP win
Prior to Saturday's victory in the Fiesta Bowl, the Big 12 had an 0-4 record in playoff games with all four losses coming from Oklahoma in the semifinals. TCU's breakthrough is most notable for Dykes and the program itself, but it's also significant for a conference that will soon be saying goodbye to OU and Texas. Anyone who thought that the absence of the Sooners (or Longhorns) would lead to the Big 12 falling from the national title picture should just look to the field in two Mondays when TCU, which is now one of the most notable programs in that conference, will be the first Big 12 team to play for the CFP National Championship.
More bowl woes for Jim Harbaugh
Michigan has not won a bowl game since 2015, and Harbaugh's bowl record as the Wolverines coach is now 1-6 with six straight losses after Saturday's defeat. Though Michigan has been one of the most dominant teams in the regular season each of the last two years and punctuated its position at the top of college football with a dominant win over Ohio State, this is the second straight season that has ended in a CFP loss.
Michigan fans have celebrated how their patience has paid off with Harbaugh delivering the program's first back-to-back Big Ten titles (and victories over Ohio State) since Lloyd Carr along with two shots at the national championship in the CFP. However, a six-game postseason losing streak -- with four of those losses coming by double digits -- becomes the next hurdle for Michigan's head coach and former quarterback to overcome when it comes to his fans' expectations.