PHOENIX — Hypnotoad is officially going Hollywood. TCU heading into the national championship game on a losing streak Michigan 51–45 in a classic College Football Playoff semifinal.
This is the Wolverines’ second straight semifinal loss. Last year, decked out in T-shirts that read “run the bloody ball,” Michigan’s offensive line went into Miami and was dominated by the eventual national champion Agriculture. Much of the narrative before this year’s game was that last year’s Michigan team was happy to be on this stage, but this was more of a business trip. If anyone should be just happy to make it to Phoenix, it should be the Cinderella Horned Frogs, the authors of a five-game comeback and the team that came from nowhere to reach this stage.
“We talked about how important it was going to be to play physical all week leading up to the game,” coach Sonny Dykes said. “And I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the court tonight. Our ability to run the ball, we almost outplayed Michigan [by] 100 yards. Our ability to stop the run, I think, was the difference in the ball game. He obviously made some big plays defensively. scored two touchdowns. That was critical.”
The key matchup in the game was how Michigan’s run-first offense was likely to dominate TCU’s 3-3-5 defense, which features light boxes and is more built to stop plays through the Air Raid in the Big 12. But outside of the first play of the game, the Horned Frogs were outstanding, holding Michigan’s run game down and, because of the game script, forcing quarterback JJ McCarthy to throw for a career-high 34 attempts.
Most of the defenses Michigan faces line up and play trench warfare with four-legged linemen. TCU’s style of run defense relies on the speed of the linebackers and safeties implementing gaps from the second level. When it doesn’t work — like on the first play of Saturday’s game — it looks like this, in which Donovan Edwards gained 57 yards right outside the locker room:
But when does it worked, as on every other drive Michigan had on the night, it looked like this—with TCU defenders stabbing in the back for tackles for a loss:
TCU had a plan against Michigan’s rushing attack, and the Wolverines not seeing that type of defense played in the Frogs’ favor, TCU defenders said after the game. They also used Donovan Edwards’ patience against him. While it’s one of his best attributes — and something that set him apart from his injured backfield partner Blake Corum — the Frogs were sure to be able to exploit it if they were aggressive against him. They held Edwards to 2.9 yards per rush off his long run to start the game.
Michigan also went above and beyond in key short-yardage situations, running a version of the Philly Special on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line early in the game. Why; “Because we thought it would work,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I take full responsibility that it didn’t work and it should have been called something different. Put this on me. They had it wired and well defended. Sitting here now, I sure wish I had called a different one.”
TCU wasn’t fooled by the deception, and its confidence grew because of it. Dykes’ team internalized it as Michigan fumbled early in the game.
“Once they started jumping on their bag, we had them where we wanted them,” linebacker Johnny Hodges says. “If you’re trick-or-treating in a league game, you’re just trying for anything. I was really happy with how we did against their key stuff. When you see trick plays, it’s good… If it works, it works, but if it doesn’t you look like a fool because you’re so proud of being physical and running downhill, you should be able to get two meters.”
TCU also had a goal-line fumble after a questionable call on a catch that was originally called a touchdown was overturned on review and placed at the one-yard line. The Wolverines went on a quick exchange on a would-be fullback dive.
To Michigan’s credit, sometimes the ploys worked — like in the third quarter when the Wolverines nailed a flea-flicker for a 34-yard touchdown. It was part of a wild, back-to-back quarter where the two teams traded punches and Michigan threatened to mount a comeback. But every time the Wolverines came within striking distance of the highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl in history, the Frogs responded.
There’s another parallel to last year, in that Michigan’s defense was also shredded then. The Wolverines gave up the most rushing yards to TCU since 2020 when Emari Demercado took over for the injured Kendre Miller and rushed for 150 of the team’s 263 total, another slight to Michigan’s supposed physical advantage. But beyond the snafus and defensive mistakes, what really sank Michigan were two pick-sixes thrown by McCarthy — one in the first quarter and one in that wild third.
As the clock wound down Saturday, TCU assistants ran through the press box screaming “we’re going to natty” with glee as the result became official. Sonny Dykes’ son Daniel asked Santa for a trip to the national championship game for Christmas, according to his mother. If you’ve followed these Frogs all season, you know they’ve had a lot of magical moments. A berth for the game’s title should no longer be a surprise.