TCU Horned Frogs advance to College Football Playoff title game

GLENDALE, Ariz. — TCU, already an oasis for college football in Texas when it comes to the College Football Playoff, this time around worked its magic in the desert in making state and Big 12 history.

The No. 3 Horned Frogs defeated No. 2 Michigan 51-45 in the CFP semifinals in the Fiesta Bowl in State Farm Stadium. TCU (13-1) already was the only team from Texas to make the CFP in the four-team shindig’s nine seasons of existence, now the Horned Frogs are the first Big 12 team to win a CFP game.

“You always have to fight for credibility,” a triumphant first-year TCU coach Sonny Dykes said of the decades-long approach of the small private school from Fort Worth. “And that’s part of what makes TCU great.”

The 96 total points, reminiscent of a Big 12 contest of about a decade or so ago, set a Fiesta Bowl record. Michigan (13-1), the Big Ten champion, worked ceaselessly to overcome a 19-point deficit but ultimately was handed its first defeat of the season when it counted most.

“(TCU) cracked off some really big plays, we just didn’t get it fitted right (defensively) and that was disappointing,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Oklahoma had made the CFP, which started with the 2014 regular season, on four prior occasions but failed to advance to a title game. Now TCU will face No. 1 Georgia, which defeated No. 4 Ohio State later Saturday night, for the Horned Frogs’ first national title since 1938. The championship game is Jan. 9 in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to celebrate this as a team but we know we have a bigger one coming up, and that’s the one we really want to win,” said TCU senior quarterback Max Duggan, who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more.

TCU rode the strength of another gutsy performance by Duggan and two interceptions of gunslinging quarterback J.J. McCarthy returned for touchdowns, the first by safety Bud Clark for 41 yards in the first quarter for the game’s first of many scores.

The second occurred late in the third quarter when linebacker Dee Winters of Burton intercepted McCarthy and dashed 29 yards to lift TCU to a 34-16 lead. The Horned Frogs and their fans celebrated mightily in more than doubling up the Wolverines to that point – but they also had figured out by then the game was far from over.

“We felt like every point mattered in this game,” Dykes said. “And it turned out it did.”

The high-octane game on the sport’s second biggest stage offered its share of controversy, too. Officials early in the second quarter overturned what appeared to be a sure touchdown on a 50-yard pass from McCarthy to Roman Wilson, claiming Wilson was short of the goal line.

A poor exchange between McCarthy and running back Kalel Mullings on the following play from the TCU 1-yard line promptly resulted in a fumble, and the Horned Frogs recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.

“It was a great effort by both teams,” said Harbaugh, who lost in the CFP semifinals for a second consecutive season. “One less big play, one more big play by us, one more opportunistic play by us, one less opportunistic play by them, and it would be a different situation.”

TCU won its lone Associated Press national title in 1938, and now earns a shot at another. Horned Frogs quarterback Davey O’Brien won the Heisman Trophy in 1938, and Duggan was Heisman runner-up this season to Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams.

At the Heisman ceremony Williams said he wished he could be competing in the CFP, and for his part Duggan has made it clear he would gladly take still competing for a national title over the game’s highest individual honor.

“There’s a lot of pride among TCU and this university,” Duggan said.

Incredibly, TCU is playing in the national title game with a still-new coach who has a lone league title in 2011 while at Louisiana Tech, then of the Western Athletic Conference. A little more than a year ago TCU swiped Dykes from rival SMU across the suburbs in Dallas, with the idea he’d exceed what he’d done with the Mustangs (30-18 overall with no league titles over four seasons in the AAC).

Dykes, who also adeptly worked the transfer portal starting last December, inherited much of the title-contending roster from Gary Patterson. The longtime and quite successful coach in his own right had stepped down eight games into last season and with TCU 3-5 at the time.

The Horned Frogs finished 5-7 in 2021, and little indicated the stunning success to come a season later. TCU was picked to finish seventh in a Big 12 preseason poll but rolled to an undefeated regular season crammed with plenty of drama in its own right.

The Horned Frogs climbed out of scoring holes in three straight Big 12 games against then-ranked opponents Kansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State in the heart of the season. They also won seven consecutive games by 10 points or fewer.

The in-season theatrics and multiple close calls prepared them for Saturday’s spectacle, despite an overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 3.

“They never listened to (the naysayers) and they always believed,” Dykes said of his players’ approach throughout, including any Michigan bravado about the Big Ten compared to the Big 12. “They knew if they did things the right way, something good would happen.”

Dykes had said he’d take a moment of reflection about his mentor, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, before Saturday’s game. Leach, who died following a heart attack on Dec. 12 while Mississippi State’s coach, helped give Dykes his start in major college football at Kentucky in the mid-1990s, when Leach was an assistant and Dykes a graduate student.

Dykes is the son of revered former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, who died in 2017.

“We pour our hearts and souls into this,” Dykes said of the collective effort of players and coaches. “… You put so much in, you get a little emotional sometimes. And there was a time, right when we took a knee (at the end), where I thought about my dad, and I thought about Coach Leach.”

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