TCU’s defense holds on in Fiesta Bowl win over Michigan

Published 6:18 pm Sunday, January 1, 2023

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — TCU’s defense, built for speed, turned off Michigan’s power in a dominating first half.

When the Fiesta Bowl turned into a touchdown party, the Horned Frogs kept the lights on just long enough to earn a chance to play for their first national championship since 1938.

TCU returned two interceptions for touchdowns and its defense held on when things got wild in the second half for a 51-45 win over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night.

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“Every time we started to get on our heels a little bit defensively, all of a sudden it’d be a three and out,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “We get the ball back on offense, score and put a little distance between us and Michigan.”

TCU will face No. 1 Georgia, a 42-41 winner over No. 4 Ohio State, in the national championship game on Jan. 9 at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

Michigan (13-1) was the Fiesta favorite, the big, bad Wolverines with the best offensive line in football powering a punishing run game.

Defense was supposed to be the downfall of the Horned Frogs’ upset bid, their 3-3-5 scheme designed to stop the spread offenses of the Big 12, not Big Ten bully ball.

The prognostications appeared to be accurate on the first play of the game. Michigan’s line, Joe Moore Award winners as the nation’s best, opened a massive hole and Donovan Edwards ran through it for a 54-yard gain.

TCU (13-1) changed the narrative from there — at least for a little while.

The Horned Frogs’ defensive front locked up Michigan’s massive offensive linemen and the players behind them filled the running lanes, leaving Wolverines’ runners nowhere to go. When Michigan tried to bounce it outside, the speedy Frogs leaped to hold them to short gains or losses.

TCU’s defense opened with a fourth-and-goal stop when Dylan Horton sniffed out Michigan’s trick play and turned it into an 8-yard loss. Bud Clark boosted the Frogs’ momentum with a 41-yard interception return the Wolverines’ next possess, then fell on a fumble in the end zone on a botched Michigan handoff from TCU’s 1-yard line.

The Horned Frogs led 21-6 at halftime after holding Michigan to three points on three trips inside TCU’s 25-yard line.

“We kind of just use it as a little bit of motivation,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “We feel like the Big 12 is a very physical conference and we just wanted to come out and showcase what the Big 12 is all about.”

The second half turned into a Big 12 game, offensive players streaking across the field, touchdowns pouring out like candy from a Piñata.

The teams combined for 58 points in a little over eight minutes, including five straight scoring drives of less than a minute.

Each time the Wolverines got close, the Frogs pushed them back.

Michigan kicked a field goal and pulled within 21-16 on J.J. McCarthy’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Ronnie Bell. TCU’s Emari Demercado then scored on a 1-yard run and Winters followed with a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown, putting the Horned Frogs up 34-16.

After Max Duggan scored on a 1-yard run, Michigan scored two quick touchdowns to pull within 41-38 early in the fourth quarter. After Quentin Johnston turned a crossing route into a 76-yard touchdown, TCU’s defense forced two quick three-and-outs.

Michigan managed to score a late touchdown to cut the lead to five, but TCU’s defense again forced a turnover on downs, earning the Horned Frogs a spot in the Jan. 9 national championship game.

“What this group did tonight is what they’ve done all year, just play really tough football, hard-nosed football, really believed in each other,” Dykes said.

Now that the Fiesta is over, the Horned Frogs get a chance to show what they can do on the sport’s biggest stage