TCU’s poise amid Fiesta Bowl theatrics sends Horned Frogs to championship

TCU quarterback Max Duggan said his team has mastered the art of staying focused. “If you walked up and down our sideline, you are going to hear everybody on the sideline saying ‘‘next play.'” (Photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – The College Football Playoff semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl turned into an all-hands-on-deck duel in the desert.

Big plays and rapid responses came from both No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 TCU, sending over 70,000 people at State Farm Stadium into a frenzy with deafening roars from both fanbases.

In the end, TCU survived the highest scoring Fiesta Bowl in history with a 51-45 win thanks to the poise the Horned Frogs displayed.

The key to composure, senior quarterback Max Duggan said, is to never dwell on a particular moment.

“I think what coach (Sonny) Dykes and our strength coach, coach Kaz (Kazadi), does so well is preaching next play,” Duggan said. “If you walked up and down our sideline, you are going to hear everybody on the sideline saying ‘next play.’”

The second half lent itself to the “next play” mentality, as high-scoring drama played out. The final 6:32 of the third quarter featured six touchdowns to mark the highest scoring quarter in CFP history.

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TCU found a big play every time it needed one during the quarter, from quick drives capped off by 1-yard rushing scores from Duggan and senior running back Emari Demercado to an interception returned by senior linebacker Dee Winters that sent many TCU fans looking for anyone nearby to embrace in joy.

The first two minutes of the fourth quarter saw another touchdown from both teams. A 76-yard strike from Duggan to junior wide receiver Quentin Johnson, the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP, gave TCU another big play to respond to Michigan’s quick score earlier in the quarter.

The long touchdown pass marked 54 points in 8:25 of game time. More importantly, the Horned Frogs never gave up their lead through the offensive explosion despite Michigan getting within three points.

“The thing we did over and over and over again was answer,” Dykes said. “We had to. We put distance between us and them repeatedly. That was the key of the ball game.”

As Michigan’s 24 third quarter points indicated, TCU’s defense took on rough waters throughout the period.

“It felt like there were about two series there we got on our heels a little bit defensively,” Dykes said.

Yet, the Horned Frogs found their footing again, a key for any rising program wanting to defeat a college football blueblood.

TCU forced Michigan’s offense off the field after just three plays in Michigan’s first two drives after Duggan’s long pass to Johnston.

Offensive linemen Brandon Coleman, left, and Alan Ali, right, flank TCU quarterback Max Duggan as he walks off the field following a sack. (Photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

“You got to give our players a ton of credit,” Dykes said. “We got on the sidelines and we got to settle down. Our coaching staff, I thought, made some adjustments and guys got refocused and took the field with the right mentality and got out and started making plays again.”

The defensive recovery did not come without some nervous moments for TCU in the final minutes.

A clean defensive four-play stop in the final minute was nearly derailed when officials took another look at a possible targeting penalty that many people thought was exactly that.

The official decision? No targeting on the play.

TCU fans let out a massive eruption of noise that was heard throughout the college football world. A CFP semifinal win over a national power in Michigan gave the program its biggest win since the 1939 Sugar Bowl and answered many questions as to whether a program like TCU, a private university of 12,000, can get to a national championship game in the modern era.

“I think there’s been so many great teams that have come through and built this program up,” Duggan said on the significance of Saturday’s win for the program. “They did a lot to get this program to where we’re at. And this means a lot to those guys, to our university, our fans who have continued to support us, have continued to have our backs.”

The confident and composed style that led TCU through the Fiesta Bowl is something that the Horned Frogs possessed well before the 2022 season began, when TCU was picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll.

The Fiesta Bowl trophy sits between TCU and Michigan helmets at the Fiesta Bowl media day Thursday in Scottsdale. The trophy winner will be determined Saturday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. (Photo by Nicholas Hodell/Cronkite News)

The Fiesta Bowl trophy sits between TCU and Michigan helmets at the Fiesta Bowl media day, before the Horned Frogs upset of the Wolverines Saturday. (Photo by Nicholas Hodell/Cronkite News)

“Our guys never changed,” Dykes said. “They didn’t change personally. Nobody all of a sudden became a tough person to deal with. Everybody’s just kept a great mindset.”

Having passed the first major playoff test with poise and self-assurance, TCU unlocked the biggest test of them all: the national championship game.

TCU will face defending national champion Georgia on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, after the Bulldogs defeated Ohio State in a thrilling Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

The Horned Frogs will face all of the same questions before the national title game as they did before the Fiesta Bowl, but on a larger scale.

However, just like the pregame hype and third quarter shootout did not faze TCU at the Fiesta Bowl, the Horned Frogs will not be fazed by any doubters in the build-up to Monday’s championship matchup.

“I’ve been hearing stuff like that as long as I can remember,” Johnston said. “But at the end of the day, that’s a part of it. That’s a part of good competition, and that’s what makes it on the field.”

“We know we’re going to hear it again,” Dykes said. “It’s not going to stop now. You know what I’m saying? We’re going to play again in 10 days, and we’re going to hear the same crap for 10 days that we heard leading up to this ballgame.”

Nicholas Hodell Nick-o-lus ho-DELL (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Nicholas Hodell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Hodell has interned with 98.7 Arizona Sports and contributes to Inferno Intel.

Nikash Nath nih-KAUSH nath
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Nikash Nath expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Nath, who is assigned to the Cronkite sports bureau this semester, has interned with Arizona Sports and Times Media Group.