The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With a kiss from a (Horned) Frog, the CFP gets its first stunner

TCU 51, Michigan 45

TCU players celebrate after their 51-45 upset of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, the first of two CFP semifinals Saturday. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — That stodgy old College Football Playoff, long the province of kingdoms, apex predators and chalk, finally hatched itself a darling Saturday. Somehow, it will send to its Los Angeles finale one vivid batch of purple Frogs. How March Madness of it.

Never in the previous eight years of semifinals rich in the humdrum had an underdog upended all known thoughts as did the Texas Christian Horned Frogs in their madcap 51-45 deprogramming of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinal. Now TCU, not even close to ranked at season’s outset, with an enrollment of only 12,273, and hardly fancied even in its state full of football snobs, will play in the national championship game against Georgia.

“If you look at the teams that play for a national championship,” said Sonny Dykes, the coach in his 13th season at four colleges but his first at TCU, “typically they’re not picked seventh in their conference.”

Max Duggan has TCU in the playoff thanks to his arm, grit and tears

Well, a sport of the typical has found its Butler. It’s a program not only from outside the kingdoms but from outside the outside of the kingdoms. It went 5-7 last year and didn’t even play in a bowl. Hell, it’s the first Big 12 team to reach a playoff final, in which it will try to build on its previous national championship, that one in 1938. If you’d like to sneer the way the Frogs thought Michigan sneered, they’d welcome it.

“Okay, y’all don’t respect us,” running back Emari Demercado said, “so we’re going to make you respect us.”

“I was very confident we were going to win,” linebacker Johnny Hodges said, “just based on their overconfidence.”

Having weathered the wacko games of a darling during the season, TCU (13-1) weathered a wacko game against a foe known to football freaks since the beginning of football time. A Michigan team more accustomed to law and order found itself wading in a damned mess. By the time its last chance ended 75 yards from victory on a snap that startled quarterback J.J. McCarthy to wreak a muff and a busted play, it had come to sort of figure.

An unglorified 7.5-point underdog from Fort Worth had snared leads of 21-3 and 41-22. The Frogs declined to get all that bothered when those leads became 21-16 and 41-38. They kept their sense of belonging through a preposterous third quarter in which Michigan (13-1) rang up 24 points but TCU chimed in with a helpful 20. They had run back two interceptions for touchdowns, both with excellent turns of reading — one by Bud Clark for 41 yards to open the scoring and one by Dee Winters for 29 yards in the third. Against a defense ranked fourth in the nation and allowing 277 yards per game and 4.5 yards per play, TCU gained 488 and seven yards per snap. Against a team considered a maestro at the running game, it outrushed Michigan 263-185 (with 150 of those yards coming from Demercado).

Its 3-3-5 defense, up against a foe more familiar with front fours, seemed to lend just enough confusion to matter. “I could hear them on the sideline, arguing,” Clark said.

Then, at its neediest, with that 41-38 lead and the fourth quarter still new, it got a blitz and a late throw from star quarterback Max Duggan and maybe its best player, wide receiver Quentin Johnston, cutting across just up ahead.

Johnston caught that ball around the TCU 24-yard line, headed right and headed up the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown. In TCU lore, he’ll run forever, his mayhem piling atop all the mayhem.

“I think the biggest thing about us,” Demercado said, “is just staying calm.”

Highlights from TCU's win over Michigan

Calm, in general, hung out elsewhere Saturday. The 71,723-strong sides of State Farm Stadium, the TCU-aligned in purple and the Michigan mass in maize and blue, each had turns to practice hysteria. Michigan fans even had the rare experience of feeling absolutely certain of defeat and then having welcome uncertainty return.

Yet still, TCU didn’t mind so much. Michigan wriggled from 21-3 to 21-16 in the third quarter, and Duggan, the TCU quarterback and Heisman finalist with vessels rich in grit, promptly went 46 yards to the deep right to Johnston, starting a six-play, 75-yard drive. Winters’s interception followed that, for a 34-16 lead. Michigan went 69 yards in three plays, TCU 78 in three, Michigan 75 in three and Michigan 27 in two after a TCU fumble.

Whatever. On third and seven, Duggan and Johnston got their 76-yard connection. Dykes, who just came across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex last offseason from SMU, surpassed seasoned and wildly known coach Jim Harbaugh, who has gone to two straight playoffs and looked primed to go further than last time. “It’s credibility,” Dykes said matter-of-factly. “When you’re a small private school, you’ve got to fight for it. … I think we all had that chip on our shoulder. It’s part of the Horned Frog way.”

Of course, Michigan did spend the first half appearing to swirl partway down the drain even during moments of evident prosperity. The odd reality began with a manly old Michigan handoff to Donovan Edwards, something that made sense and then made more sense when Edwards roamed the middle of the field for 54 yards. Yet as Edwards reached the TCU 21-yard line, a thing happened.

Clark caught him from behind.

“I’m long,” he said, “so I just reached my arm out and got him.”

Michigan went on to the 7-yard line and third down, where the first of many wild plays ensued, as McCarthy eluded rushers all the way back to the 32, then ran around to the left sideline down to the 2. All of this might have gotten the Wolverines pondering their invincibility, never a prudent tack.

On fourth and two, Michigan tried something right out of someplace other than Michigan, a double-reverse of a particular atrocity that Winters disrupted until it wound up with wide receiver Colston Loveland marooned out at the 7, then stopped by lineman Dylan Horton.

Not long thereafter, McCarthy threw from his 34-yard line, sent a rightward pass for Ronnie Bell that looked read to the hilt and saw that same Clark rip an interception and carry it 41 yards.

“After that, I was like, yeah, this is it,” Clark said, meaning he expected victory.

The half went along sideways like that. Duggan took TCU on drives of 76 yards in 12 plays and 83 in 10, both drives steeped in a variety Michigan couldn’t hack. Somewhere amid that Michigan intercepted Duggan — Rod Moore dived to get a tipped pass — and McCarthy promptly threw deep to Roman Wilson for an apparent 51-yard touchdown, but then a review showed Wilson down at the 1, and then a handoff showed a Michigan fumble into the end zone.

Clark got that, too.

“I’m sitting there chilling out,” he said. “Soon as I looked down, ‘Look, the ball.’ I just dropped on it.”

It looked like there were three of Clark.

Nothing looked like it figured to look. Where went the advantages in musculature? TCU found its way through Michigan lines, including an offensive many considered nationally peerless. Horton got three sacks before halftime. Michigan missed tackles. Michigan menaced Duggan sometimes, like the time he flipped it around the rush to Taye Barber for a six-yard touchdown on which Barber eased inside the right pylon.

That made it 21-3. Only a 59-yard field goal from Jake Moody could get it 21-6, and while Michigan had trailed often this season — in seven different games — it had not trailed this drastically. It handled that well, yet it couldn’t catch up to a darling.