The TCU Horned Frogs are headed to the college football national championship game. The Frogs beat the winningest program in NCAA football history in the playoff semifinals 51-45 on New Year’s Eve to move to 13-1 on the year. It was an incredible game from start to finish and TCU proved what Frog fans already knew before the game. The Frogs are for real and they ain’t done yet.
The 3-3-5: Coming into the game, most of the national media gave the advantage to Michigan due to their offensive line’s presumed advantage over the TCU defensive front. There were comments made by Michigan players to the media about how the 3-3-5 was destined to fail against the run game of Michigan. That 3-3-5 then proceeded to stop the Joe Moore award (award given to the top offensive line in the nation) winning offensive line right in its tracks.
After the first play of the game (a 54 yard rush from Michigan), the TCU defense settled in and held Donovan Edwards to 65 yards rushing on 22 attempts, good for under 3 yards per carry. This defensive performance against the run brought back memories of the Rose Bowl as both games started off with a big run from the opposing team but TCU remained unfazed, settled in, and slowed down the rushing attack the rest of the game. The 3-3-5 stack enables TCU to disguise their run fits from opposing offensive lines pre snap as the linebackers are lined up behind the defensive lineman, not committing to the gap they are responsible for until after the ball is snapped.
Defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie had complete faith in his system and players and it worked out perfectly as the 3-3-5 was able to do what no other defense had done all year against Michigan in neutralizing their run game and forcing JJ McCarthy to win the game for the Wolverines.
The linebackers and defensive line: Joe Gillispie and the scheme deserve a lot of credit for TCU’s performance on Saturday, but the defensive front for the Frogs deserve even more praise. Dee Winters won Defensive MVP for the Fiesta Bowl and rightfully so after a phenomenal game where he had 7 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and a pick six. The pick six was probably the most impactful but the play that stuck out the most from Winters for me was him shooting a gap lighting quick to make a tackle on a touch pass in the backfield.
That play was representative of the fact that Michigan had not been able to find success running in between the tackles like that had been able to do all year and were having to resort to trying to win with speed and the Frogs were not going to let that happen. Both Jamoi Hodge and Johnny Hodges had very good games as well. Hodge had 5 solo tackles and Hodges had 3 solo and 5 total tackles, 1 of which for a loss. The linebacking corps for the Frogs came to play on Saturday.
The defensive line in front of them had a huge role in keeping the linebackers free to make all those tackles. The nose tackles Damonic Williams and Tymon Mitchell were great as they have been all year and Dylan Horton had another dominant game at defensive end. Horton finished with 4 sacks on the day which is even more impressive considering the fact the Frogs only rushed 3 a high percentage of the time and Horton often had to work through double teams from the opposing guard and tackle to get to the quarterback. Credit also needs to be given to the entire defense for having immense discipline in the run fits to ensure Michigan ball carriers didn’t have anywhere to go.
It’s one thing to win individual matchups but success on defense comes from working as a unit and the Frogs did that very well in the Fiesta Bowl. Safeties were coming up to replace linebackers, the pass rush did a good job of staying in their rush lanes and keeping McCarthy in the pocket outside of one drive in the second half, and the entire defense did a great job limiting missed tackles against a very explosive group of ball carriers for Michigan.
The offensive line: The offensive line has struggled at times this year for TCU, but that was certainly not the case on Saturday as the Frogs dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The best way to describe the offensive line’s performance on Saturday is that they were dominant people movers. Their double teams were moving downfield to the second level, when power runs were called, the pullers were making huge blocks, and the Frogs lived out the Oline matra that pass protection should not be passive as they were solid on that end as well.
Michigan managed just 1 sack on the day despite sending a fairly high amount of blitzes in passing situations. There were some occasional free rushers but that was partly by design as Max generally had an open receiver to throw to when Michigan brought more rushers than TCU had pass protectors. The Michigan defense was letting up an average of 90 rushing yards per game coming into the Fiesta Bowl and the offensive line paved the way for 263 total rushing yards, 6.4 yards per carry, and 3 rushing touchdowns despite star running back Kendre Miller going down with an injury in the first half.
The offensive line performance from the Frogs was reminiscent of the TCU defensive performance in the 2014 Peach Bowl as all the talk had been about the Michigan offensive line much like the Ole Miss defense had been hyped up and yet the TCU offensive line was the much better unit on Saturday like the TCU defense was in the Peach Bowl.
The running backs: Before going out with an injury, Kendre Miller was dominant in the Fiesta Bowl as he eclipsed 55 yards on the ground on just 8 carries, good for 7.1 yards per carry. Emari Demercado was called in to take his place and was even better. Demercado had 150 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, averaging almost 9 yards per carry on the day. Demercado was excellent in pass protection as always as he made multiple successful 1 on 1 blocks with Michigan pass rushers.
Demercado is a physical, decisive runner and the Michigan front took a beating from his downhill running style. He never seemed to tire either as after a 69 yard rush down to the Michigan 1 yard line he waved off the sideline to signal that he didn’t need a sub despite the long run. On the next play, he helped push Max Duggan in on a QB sneak for a touchdown. The running backs were excellent in the Fiesta Bowl.
Max Duggan of course: For one of the few times this season, the Frogs were on the other side of a comeback attempt as Michigan battled back from an early 21-3 deficit to pull within 1 score multiple times. And like he has this entire season, Max Duggan calmly led the offense to a response to keep the Frogs ahead. Duggan finished with 225 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and 2 deflected interceptions along with 57 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. He was a playmaker when TCU desperately needed it and was once again a huge reason for the Frogs win.
The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for keeping him upright for most of the game but Max also did a great job helping them out with the best pocket awareness and pocket movement he has had all year. His two touchdowns were on long developing drag routes that by design were going to result in pressure while the throw was made. Both times, Duggan bought just enough time to get the throw off and both times the throw was perfectly accurate enabling Taye Barber and Quentin Johnston to make the catch in stride and take it to the house.
Duggan was also a problem for Michigan with his legs, converting 3rd downs on the ground and finishing off long drives in the red zone with touchdowns on the ground. The difference in this game was the difference in success rates in the red zone as the Frogs converted 100% of their red zone trips to touchdowns and Michigan was twice stopped on the goal line without any points. Duggan’s legs were a big reason for this success in the red zone as they have been all year as he is more than willing to run over an unsuspecting defensive back in order to make it to the end zone.
It has been an incredible journey for Duggan during his time at TCU and now Mad Max is leading his team into the national championship game.
Quentin Johnston: For TCU to win, Johnston needed to have a big game and he certainly delivered on that in the Fiesta Bowl. Johnston finished with 163 yards and a touchdown on 6 catches. Johnston showcased all the tools that have NFL scouts are looking at in speed and after the catch ability on the 76 yard touchdown in the second half, route running and contested catch ability on a 46 yard over route in the third quarter, and the awareness of the coverage being run when he was left wide open when Michigan brought a corner blitz.
The coaching staff had seen something on film on that blitz because after a hard count that seemed like it showed a field side linebacker was blitzing, the Frogs moved the running back away from the linebacker and towards the cornerback that blitzed, and Max knew immediately that Johnston was going to be wide open as the cornerback lined up over him blitzed. This was incredible anticipation by the TCU coaching staff to predict the corner blitz and good awareness by Johnston to look for the pass early and not run full speed to run into a safety but instead slow up at about 15 yards to give himself a chance to make the safety miss (which he would have done had he not slipped).
Johnston will be a first round draft pick in 2023 and potentially the first receiver off the board and he showed why in the Fiesta Bowl.
Field position: The only complaint with the Fiesta Bowl performance is that the Frogs did not do enough to help their defense out and gave Michigan a short field way too many times. The Frogs turned the ball over on their own side of midfield 3 times and those turnovers resulted in 14 points for Michigan. The problem also spread to special teams as the Frogs were sloppy in the return game as they put themselves in a less ideal position to start a drive and committed kick catch interference on a Jordy Sandy punt giving Michigan a free 15 yards to start their drive.
Michigan’s average starting field position was their own 33 yard line compared to TCU’s average starting field position of their own 24 yard line. That’s basically one more first down that TCU had to convert on every drive than Michigan to score points. The Frogs have to take better care of the ball against Georgia and make sure the opposing offense has to drive the length of the field to score points.
Play of the Game:
QJ. Ice water.
This is the season of destiny for the Frogs with so many moments reminding fans of great games and performances of the past, this feels like all of the greatest seasons in TCU history in one. Fort Worth or nowhere. Let’s turn LA purple. TCU is in the natty. Bring on the Dawgs. Go Frogs.