College Football Writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Football is a sport rooted in physics.
Twenty-two players clash with impossible forces across time and space on every snap, just as the object in motion at the heart of it, a pigskin, moves until stopped, or it’s halted for celebration or despair.
As evening descended into the last vestiges of the final night of 2022 and the clock hit zeros following the wildest Fiesta Bowl in recent memory, physics took a brief pause. Just as a raucous celebration kicked off following No. 3 TCU’s remarkable 51-45 upset of heavily-favored Michigan on New Year’s Eve, the purple and white confetti that rained from the roof of State Farm Stadium appeared to hold still in the stale desert air and hover over the party below.
TCU upsets Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl
The Hypnotoad signs that were ever-present along the sidelines stopped spinning. The hefty offensive and defensive linemen suddenly became light on their feet and suspended in mid-air hugs. Hands that spent much of the night sweating out an unbelievable back-and-forth College Football Playoff semifinal were suddenly dry and constantly raised above heads in merriment. Previously airborne cheerleaders became glued to the natural grass in shock at what had transpired.
It was just a brief moment of suspended animation, but it was one that Horned Frogs fans will cherish forever as those memories of a remarkable journey came flooding in all at once. It was a moment they had been waiting for seemingly forever now about to be realized.
Finally, the school looked down upon by its peers, cast aside by cratering conferences, and which started all the way down from the bottom rungs of the sport, had indeed finally reached the precipice of it all when nobody believed that they could.
“Look, this is all of our lives. It’s these football players’ lives, the coaching staff’s lives. It’s what we do. We pour our heart and soul into this,” said an exhausted Sonny Dykes, one game away from becoming the fourth head coach in the AP Poll era to win a national title in his first year with a program. “Everybody up here makes a ton of sacrifices. You put so much in, you get a little emotional sometimes.
“I mean, what a hell of a football game.”
What a football game indeed. This wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill semifinal for the right to play for the championship. This was an epic matchup that will be discussed for ages as one of the most thrilling games ever with the stakes to match.
Big plays? It had 25 combined of more than 15 yards.
Defense? Despite what the final score reads, there was plenty of that, too. TCU’s Bud Clark and Dee Winters each scored on a pair of remarkable interception returns, and they were part of a unit that turned the Wolverines and their stellar rushing offense away from the end zone three different times upon reaching the red zone in the first half alone.
Then there was the back-and-forth second half finishing flourish that will be replayed for ages to come. At one point, the two sides exchanged seven drives of under a minute that produced five touchdowns and a fumble recovery.
“It’s fairly surreal for me doing it for 30 years and then (to win) like this, I can’t believe it,” TCU wide receivers coach Doug Meacham, who has spent six years at the school, remarked. “You just start thinking about winning one at a time and making the next game the most important game, just kind of building as you go. Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You start thinking about playing for things, and now it becomes real. You know Michigan, they’re a big school, they got a lot of people supporting them. We’re just a little private school in Texas … and we beat them.”
TCU is the second-smallest school in the Power 5 by enrollment, and certainly the smallest by a wide margin to ever make the College Football Playoff. It is almost inherent in their DNA to be the little guys, ahem toads, that could. Amid every obstacle thrown in their face, they’ve continued to exceed expectations and thrive.
When the Southwest Conference broke apart, the university didn’t have the alumni base nor historical success to be coveted by other leagues. Without any political support to join the newly formed Big 12, they sunk all the way down to the WAC, just to find a landing spot. After Dennis Franchione found some success and bolted for a bigger job, the school brass turned to his little-known defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, to help build more momentum and start an upward trajectory that still hasn’t stopped.
Patterson soon became the rock the program needed and made his name taking undervalued or overlooked recruits and turning them into key players as the program started winning and winning big. They left the WAC for Conference USA and quickly moved up to the much tougher Mountain West. After eyeing an even bigger move and briefly agreeing to join the Big East, they eventually convinced a number of their old SWC rivals to let them join the Big 12 in 2012.
Just as many thought they would find their new home in the Power 5 to be challenging, the Horned Frogs loved to prove others wrong. They nearly made the inaugural 2014 College Football Playoff, but controversially got left out on the final weekend and finished the season ranked third in the country.
Yet TCU could never quite get back to the same level and the program seemed to stagnate after last reaching the Big 12 title game in 2017. Patterson, who had great success for much of his time as TCU’s head coach and has a statue outside of Amon G. Carter Stadium, eventually was shown the door after a 3-5 start last season.
“It was the most difficult decision we’ve made in our 150-year history. Gary Patterson built this football program and he deserves a lot of credit for what we’re doing here today,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said. “At the same time, we needed to make a change. We needed to keep the program moving forward. So when we made the decision, Sonny emerged really quickly as the easy choice. He checked all the boxes we needed.”
While some ADs may have been scared off by hiring someone labeled a retread head coach, Dykes ended up being just what the defensive-minded program needed: Someone who understands what it’s like to ride the ups and downs of college football, yet come out better on the other side.
Now he has his team on the verge of winning it all after a remarkable comeback-filled campaign.
“Our players and coaches, I think we did a really good job coming off of the Kansas State loss, looking in the mirror and saying, ‘hey, look what can we do better?’ That’s what I love about this group,” added Dykes. “No one ever blames anybody else. No one points fingers. The offense doesn’t blame the defense. The defense doesn’t blame the offense. There’s none of that on this football team. We’re all in this thing together.”
That has been particularly true throughout this team’s remarkable run in 2022, which featured comeback after comeback, including a seven-game stretch in conference play that saw them win every game by 10 points or fewer. The Horned Frogs were initially picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, but wound up runners-up and still managed to become the first team from the league — and first from the Lone Star State itself — to win a Playoff game.
Not bad for a group that didn’t even receive votes in the AP Top 25 Poll until six weeks had passed in the season. And not bad for a team that forced the previously undefeated Wolverines to resort to flea-flickers and shot plays just to get back into a game that was trending toward another CFP blowout at one point.
“Football is a game of hitting people in the mouth and getting punched in the mouth,” linebacker Johnny Hodges said. “They went deep in their playbook. I don’t think they were expecting our physicality. We heard them all week say they were going to run with ease. We took that like a chip on our shoulder and I knew we were going to play well because they weren’t watching film and seeing what we’ve done.
“When they were going really deep in their bag, I knew we were in their heads, and they weren’t confident if they were having to do that.”
Michigan turned the ball over three times in the game, and despite averaging seven yards per play, the Wolverines came up empty in two red-zone trips, plus settled for a short field goal on the 2-yard line. They had a remarkable 18 drives and 15 points off turnovers, yet Michigan never led.
“They never played the 3-3-5. I feel like that was a big key to this game tonight,” said Clark, who recorded a 41-yard pick-six on the second drive of the game to give TCU a lead they never relinquished. “They usually play teams in four-down (lineman fronts). It’s a different look for them. They’ve never seen anybody in three-down.”
Though labeled by some as a four-star recruit, Clark was emblematic of a host of underdogs coming together to fuel this run. The sophomore was a fringe top-350 player in the country when he left high school and outside the top-10 players in the state of Louisiana. Still, the former Patterson recruit proved to be a key part of the operation on the backend, recording his team-best fifth interception of the year. He developed into one of the key figures on the TCU defense, clogging passing lanes and breaking up deep passes with length and speed.
“Nobody thought we were going to win, everybody doubted us,” added offensive guard Steve Avila, the school’s first consensus All-American in seven seasons. “When we look back at all the 5 a.m. workouts, all the training that we went through, this is proof of that work. That’s all I can think about, and I’m just so proud of everybody.”
That hard work proved to pay dividends as the two sides traded haymakers down the stretch, a heavyweight battle that was fittingly introduced by Michael Buffer pre-game.
Whenever they were pushed to the brink though, TCU found a way.
Starting tailback Kendre Miller injured his knee while getting tackled near the goal line in the late stages of the first half. But backup Emari Demercado entered and the ground game actually started to take off for the Horned Frogs as a result. The senior, who grew up just a few miles from the site of the upcoming national title game in Inglewood, California, and made a stop in the junior college ranks before arriving in Fort Worth, recorded a career-high 150 yards and a touchdown on the night.
Then there was quarterback Max Duggan, who began the year on the bench but ended up as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. It was far from the veteran signal-caller’s best outing (14-29, 225 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), but he delivered with plenty of moments that showcased the moxie that got the Frogs to this point. He escaped pressure throughout the night and delivered a backpedaling throw with two defenders in his face that Quentin Johnston snagged out of the air for a 76-yard touchdown pass just moments after the Wolverines cut the lead to three.
It was a pass that seemed to hang in the air just a split second longer than it should have, landing in the perfect place at the perfect time. It was a fitting play for a pair of players on a team whose destiny has guided them to the brink of the most out-of-nowhere national championship run since Georgia Tech in 1990.
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“There was a time there, right when we took a knee, where I thought about my dad (Spike Dykes), thought about (my late mentor Mike Leach). It’s pretty special when you can win one of these games. And you certainly wish you could share it with them,” remarked Dykes amid slight pauses. “You feel their presence, you really do. And it was an old-fashioned shootout, and something he would have gotten a kick out of, for sure.”
For a sport so rooted in the continuous physical movements that define each contest, college football often becomes most meaningful in those brief, flickering moments where you get to pause and to reflect on it all.
That is something TCU is doing plenty of nowadays as the Horned Frogs write the next chapter in their remarkable road to the top.
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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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