TCU was projected to win a total of just 6.5 games entering this season. They went over in October and finished the year 12-1 with a gut-wrenching loss in the Big XII title game to Kansas State. Despite the close loss, the Horned Frogs remained steady at number three, solidifying their first-ever seat in the College Football Playoff. This team didn’t even play in a bowl game last season. Now in Sonny Dykes’ first year as head coach, TCU has become one of the nation’s most battle-tested programs entering the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl against Michigan.
Michigan has been here before. For the second-straight season, the Wolverines are again Big Ten Champions and again College Football Playoff-bound. It’s more like Mich-again, for Jim Harbaugh’s football program. The undefeated Wolverines have outscored opponents by 186 points in the third and fourth quarters this season. As Michigan plays TCU in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, they look to continue their late-game domination with a late-season semifinal victory.
The run game has formed Michigan’s identity all season. Whether it was Blake Corum or Donovan Edwards, the group didn’t go a single game without at least one rushing touchdown and at least 165 rushing yards. The Wolverines averaged nearly 250 rush yards and three rushing touchdowns per game. The key is the explosive run play. On the season, Michigan had 86 rushes of 10 or more yards, good for 11th-most nationally. It was on display all season long, specifically in their last two games against Ohio State and Purdue.
In those last two games, eight rushing plays totaled 312 yards. Michigan ran the ball 73 times for 477 yards against Ohio State and Purdue combined. Those eight long runs combined for over 65% of their total rush yards. The remaining 65 touches averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. For Michigan to be successful again on the ground, they will need to continue to find the big play. TCU ranks behind Ohio State and Purdue in rush defense, allowing 150 rushing yards per game.
Their prowess on the ground has allowed the Wolverine offense to be incredibly efficient in the air. Sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy has 20 touchdowns and three interceptions while averaging 182 yards per game. Looking at those same two games against Ohio State and Purdue, McCarthy completed just 24 passes total. Their opponents were forced to respect the run game, allowing for open downfield passes. Of the 24 completions, 10 of them were completed for more than 15 yards. Those 10 completions dominated their air yards as the explosive run plays in the last two games. They accounted for 355 of the combined 439 passing yards against Ohio State and Purdue.
TCU’s Defensive Answer
The Horned Frogs’ pass defense has been about average this season. They rank fourth in the Big 12 but 83rd nationally giving up 236 pass yards per game. For comparison to the Big Ten, the best Big Ten passing offense averaged 294 yards per game, while the worst Big 12 passing offense averaged 210 per game. But McCarthy doesn’t need to break the stats column in the passing game for Michigan to have success. When they find yards on the ground, their air attack has been simple and efficient.
Forcing Michigan to pass is not necessarily the answer for TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. But getting the Wolverines into situations where they need to throw might be. Michigan averages 40.1 points per game. Keeping that offense in check has been a problem for opponents this season. However, Michigan’s only true close game was against Illinois. Corum was hurt at the end of the first half and they only tallied 45 rush yards in the remainder of the game. McCarthy and the offense needed to pass and did just that, throwing 22 times in the second half. That’s just three fewer than their average attempts per game this season. He completed 11 in the second half for 110 yards and no scores. The Wolverines had to settle for field goals and snuck a two-point victory on senior day.
The run game wasn’t what it normally was for Michigan that day, and the passing game couldn’t fully pick up the slack. While TCU won’t be able to get away with just forcing McCarthy to throw the ball, they will need to put Michigan in a position where they need to throw by containing the run. Michigan hasn’t been on their heels much this year, but this might be the way to do it on Saturday.
Duggan and the Horned Frogs
TCU has been a team that hasn’t dominated one area in particular offensively. They rank 25th nationally in both rushing and passing offense with 200 yards and 273 yards per game, respectively. The difference for the Horned Frogs this season has been their quarterback, Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan. Five times this season, Duggan led TCU back from second-half deficits to win. Even in the Big XII title game, the Horned Frogs were down 11 two separate times in the second half before storming back to bring the game into overtime. It ultimately ended in a loss, but that was the sixth game where TCU fought back in less than two quarters. It doesn’t show up on the stats sheet, but it’s made this team one of the most resilient in the nation.
Michigan has trailed in the fourth quarter only once this season. It was against Illinois, and field goals were required to lift them to victory. The Wolverines have trailed just four teams in the second half this season, and never by more than one score. The average margin of victory in those four games was 21 points. In short, Michigan has not faced true adversity in a deficit all season other than the scare at home against Illinois. TCU has. That’s a measure that can’t be tabulated other than what’s displayed on the field. With Duggan at the helm, the Horned Frogs are primed for what is likely to be another hard-fought football game.
Duggan has 30 touchdowns, four interceptions, and over 3,300 yards passing on the season. Quentin Johnston has been his go-to receiver all year, and he’s nearing 1,000 reception yards. Johnston has five touchdowns with 17 yards per catch. Ten different Horned Frogs have caught a touchdown this season. Behind Duggan is Kendre Miller at tailback. He has at least one rushing touchdown in every game, averaging over 103 yards per contest.
Michigan’s rush defense is third-best nationally, giving up only 85 yards per game and under three per attempt. TCU’s task will not be easy. However, Michigan has not played a team that averages north of 200 yards per game both on the ground and in the air. TCU does, and that balance could give them a window for success against this top-rated Wolverine defense.
Fiesta Bowl: The Mighty and The Tested
On the final day of 2022, Michigan and TCU will meet for the first time ever in the Valley of the Sun. A spot in the National Championship game is on the line. Neither team has played in a true national title game. For Michigan, it’s been a quarter century since their last claimed national title. TCU needs to go back to the days of their only Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Davey O’Brien of the 1938 season to remember their last national title. A win on Saturday will give one of these teams a chance to rewrite their record books.
First, however, they must survive to advance. It’s been a theme for the Horned Frogs all season, leading them to this Playoff Semifinal. Michigan on the other hand, looks to keep their season perfect, having already experienced defeat on this stage exactly one year ago. It’s Michigan and TCU on New Year’s Eve in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl for a seat in the National Championship Game – the mighty and the tested.