Fiesta Bowl: The 10 plays that powered TCU's thrilling 51-45 victory over Michigan

No. 3 TCU pulled off the biggest upset in College Football Playoff history, defeating No. 2 Michigan, 51-45, in an absolutely wild shootout in the Fiesta Bowl.

TCU, an eight-point underdog, jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead by taking advantage of a slew of Michigan miscues, particularly in the red zone. That set the stage for a chaotic third quarter in which 44 total points were scored and Michigan was able to cut the deficit to just three points.

However, TCU did what it needed to do in the final 15 minutes to finally put the game away and clinch a spot in the CFP title game with a chance to win the program’s first national championship since 1938.

Previously the biggest upset in CFP history came when Ohio State knocked off top-seeded Alabama as a seven-point underdog back in 2014. But now TCU has etched itself in the history books and will give the Big 12 the chance to play for a national title for the first time since 2009.

Here are the 10 plays that propelled the Horned Frogs to the national title game.

TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston (1) makes a catch against Michigan during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston (1) makes a catch against Michigan during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TCU opens game with goal line stand

In the lead-up to this game, the biggest question for TCU was its ability to stop Michigan’s running game. And on the very first snap of the game, Michigan’s Donovan Edwards reeled off a 54-yard run.

A few plays later, Michigan was knocking at the door of the end zone and eventually faced a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Jim Harbaugh kept the offense on the field and curiously dialed up a trick play.

TCU’s defense sniffed it out and got a huge goal line stand. It wouldn’t be the first.

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TCU opens scoring with pick-six

TCU went three-and-out following the goal line stand, but the defense quickly made another play.

Bud Clark stepped in front of a JJ McCarthy pass and took off the other way for a 41-yard pick-six, giving TCU a 7-0 lead.

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Overturned Michigan touchdown leads to fumble

TCU added to its lead with a Max Duggan touchdown run later in the first and held a 14-3 lead early in the second when a crucial and controversial sequence of events occurred.

Duggan threw an interception to give Michigan the ball at midfield. On the next play, McCarthy went deep for Roman Wilson for what appeared to be a touchdown.

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Wilson briefly bobbled the ball as he went to the turf. His backside hit the ground at the half-yard line, but it wasn’t clear when he had full possession. After a review, it was ruled that Wilson was down just short of the goal line.

It took points off the board and sent the Michigan offense back on the field. That’s when disaster struck. McCarthy handed to little-used running back Kalel Mullings, a converted linebacker who was lined up as a fullback. The exchange was botched and the ball hit the turf. TCU pounced on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback, keeping the score at 14-3 with 13:08 left in the first half.

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Max Duggan makes a Max Duggan play

Duggan finished as the Heisman runner-up by showcasing both his strong passing arm and his ability to run. Duggan brought out the full package to extend TCU’s lead to 21-6 late in the first half.

Facing a second-and-goal from the 6, Duggan evaded pressure from two Michigan rushers and delivered a strike off of his back foot as he absorbed a hit all the way back at the 20-yard line. He found Taye Barber in stride back behind the line of scrimmage and he outran a Michigan defender to the pylon for a touchdown.

It was a fantastic play.

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TCU holds at the goal line yet again

On its first second-half drive, Michigan advanced the ball all the way to the goal line once again.

The Wolverines had first-and-goal from the 6-yard line and gained a combined three yards on first- and second-down runs. And on third-down from the 3-yard line, Michigan appeared to have found an advantage.

Before the snap, Michigan had three receivers lined up to the left side and TCU had just two defenders to match. But Abe Camara knew what was coming.

While Josh Newton took on both blockers, Camara closed in a flash and tackled Ronnie Bell behind the line of scrimmage for a one-yard loss.

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The Horned Frogs kept Michigan out of the end zone once again, and the Wolverines opted for a field goal instead of trying for six points on fourth down. That field goal cut TCU’s lead to 21-9.

TCU responds with Quentin Johnston deep ball

Following the Michigan field goal, the Wolverines’ defense made a big play when a Duggan pass deflected off Derius Davis’ hands to defensive back Mike Sainristil for an interception.

That turnover gave Michigan the ball in TCU territory. The Wolverines made it count with a touchdown on a flea flicker three plays later, cutting TCU’s lead to 21-16 with 6:32 left in the third.

At that point, it seemed like Michigan was poised to take control of the game. TCU had other ideas.

Michigan’s defense came out with much more aggressiveness in the second half, blitzing often. TCU’s first two drives came up empty, but the TCU staff was able to use UM’s aggressiveness against it.

Michigan sent another blitz, but TCU picked it up. Duggan stepped up in the pocket and found Quentin Johnston in a one-on-one matchup. He won that matchup and broke loose for a 46-yard gain deep into UM territory.

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Five plays later, TCU was in the end zone to go back up by two scores. The drive took just 2:07 in all.

TCU gets another pick six

On the very next drive, TCU’s defense made another huge play.

This time, Dee Winters read McCarthy’s eyes and baited him into a throw. Winters picked off the pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown, increasing the lead to 34-16.

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Quentin Johnston makes another huge play

Despite another turnover, McCarthy kept making plays. After the pick-six, the teams exchanged touchdowns on three consecutive drives in a wild third quarter.

TCU’s lead was 41-30 in the final seconds of the quarter when Emari Demercado fumbled and Michigan recovered. Two plays after the fumble, Michigan was in the end zone once again and TCU’s lead was somehow only 41-38.

Would TCU wilt? Nope. The offense’s two stars made another remarkable play. On third-and-7, Michigan sent pressure once again. Duggan had a blitzer in his face, but kept his eyes glued to Johnston and hit him in stride.

Johnston made a defender miss and was off to the races for a 76-yard touchdown.

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Michigan was so close to getting the ball back down just three. Instead, TCU was back ahead by 10, 48-38, with 13:07 to play.

Duggan gets critical first down to drain clock

After Johnston’s touchdown, the defenses woke up a bit. While TCU added a field goal, Michigan’s next two drives resulted in punts. Later in the fourth, though, it was again a one-possession game when Michigan scored to make it 51-45 with 3:18 to play.

Would Michigan’s defense be able to get the ball back to the offense? It did, but not as quickly as it hoped.

TCU ran the ball three straight times and picked up a pivotal first down with a QB sneak.

TCU would eventually punt, but more than two minutes were drained off the clock.

Michigan errant snap ultimately ends game

Michigan’s offense got one final try while down 51-45, regaining possession with 45 seconds to play.

The Wolverines went nowhere. Michigan gained five yards on first down and had incompletions on second and third down. On fourth down, with McCarthy surveying the defense, All-American center Olu Oluwatimi delivered the shotgun snap before his quarterback was ready.

The play was doomed from that point. The loose ball was corralled by running back Donovan Edwards, who tried to pass it to tight end Colston Loveland. The play lost a yard, and after a targeting review came and went without a penalty, TCU fans could finally exhale.

All that was left was a quarterback kneel that allowed the remaining 25 seconds to tick away and clinch a spot for the Horned Frogs in the national championship game.