GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sonny Dykes is not the ideal of the jut-jawed football coach. He opens his program up, instead of building walls around it. He freely acknowledges there were times when he was a younger coach — several, in fact — that the pressure of winning games became suffocating.
And he is not afraid to flash his western Texas humor — inviting Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh over to his hotel room the night before their College Football Playoff semifinal to crack open a bottle of bourbon. (Harbaugh, for the record, declined, saying it was past his bedtime.)
What Dykes is doing though, in his first year at Texas Christian University, is turning the college football world on its ear.
The Horned Frogs, who were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 with an unremarkable roster, little following outside their Fort Worth campus and a hypnotic animated toad as their talisman, are on the brink of a national championship after shocking Michigan, 51-45, in a wild, inside-out, upside-down College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday.
The victory, secured when quarterback Max Duggan took a knee on the final play, sent the Horned Frogs, who began the season unranked, storming onto the field knowing their magical run will culminate in another 10 days in the national championship game in Inglewood, Calif.
There the interlopers will meet either Georgia or Ohio State, two of college football’s blue bloods who ritually make the sport’s playoff showcase their own.
But not on Saturday in the desert, where T.C.U.’s undersized, unconventional defense thwarted previously unbeaten Michigan — returning two interceptions of quarterback J.J. McCarthy for touchdowns and frustrating the Wolverines vaunted rushing attack — and riding an offense that got an enormous second-half boost from backup running back Emari Demercado and executed to near perfection when it mattered most.
As much fight as Michigan showed, rallying from 18 points late in the third quarter to draw within a field goal, the Wolverines bungled a bushel full of opportunities — including their last fourth-down gasp, when the snap from center caught McCarthy off guard and the ball bounced off his knee, leading to a mad scramble of laterals with less than 30 seconds to play.
The Wolverines had spoken this week of being much better prepared this season, when they beat rival Ohio State for the first time in eight seasons and won the Big Ten — their two stated goals. In their playoff loss to Georgia a year ago, they acknowledged this week, they were just happy to be there.
But from the start, they played as if their place here was not a privilege but a burden and they needed Jake Moody’s 59-yard field goal on the final play of the half just to close within 21-6. That Michigan would not go lightly, though, was to be expected. There has been no better team this season after halftime.
The Wolverines had scored 175 points in the second half of their previous eight games and allowed only 29, of which the only two touchdowns were scored by Illinois. In doing so, they turned tight games against Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers and Indiana into thumpings.
The Horned Frogs, though, were mettle tested, too, having repeatedly come back from double-digit deficits.
And so when Michigan made its charge in the second half, T.C.U. was ready with answers.
It seemed as if the tide was turning when McCarthy hit Ronnie Bell on a flea-flicker for a 34-yard score, drawing the Wolverines within 21-16 midway through the third quarter. As it turned out, the pyrotechnics were only starting.
After Demercado bulled into the end zone for a touchdown, linebacker Dee Winters stepped in front of McCarthy’s slant pass and raced 29 yards for a touchdown that put the Horned Frogs comfortably in front, 34-16. Or so it seemed.
McCarthy’s 20-yard touchdown run was answered by Demercado, who bolted 69 yards up the middle, setting up Duggan’s 1-yard dive.
But after Kalel Mullings scored on a 1-yard run with three seconds left in the third quarter, Demercado fumbled and Michigan recovered at the T.C.U. 27. Three plays later, when Roman Wilson pinwheeled into the end zone on a reverse, Michigan was within 41-38 with 14:13 to play.
Once again, though, Michigan could not stop T.C.U. when it mattered most.
On third-and-7, Duggan hit Quentin Johnston on a short crossing route and the star receiver busted through a tackle and bolted 76 yards for a touchdown and the Horned Frogs had some much needed breathing room.
It was barely enough.
When T.C.U. was stonewalled on back-to-back cracks from inside the 1-yard line in overtime of its loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, Dykes immediately pledged to be better there if his team got into the playoff. Earlier this week, he said the Horned Frogs would have to be stronger up front, but also more creative.
“We’ve put a lot of work into, a lot of attention to it,” Dykes said. “When you look at college football these days, teams are so evenly matched, typically what the game comes down to is being able to convert third downs and, especially, fourth downs and scoring situations.”
Dykes proved prescient.
After Duggan — who was pushed from behind by a couple of teammates — was stopped on a sneak on third-and-goal at the 1, he rolled to his left before turning up field and bulled over Michigan safety Rod Moore, who had rushed up to meet him at the goal line, putting the Horned Frogs ahead, 14-0.
The next time T.C.U. was in striking distance, Duggan rolled out on second-and-goal at the Michigan 6, evaded blitzing nickel back Mike Sainristil and hit receiver Taye Barber, who had raced across the formation, stepped out of a shoestring tackle by cornerback D.J. Turner and bounded into the end zone.
Shockingly, the upstarts were up by a startling 21-3.
Meanwhile, Michigan floundered when it sniffed the end zone, mostly by being too clever for its own good — as if Rich Rodriguez had hijacked Harbaugh’s headset.
The Wolverines, on fourth-and-goal at the 2, ran their version of the Philly Special, the reverse and throw back to the quarterback that the Philadelphia Eagles used to great acclaim to bamboozle the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2018.
The Horned Frogs were neither bammed nor boozled.
McCarthy was blanketed and receiver Colston Loveland, with no one to throw to, was dropped at the 10 by Dylan Horton.
Then, with a first down inside the 1, Michigan tried to slip Mullings from the fullback position into the end zone but he fumbled the handoff and T.C.U. recovered.
The Wolverines settled for a field goal on another trip to the red zone early in the third quarter. Mullings was stuffed on second-and-goal at the 3, and then a snap-and-throw to receiver Ronnie Bell was foiled by safety Abe Camara’s sure tackle behind the line.
One of the more intriguing story lines entering Saturday was how the Horned Frogs’ unconventional defense — a three-lineman, three-linebacker and five-defensive back unit designed to stop the Air Raid offenses that are prevalent in the Big 12 — would hold up against a Michigan team that preferred mauling its opponents.
“You don’t see them playing against people who look like us, so it’s really hard to watch the tape and say, ‘OK, this will definitely work, but this won’t,” Michigan co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss said. “At the same time, they have the same issue. They’re not seeing us go against a 3-3-5 defense, so they don’t really know what we’re going to look like either.”
The first snap of the game seemed to provide an encouraging clue for Michigan.
The Wolverines sent tailback Donovan Edwards straight up the gut behind the heart of its decorated, bruising offensive line — center Olusegun Oluwatimi and guards Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter.
Edwards was greeted at the line of scrimmage by a gaping hole and a few steps later he was in the clear. But Edwards, who repeatedly sprinted away from Ohio State’s defense in the thumping of their rival, soon found out he wasn’t in the Big Ten anymore.
Instead of a message-sending touchdown, Bud Clark tracked Edwards down and collared him at the 21-yard line with what turned out to be a tone-setting tackle: There would be no running away from the Horned Frogs.
The play also served as an opportunity for Clark, a sophomore safety from Alexandria, La., to introduce himself to Michigan for not the only time. He jumped an out route to Bell, snatching McCarthy’s pass and bolting 41 yards to put T.C.U. ahead. Later in the half, Clark pounced on a fumble in the end zone for a touchback.