All week long, TCU’s defense was fully aware of the perception. The big, bad Wolverines were going to huff and puff and blow their house in.
Michigan was just too physical. Its elite offensive line and run game were just too powerful. It was going to run the ball and a Big 12 defense couldn’t do anything to stop it. Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy articulated it perfectly during the week.
“If they stay in that 3-3-5,” he predicted, “then it’s gonna be a lot of smashing.”
On the first play of the Fiesta Bowl, they did just that. Donovan Edwards ran right up the middle into well-blocked and wide-open space. But it wasn’t a 75-yard touchdown like the ones he hit against Ohio State. Bud Clark wasn’t letting that happen. The TCU safety chased Edwards down from behind and stopped him for a gain of 54.
In the moment, that big run felt ominous for the Horned Frogs. But it wasn’t, at least not in the way you’d expect. Their defense had a bunch of good plays and a bunch of bad plays over the course of 75 snaps on Saturday. But what we’ll remember most about No. 3 TCU’s 51-45 upset triumph against No. 2 Michigan are the massive plays a deeply motivated crew delivered to swing a wildly dramatic CFP semifinal.
“We were the most physical team on the field tonight,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes declared, “and I think that was easy to see.”
What TCU could do on defense was one of the great unknowns for this team entering 2022. You knew what Garrett Riley could do with the skill talent, and nobody was all that shocked that he built an offense capable of scoring 40-plus points per game. But Tulsa’s Joe Gillespie coming in to construct a 3-3-5 defense, a departure from two decades of defense under Gary Patterson, was a challenging task.
The longtime high school head coach, a defensive coordinator at the FBS level for just three seasons, came in and did things his way. Players say his defense is easier to learn and execute, and they have more than enough fast, experienced talent to do so. They supplemented with some excellent finds in the transfer portal in linebacker Johnny Hodges, cornerback Josh Newton and safety Mark Perry, but for the most part, these starters were the same ones whose unit finished No. 118 in scoring defense last season. They’re part of the same team that hadn’t played in a bowl game since 2018.