Winners and Losers of the College Football Playoff Semifinals
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TCU didn’t belong, they said. Ohio State didn’t belong, they said.
“They” were wrong.
But only one of them made it through to the College Football Playoff national title game, and that was TCU, which hit Michigan in the mouth and won 51-45.
Ohio State led most of the way against defending national champion Georgia, but the Bulldogs survived 42-41. Buckeyes kicker Noah Ruggles hooked a potential game-winning 50-yard field goal in the closing seconds.
Two underdogs shook the sport at its foundations Saturday. When the smoke cleared, Georgia still had the chance to defend its title against the season’s Cinderella, TCU.
Let’s take a look at some winners and losers from Saturday’s semifinal action.
Loser: Michigan Miscues
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One of the hallmarks of Michigan football this year was taking care of the ball. When you’re a physical team that relies on running and defense, not giving away possessions is a big part of being undefeated and getting to the final four.
In Saturday’s loss to TCU, the Wolverines were uncharacteristically sloppy, digging themselves a hole and giving away plenty of points.
Every massive, early play, it seemed, saw a monumental mistake follow.
Donovan Edwards started the game by ripping off a 54-yard run that set up the Wolverines with an eventual goal-to-go situation. But a failed “Philly special” on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line led to a turnover on downs.
Dov Kleiman @NFL_DovKleiman
Michigan called the Philly Special against TCU… but they weren’t playing against a Matt Patricia defense so it didn’t work out. pic.twitter.com/fG8e10UZm0
When the Wolverines got the ball back, JJ McCarthy threw a 41-yard pick-six to Bud Clark to make it 7-0.
Then, trailing 14-3 with a chance to close the gap following a Max Duggan interception, McCarthy threw a 50-yard bomb to Roman Wilson, who appeared to bobble the ball at the half-yard line before securing it in the end zone. Replay overturned the score, although ruling Wilson was down with possession before crossing the goal line.
A botched exchange between McCarthy and Kalel Mullings on 1st-and-goal on the next play led to a fumble into the end zone, which was recovered by TCU.
With the Wolverines trying to come back late in the third quarter, a pick-six from McCarthy to Dee Winters ended any hopes for a Michigan rally. Uncharacteristically, despite a huge day (395 total yards, three touchdowns), McCarthy made mistakes, and they were biggies.
It was a tornado of turnovers for the Wolverines, and it left a trail of scoreboard carnage in its wake. From blown scoring opportunities to handing the Horned Frogs points of their own, it went a long way in Michigan digging an early hole.
Winner: Stetson’s Silencer
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For much of the Saturday night, Stetson Bennett looked like the undersized, former walk-on quarterback that he is. But, with the game on the line, the Georgia gamer who will be remembered as much for his heroics as his heart, found a way once again.
Don’t think he deserved to be a Heisman Trophy finalist? Fair enough. Don’t think he belongs in the spotlight? Well, that’s another story. All the man does is take the game’s biggest moments, shrink them down and prove he’s bigger than them. And all the doubters.
Once again, he led Georgia all the way back after what had been a pedestrian personal effort for three-and-a-half quarters.
Down 38-27 with 8:41 left, Bennett found Arian Smith for a 76-yard quick strike when the defender fell down to shave the lead. Following a Buckeyes field goal, UGA again got the ball.
Bennett meticulously led the Dawgs down the field on a five-play, 72-yard drive in 1:49 on which he completed five of five passes for 67 yards and the scoring strike to Adonai Mitchell to pull ahead by the final margin following the extra. point.
“It’s in our hands now,” Bennett told ESPN of what he was thinking before the final drive. “And then when we scored, I was scared to death because they played a helluva game on offense. I was like, ‘We scored too quickly.’ Then our guys stepped up. What a game. What a game.”
Bennett wound up 23-of-34 for 398 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a rushing touchdown in the huge win. Now, he gets a chance to be a back-to-back national champion.
Winner: TCU’s Epic Counterpunch
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Throughout an unforgettable season, TCU has produced resounding responses with its back against the wall.
Saturday’s wild semifinal retort was different from the Horned Frogs’ regular-season comeback propensity, but it was just as impressive. Coach Sonny Dykes’ team rode its ability to counterpunch big, bad Michigan at every turn all the way to the title game in a 51-45 win.
“It shows what these guys are all about,” Dykes told ESPN after the game. “They never give up.”
For the better part of three quarters, it looked like the Horned Frogs were going to handle the Wolverines. But Michigan scored its first touchdown with 6:32 left in the third quarter to cut the lead to five points.
The Horned Frogs responded to all that sudden-change, Wolverine swagger with a smack in the mouth in the form of a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, sparked by a 46-yard strike from Duggan to Quentin Johnston to bring it to the Michigan 29-yard line.
When the offensive floodgates followed soon after, leading to a 44-point third quarter from both teams, the Frogs didn’t flinch.
After backup running back Emari Demercado’s brilliant performance was marred by a fumble on the final play of the third quarter and the Wolverines scored an immediate touchdown and two-point conversion to trim the lead to 41-38, TCU didn’t tank.
Instead, Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan—who was far from his sparkling self—bought time by weaving away from the rush, taking a big hit and delivering a shallow cross to Johnston, who took it 76 yards to the house. They added a field goal to extend the lead to 51-38.
Quarterback JJ McCarthy calmly led Michigan to another touchdown with 3:18 left in the game, and after the Frogs couldn’t run out the clock, the defense stopped the Wolverines to end the shenanigans.
Winner: CJ Stroud Seizing the Stage in a Losing Effort
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Throughout his scintillating two years leading Ohio State’s offense, redshirt sophomore quarterback CJ Stroud has been one of the best players in the nation.
But he still couldn’t quite emerge from the considerable shadow of some of the quarterbacks around him.
Last year, Stroud posted amazing numbers, but Alabama’s Bryce Young beat him for the Heisman Trophy with even better stats and a spot in the national title game. This year, Stroud was again invited to the ceremony, but USC’s Caleb Williams beat him.
Saturday’s showdown with Georgia reminded everyone what he can be as he prepares for the NFL draft. Stroud finished 23-of-34 for 348 yards and four touchdowns and was outstanding on the ground, running the ball for 34 more, falling just short in a duel with another QB, fellow Heisman finalist Stetson Bennett.
If there was one flaw, it was that without star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and tight end Cade Stover, who were both injured during the game, Stroud couldn’t move the ball closer than a 50-yard field-goal try in the closing seconds after he galloped up the middle into field-goal range.
He’ll head off to the draft and make millions without a title and without any personal hardware, but that doesn’t take anything away from how great he was in the most important moment of his career.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the defense could not close the deal and send out Stroud with a chance to contend for the national title.
Winner: Max Duggan’s Supporting Cast
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TCU quarterback Max Duggan usually gets the headlines. But in Saturday’s unforgettable win, the Heisman Trophy finalist was a footnote.
That’s not a knock on the senior signal-caller, who certainly wasn’t bad, amassing 282 combined yards and four total touchdowns in a gritty effort.
It’s more of an acknowledgment that the team coach Sonny Dykes has assembled in Fort Worth in his first year is much more of a squad full of stars than it’s given credit for.
Questions about whether the Horned Frogs belonged were answered in a big way throughout the win. When Duggan struggled, as he did at times in completing less than 50 percent of his passes for 225 yards and two interceptions, others picked him up.
Starting running back Kendre Miller injured his knee and could not return, so backup Emari Demercado played the role of battering ram with 150 vital rushing yards to help TCU keep Michigan at arm’s length. Yes, he had a costly fumble that the Wolverines turned into a touchdown, but he rebounded and was big down the stretch.
Receiver Quentin Johnston finished with six catches for 163 yards and a huge touchdown.
While Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, he wasn’t the defensive catalyst. Bud Clark had an early pick-six that set the tone and gave the Horned Frogs their first score.
But the biggest star on either side of the ball was senior first-team All-Big 12 linebacker Dee Winters, who was a one-man wrecking crew, breaking up two passes, gathering three tackles for loss, pressuring JJ McCarthy multiple times and getting his own pick-six late in the third quarter to take Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP honors.
Duggan is a warrior and does a lot of great things, but Dykes’ team is playing for a national championship because it has playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball.
Loser: B1G Bummer
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The heartbreak came in different shades for different reasons, but the ultimate culprit was the same.
Both Big Ten representatives in the College Football Playoff are going home after semifinal losses.
For Michigan, the bonkers game-of-a-million-momentum-swings loss to TCU marked the second season in a row it fell in the playoffs.
Last year, the Wolverines came from nowhere to beat Ohio State, make the CFP and then bow out without a whimper in a 34-11 loss against eventual champion Georgia. This season, though, Michigan was more than a touchdown favorite over TCU and fell flat.
The Wolverines made too many mistakes, and their vaunted defense had few answers for the Horned Frogs.
Ohio State, on the other hand, sort of backed in after USC lost the Pac-12 title game. Once the Buckeyes got in, though, they were seen as a dangerous test for Georgia and certainly lived up to that billing.
But coach Ryan Day’s team faltered defensively yet again, wilting in much the same way it did against Michigan. After building a two-touchdown lead against UGA, the Buckeyes had a chance to topple the Dawgs and be the giant-killer.
Instead, the Bulldogs stormed back to take the lead and then won the game when Noah Ruggles’ prayer of a 50-yard field-goal attempt hooked harmlessly to the left. Now, the conference’s first national title since 2014 will have to wait at least another year.