TCU knew of Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme before CFP game, used ‘dummy signals’ to fool Wolverines

During TCU’s game against Michigan in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals, the ruse was underway.

TCU coaches changed several of their play-call signals before kickoff after learning of Michigan’s elaborate sign-stealing scheme. However, head coach Sonny Dykes and the Horned Frogs staff had better ideas than switching signals.

They pulled a fast one on Wolverine.

In an attempt to fool the UM staff, they mixed the new play-call signals with the old ones, using what one TCU staff member described as “dummy signals.” Fake signals were old play-calls that were changed. Players were told to ignore the dummy signals and execute the original play with the new signals.

“Sometimes we stopped a play before the snap,” one TCU coach said. “We would call a play and then signal on another play with the old signal, but told the players to run the original play.”

Coming off a 7.5-point deficit in the Fiesta Bowl, TCU defeated Michigan 51-45 to send the Tykes into the national championship game against Georgia, shocking much of the college football world. The Horned Frogs lost that game 65-7, But their semifinal victory remains one of the most incredible upsets in College Football Playoff history — and, now, serves as another epitome of what has become the college game’s version of Tabletgate.

In a week in history, most people now know the details: Now-suspended Michigan scout Connor Stallions bought tickets to more than 40 college football games in an effort to record opponents’ signals in an elaborate, three-game shake-up year program. In news first reported by Yahoo Sports last Thursday, the NCAA is investigating the program for violating the association’s rules regarding in-person scouting.

TCU cornerback Keion Stewart gestures after the game against Michigan during the Horned Frogs’ victory in the Fiesta Bowl. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past seven days, additional news regarding the case has surfaced from various media outlets.

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Most recently, the Washington Post reported Wednesday that an outside investigative agency was the first to provide the NCAA with Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme last week, providing officials with documents found on computers maintained and accessed by UM coaches, including travel schedules and expenses. For future trips.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that NCAA investigators were gathering information for an investigation at a campus in Michigan.

The breadth of the project seems enormous. The Stallions bought tickets to games at 12 of the 13 Big Ten schools for a total of 30 games, ESPN reported Monday. At least one school produced surveillance video inside the stadium that recorded a sidekick in the Stallions’ reserved seat. Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that he bought tickets to games involving CFP contenders Tennessee, Georgia, Oregon, Florida and Clemson, as well as the past two SEC championship games.

On one occasion, the Stallions bought tickets to Tennessee’s game against Kentucky last season considering the Volunteers’ sideline. Three minutes after purchase, he transferred the ticket, presumably to an associate or friend assigned to record the game.

At TCU, the school found no evidence of ticket purchases for Stallions home games last season, but there were plenty of opportunities to book the Horned Frogs in road games or the Big 12 championship against Kansas State.

Shortly after the CFP released the 2022 semifinal matchups of Georgia vs. Ohio State and TCU vs. Michigan, the Horned Frogs staff began receiving phone calls from coaches around the country about what was a well-known fact in the Big Ten coaching community: Michigan had an extensive identity-stealing system.

Many on the TCU staff didn’t know before the calls. Coaches from several Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, communicated the plan to TCU coaches.

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“Everybody we talked to knew,” one TCU coach said. “They’ll say, ‘You know, they’re stealing your signals, they’re going to get everything, so you better switch them over.'”

Michigan has “the most extensive signal stealing in the history of the world,” one coach told the staff.

TCU converted some signals. However, it’s more interesting that they deliberately used old signals to fool the Wolverines – which isn’t surprising given the intellectual nature of their head coach. Dykes is a protégé of Mike Leach, a coach known for mocking signal stealers. During a game while coaching at Washington State, Leach learned he was the coach of his team’s next opponent.Arizona State’s Todd Graham is known for stealing signals. During the game against ASU, Leach aggressively flashed his signals at Graham In a hilarious moment that has been doing the rounds on social media for the past few days.

Many see leech in dykes. So why not give the wolverines their own medicine?

Dykes and staff devised a game plan, using dummy signals to fool coach Jim Harbaugh and the Stallions signaller. TCU scored touchdowns in the first half on drives of 10 plays for 83 yards and 12 plays for 76 yards.

“The guy (the Stallions) fouled out twice,” one TCU staff member said. “We watched the TV version of the game again. You can see him standing next to the defensive coordinator. He’s saying something to the coordinator, he means pass. You can see it with our hand signs on the playsheet he’s holding.

TCU took various steps to avoid the problem beyond changing some signs. The staff deliberately signaled on late plays so as not to leave enough time for the stallions to send the signal to the coaches.

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“They got us at times in the game,” one TCU staffer said, “especially in short yardage.”

Dec.  31 TCU's Dee Winters returns for an interception during the Horned Frogs' win over the Michigan Wolverines in the College Football Playoff semifinals.  (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Dec. 31 TCU’s Dee Winters returns for an interception during the Horned Frogs’ win over the Michigan Wolverines in the College Football Playoff semifinals. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Signal-stealing is not against NCAA rules. However, the association prohibits coaches or staff from watching games of upcoming opponents in person — a nearly 30-year-old rule. It is not against NCAA rules to steal an opponent’s signals during a game or telecast. In fact, it’s pretty common in college football.

Throughout history, plenty of opposing coaches have been caught by rival schools scouting games, spring games or practices, yet many of them are handled quietly by the NCAA, undisclosed.

The Michigan case represents the largest publicized identity-theft scheme in the recent history of college sports. It’s no wonder the system eventually leaked due to its sheer size and goofy moves.

The Stallions bought tickets in his own name, and the Michigan staff used large white playsheets during games that showed the opposing team’s hand signals in black — Its stills are going viral on the internet.

Big Ten coaches caught on a long time ago.

As Yahoo Sports reported last week, several Michigan opponents this season ditched their signal and used wristbands for several offensive tackles during the game against the Wolverines.

“We heard they had a guy play really well, and there was all this information from your usual ways of getting signals,” one Big Ten staffer said. “We get into the game, it’s the second quarter. I see him across the field and he’s checking his 11×17 sheet.

According to sources, the identity-theft dates back to at least 2021. The Wolverines have won 33 of their last 36 games that season. Michigan is 8-0 and ranked No. 2 this season and has the bye this week before a home game against Purdue on Nov. 4.

A timeline for the NCAA’s investigation is unclear. It started last week. NCAA investigations like these can take months, if not years, and have a much longer appeals process, which can delay potential penalties.

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