Striking another blow for its non-BCS brethren, plucky TCU capped a 13--0 season by bottling up big, bad Wisconsin in a thrilling Rose Bowl and further blurring the line between college football's royals and regulars
It was as if David was acting as grief counselor to Goliath's next of kin. There was TCU coach Gary Patterson consoling Wisconsin players J.J. Watt and Scott Tolzien after their post--Rose Bowl press conference. Watt was overcome by emotion following his team's 21--19 loss to the Horned Frogs, and his voice had cracked as he answered a reporter's question. The junior defensive end had paused, covered his eyes and taken a moment to collect himself. As they descended from the dais, Patterson reminded Watt and Tolzien that they were great players and told them to keep their heads up.
"They're a class act," the coach said later. "They wanted to win as badly as our kids."
As long as he was providing aid and comfort to the Badgers, Patterson might as well have extended blanket condolences to the humiliated Big Ten. The conference rang in 2011 by losing all five of its New Year's Day bowl games.
In last Saturday's other BCS bowl, the Fiesta, Oklahoma swatted aside Connecticut 48--20. While the Huskies have made huge strides since jumping from Division I-AA in 2002, there were easily 15 teams more deserving of a BCS berth than 8--4 UConn. It rated that lucrative invite solely for having won the Big East, which suffered through another lousy season. You could hardly blame the conference, then, for going after the Horned Frogs, who announced in November that they will join the Big East in 2012.
It was the professional wrestler and part-time philosopher Ric (Nature Boy) Flair who noted, "To be the man, you've gotta beat the man." Before joining forces with the Man—the BCS system that has often treated them shabbily—the Frogs struck a blow against him. TCU's stirring win over the Big Ten co-champs in Pasadena demonstrated yet again that the line separating college football's haves and have-nots (the automatic-qualifying conferences and the non-AQ conferences) is arbitrary and unjust.
College football must never have a playoff, BCS proponents argue, because a playoff would "dilute" the regular season. As BCS executive director Bill Hancock is fond of saying, "Every game counts." Perhaps Hancock can explain to the 13--0 Horned Frogs why, if each of their games counted this season, they failed to contend for a national championship. (This is the eighth time in the BCS era that a team has run the table but not played in the national title game. Seven of those teams were from non-AQ conferences.)
None of this muted the joy of the players and coaches in purple in the chaotic, confetti-strewn moments after the game. "I don't really care about the national championship right now—I'm livin' in the moment," declared TCU defensive end Wayne Daniels.
The 97th Rose Bowl more than lived up to its billing as a clash of football cultures: the depth, offensive firepower and impeccable pedigree of the Badgers versus the speed, quickness and pluck of the arriviste Frogs, champions of the Mountain West.
Wisconsin, which had lost only one game, to Michigan State, tried acting the underdog's part in the weeks leading up to the game. Even when one considered their respective rankings—the Badgers were No. 4, TCU No. 3—it wasn't a comfortable fit. Behind a monstrous, athletic offensive line anchored by left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin's trio of backs rushed for 2,829 yards in 2010. Six times this season the Badgers scored 41 or more points; three times they broke the 70-point barrier. They hung 83 on poor Indiana.
True, TCU had allowed an average of only 89 rushing yards per game and had led the nation in total defense for the third straight year. But Badgers fans noted, hopefully, that Patterson's patented 4-2-5 scheme—a kind of permanent nickel defense—was designed to slow spread offenses. These Badgers were interested in spreading defenses, yes, but in a different way, the way a Caterpillar paving machine spreads asphalt.
"When we're getting double-teamed, we gotta anchor that down," said Frogs nosetackle Cory Grant two days before the game. "If we get pushed back, there'll be seams opening up all over the place."
He got that right. Barreling through a picnic-table-sized hole, running back Montee Ball gashed TCU for 40 yards on Wisconsin's first play from scrimmage. But that also ended up being the Badgers' longest play from scrimmage; the Frogs "settled down," said Daniels, and held Wisconsin to a field goal on the opening drive. And Patterson had come to this realization: "We couldn't just play our base defense," he admitted in the locker room 45 minutes after the game. "We had to get another guy to the party."
Translation: Patterson had to dial up more blitzes—on "60 or 70 percent" of TCU's defensive plays, according to linebacker Tank Carder, the game's defensive MVP. That hadn't been the Frogs' personality this season, but Patterson had no choice. "That's the only way you can be 50 pounds per man lighter and still slow those guys down," he said. The slanting and movement and blitzes would wrong-foot the Badgers, Patterson hoped, "because no one in the Big Ten really blitzes or moves or slants" with anywhere near the frequency or effectiveness of the Frogs. With a month to prepare, TCU's defenders had spent time in every practice preparing new blitzes.
At the first meeting after the Frogs learned that they were Pasadena-bound, Patterson told his players they would return from semester break on Dec. 24. They would practice the day before Christmas and the day after before flying to California. Some of the team's elder statesmen objected. Speaking for their teammates, they told the coach they wanted to come in on the 22nd. This was a team that had spent a year smarting from its lackluster performance in its previous appearance in a BCS bowl, last year's 17--10 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta.
"That drove us more than anything this season," says quarterback Andy Dalton. "We needed to get back to [a BCS bowl] and win it."
That wouldn't have happened without Dalton, who arrived on TCU's Fort Worth campus as an afterthought—he started only one full season at Katy (Texas) High—and will leave as the winningest quarterback in school history. Dalton's 42 victories are 13 more than Slingin' Sammy Baugh's.
While they differed in every other manner, TCU and Wisconsin fielded highly similar signal callers. Both Dalton and Tolzien are 6'3", both are seniors, both are often described as adept "managers" of the game. While Tolzien is more efficient—he came into the game leading the nation with an uncanny 74.3 completion percentage—Dalton is the better runner. In the biggest game of their careers, the major difference between them was that Dalton finished drives. He answered Wisconsin's opening field goal with a pretty 23-yard touchdown pass to wideout Bart Johnson. Then, near the end of the first quarter, Dalton's perfectly placed 44-yard pass into the outstretched hands of streaking wideout Josh Boyce set up TCU's second touchdown, a four-yard scamper by the quarterback.
The Frogs never did fully contain Wisconsin's rushing attack. (The Badgers ran for 226 yards.) But they disrupted it. "We knew they were gonna drive the ball on us," said Carder. "The key to surviving those blows was to make 'em kick field goals. Coach P told us all week if we could [do that] we could win the game." Indeed, in a game in which it had just eight possessions, Wisconsin attempted three field goals and made two.
Moments after emerging from the showers and pulling on his team-issued white warmups, Carder noticed a red stain blooming on the fabric just below his left knee. Rolling up the cuff of his pants, the junior from Sweeny, Texas, discovered that he was still bleeding from a cut high on his shin. "Whatever," he said, too spent to care. "It's all good."
Carder then held up his right arm to show another minor wound: a pebble-grained abrasion on the inside of his biceps. "That's where it hit me," he said.
It was the final pass of Tolzien's college career, a laser intended for tight end Jacob Pedersen. Down to their final possession, trailing 21--13, the Badgers had returned to first principles. John Clay, the 6'1", 248-pound battering ram of a back, rumbled 14 yards, then 30 yards on consecutive snaps. At long last Carimi & Co. had begun to wear down their smaller opponents. Ball finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run that brought Wisconsin to within two.
The Frogs were on the ropes. The Badgers had just shoved them the length of the field. TCU was running on fumes. "We knew they were gonna run it," recalls Carder. "We knew they were gonna come out with two backs, two tight ends and just power it in."
Instead, Wisconsin lined up four wide receivers, with Tolzien in the shotgun formation. "They're like, 95 percent pass when they get in shotgun," Carder noted. "It actually caught us off guard."
Patterson called Y-Dogs, on which Carder blitzes. With his path to Tolzien blocked, said Carder, "I just stopped, read [Tolzien's] eyes and jumped. I bet [Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema] is kicking himself in the ass right about now."
If not, plenty of second-guessing Badgers fans were willing to do it for him. As one bald man in a red shirt acidly remarked on his way to the parking lot, "I can't wait to hear what Bret says about our new spread offense."
TCU won because Patterson succeeded in getting an extra guy to the party. Two minutes after Carder's game-sealing play, the Frogs ran out the clock, and the party started in earnest.
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BLITZING HADN'T BEEN THE FROGS' PERSONALITY THIS SEASON, BUT PATTERSON HAD NO CHOICE.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
TANK ASSAULT Carder (43) disrupted the Badgers' attack with three tackles for loss, including a sack of Tolzien (16), to earn defensive MVP honors.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (DALTON)
TEXAS TWO-STEP With Dalton (14) making plays and Patterson (below) dialing up the pressure, TCU atoned for its 2010 Fiesta Bowl loss.
[See caption above]