— PASADENA, Calif. - The fireworks started early during the 97th Rose Bowl, as an impromptu pyrotechnic show before pregame warmups was a prelude to the highest scoring first quarter in the game's history, as No. 3 TCU and No. 4 Wisconsin piled up 24 points before the second quarter started Saturday. But after the opening salvo, the Horned Frogs' top-rated defense hung tough, weathering their stiffest test of the season as they held the Badgers to below 20 points for the first time this season, keeping Wisconsin out of the end zone on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt with two minutes left, sealing a 21-19 victory.
The win completes TCU’s perfect season and guarantees two undefeated teams will be standing at the end of the college football season, one from the haves — the BCS conferences (Auburn or Oregon), and for the second year in a row, one from the have-nots.
“We weren’t just playing for TCU,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We were playing for all those non-AQ schools out there.”
The win is another kick at the door of traditionalists who scoff at the notion that a team from a non-BCS conference can play with the big boys of college football for a prolonged period of time. TCU’s victory reminds the BCS powerbrokers that even if they may not like it, you can build an elite program from the outskirts of the college football kingdom, and a football team that isn’t designed to win only when it gets its “one shot.” Since 2005, TCU has won 66 football games, averaging 11 victories a season and only losing more than two games only once.
“We’ve been trying to climb the mountain,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “Today has been the climax of the last 10 years of what we’ve been trying to get done.”
To get to the top of college football, TCU rode the backs of two stars that have become emblematic of the schools Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee called “Little Sisters of the Poor.”
Quarterback Andy Dalton supplied all but 58 of TCU’s 301 yards, throwing for 219 yards and a touchdown while also leading the Horned Frogs in rushing. The two-time Mountain West offensive player of the year only had scholarship offers from TCU and UTEP before he arrived in Fort Worth, and 42 wins later he delivered TCU a BCS victory after laying an egg last year against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Defensively, it was linebacker Tank Carder who saved the day for the Frogs, batting down Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien’s pass to a wide open Jacob Pederson on the Badgers' final offensive play. The junior led the defense with three tackles-for-loss, a bone-crushing sack, and six solo tackles. That Carder won awards at recruiting camps at LSU and SMU and still didn’t leave with scholarship offers shows the hidden gem Patterson and his staff unearthed, and the undersized linebacker from a small West Texas town went to the only school that offered him a scholarship, and three years later he’s the Mountain West’s defensive player of the year.
Yet just because Patterson has had to unearth talent from unusual places doesn’t mean that his program wears ruby slippers.
“I don’t think they’re a Cinderella story because they proved it,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after the game. “Give all the credit in the world to TCU, that is not just lip service. That is a very good football team. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
With a senior class that’s now won 44 games, Gary Patterson has assembled a football team that should take a back seat to no program. Since the Frogs senior class enrolled, TCU has signed 93 recruits from the state of Texas, a state that’s produced more Division-I football players than any other in that period.
While TCU may lack the star power of their undefeated counterparts, its roster is better assembled than any other in college football. If you win championships because of defense and a stout offensive line, TCU has 10 starters that are either fourth or fifth year seniors at “power positions,” on the offensive line or in the defensive front seven.
TCU won’t have a chance to officially join the BCS until 2012, when they join the Big East. But Patterson assembled one of the deepest rosters in college football from a state filled with the most talent, a telling sign that while the Horned Frogs are still tagged with the non-AQ stigma, Saturday’s victory over the Badgers was elite BCS talent on display.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that parity in college football is here,” Patterson said. “Today we proved we have just as good of players as anybody else in the country. And I’ve been saying that for a while.”
But as long as the system stands pat, TCU — and all the other non-AQ teams like it — will be forced to either run the table, or go home quietly. In TCU’s case, even a perfect season wasn’t enough.
“We want our chance, but I think the Rose Bowl was our chance,” Patterson said. “This was our bowl game. Until we have a better way of doing it, it was a lot of fun.”
When the consolation prize is clinching a perfect season on college football’s grandest stage, you can’t blame Patterson for not complaining. But once again, college football’s postseason leaves people scratching their heads, playing an all too familiar game of “what if.”