MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two minutes after the ball sailed through the uprights, after junior kicker Jaden Oberkrom bounced deliriously on the field and his TCU teammates rushed to join him, after the Horned Frogs improbably rallied to keep their Big 12 title hopes alive and their College Football Playoff dreams intact, the silence set in. It was the type of unmistakable quiet reserved for funerals and sporting defeats, and a crowd of 61,000 shuffled in disbelief to the parking lot.
“We came out so great,” one West Virginia fan murmured, shaking his head.
“That sucks,” said another. “There goes our whole season.”
A few minutes later, in the narrow corridor at Milan Puskar Stadium where the visiting team holds its postgame press conference, TCU coach Gary Patterson rambled as he attempted to collect his thoughts. “After the 82, we knew what was gonna happen,” he said. “It never comes that easy.”
TCU beat West Virginia 31-30 on Saturday. The Mountaineers trailed for less than three minutes before the final second of regulation, and a Horned Frogs team fresh off an 82-27 demolition of Texas Tech failed to establish a competent offense until it absolutely needed to. Two programs, both in their third seasons in Big 12, made flawed, sloppy and relentlessly determined cases for conference superiority. One won, and one lost, and a game that was supposed to clear up the league’s pecking order achieved directly the opposite.
West Virginia struck first. It raced out to a 13-0 first-quarter lead with quarterback Clint Trickett connecting with receiver Mario Alford for a 23-yard score and the Mountaineers recovering a 35-yard pooch kick that functioned, somehow, as an onsides kick. TCU fought back. Co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie dialed up a perfect screen pass, which quarterback Trevone Boykin tossed to Deante’ Gray, who ran 47 yards untouched to the end zone.
Then a lot more happened, which makes sense in retrospect, but only sort of: TCU forced five West Virginia turnovers, all of which it gained in Mountaineers’ territory. West Virginia cornerback Terrell Chestnut stripped TCU wideout Josh Doctson, scooped it up -- the first fumble the Mountaineers had recovered all year -- and ran 35 yards to the end zone. TCU receiver Kolby Listenbee was left uncovered to make possible a 40-yard completion during the Frogs’ final drive, and a kicker who had never made a game-winner in his college career booted one straight and true.
“I’ve had four long [field goals], 45 or 56 [yards], to put us up by one or two, or to tie the game and send it to OT,” Oberkrom said. “But we didn’t win any of those games. So, it’s nice to finally kick one and win.”
This game was everything it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a slugfest, not a shootout. It was a game in which the best unit, West Virginia’s revamped defense, fell short in the waning seconds. It was a contest in which Boykin, who burst onto the Heisman Trophy radar after throwing for 433 yards with seven touchdowns last week, went 12-of-30 passing for 166 yards with one score and one interception.
It was a game that wasn’t pretty or predictable or even consistent. But it was important. And it was one that will have major implications.
Next week TCU will host Kansas State in what will likely be the Big 12 clash of the year. The Horned Frogs’ only conference loss remains their 61-58 defeat at Baylor on Oct. 11, a matchup in which they let a 21-point fourth-quarter lead slip away.
Next week West Virginia will visit Texas. Coach Dana Holgorsen’s crew will try to stomp the Longhorns and get over a loss that can’t be easy to swallow. “Man, it hurt,” Mountaineers linebacker Edward Muldrow said. “I haven’t lost a big game like that in a while. I don’t want to feel that feeling anymore. We were all hurt.”
Both teams will spend part of Sunday looking forward to what’s next, to what’s possible and how this affects the race to the inaugural playoff. Both will also likely look back: to what went right, to what went wrong and to the staggeringly thin margin between the two.
“There’s not much you can do,” Patterson said of the fleeting seconds just prior to Oberkrom’s kick. “You take your headset off. You put your call sheet in your pocket. And you’re just waiting on whoever gets it done.”
Immediately after the game, Boykin delivered a speech in the TCU locker room. He addressed the offense’s uncharacteristic shortcomings and praised his teammates’ resiliency. Elsewhere in the same building, West Virginia players sat silently, heads bowed, envisioning an alternate reality in which Oberkrom had missed.
About an hour later, a line of cars weaved back and forth into the distance, an image reminiscent of the final scene of Field of Dreams, only with the vehicles driving away from a darkened stadium instead of approaching a newly lit one. Maybe only in these moments of silence is the difference truly evident.