SALT LAKE CITY -- Gary Patterson generally isn't one for excitable reactions or grand proclamations, but how could he help himself Saturday? Standing beneath a scoreboard that still read TCU 47, Utah 7, on a field where the home team had not lost in 21 games, the Horned Frogs coach happily said exactly what the throng of surrounding reporters wanted to hear.
"They put themselves on a different plateau," Patterson said of his team after its absolute demolition of fellow undefeated Utah.
On a day when No. 5 Alabama suffered its second road loss of the season and No. 9 Nebraska needed overtime to win at middling Iowa State (a place where TCU's opponent won 68-27 earlier this season), Patterson's team went on the road and delivered one of the most complete performances by a top 10 team this season. The Horned Frogs, who ranked fourth in the AP poll and third in the BCS standings entering Saturday, outgained the Utes 558-199 and came within five minutes of pitching a shutout.
If this is how TCU plays against No. 6, wouldn't it be nice to see how the 10-0 Horned Frogs would fare against No. 1 or 2?
"We have to finish the season, and we can only control what we can control, but I think they made a statement today," said Patterson. "Everybody else in the country that's gone into someone else's house in a big game has usually gotten beat."
When Alabama routed Florida in similar fashion earlier this season, we were ready to anoint the Tide the second coming of the 1985 Bears. That's the benefit a team gets when it plays in the SEC. Because this game took place in the Mountain West, TCU's win will inevitably be downgraded in the eyes of fans in blueblood country.
It shouldn't be. TCU and Boise State (which routed Hawaii 42-7 on Saturday) may not play in the best conferences, but if you don't think by now that one of them might be the best team in the country, you might as well dig out your MC Hammer pants, because you're stuck in 1990.
Consider this: Saturday marked the sixth straight game in which the Horned Frogs held their opponent to single-digit scoring. Only this wasn't Wyoming or UNLV on the other sideline. This was Utah, owner of the nation's third-ranked scoring offense coming into the day.
"The score was not indicative of how lopsided this game was," said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. "Gary Patterson has something special there. They are an exceptionally high-quality football team."
As dominant as TCU was defensively, senior quarterback Andy Dalton stole the show. Marching his offense 80 yards on nine plays on the game's opening drive, Dalton completed all five of his pass attempts, culminating in a 26-yard touchdown strike to receiver Josh Boyce on a third-and-five play. It would become a familiar sight. Later in the first quarter, pinned on his own seven, Dalton fired downfield to Boyce, who broke a tackle, dodged another and streaked 93 yards for another score.
By the time his day ended early in the fourth quarter, Dalton had gone 21-of-26 for a career-high 356 yards and three touchdowns.
"When he's on fire, he's on fire," said receiver Jimmy Young. "He came out and played the game of his life."
Meanwhile, the Frogs made life miserable for Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn. At first Wynn struggled to find open receivers, often winding up dumping the ball to one of his running backs. Then TCU started to bring more pressure, and Wynn began pressing. On a third-and-seven late in the first quarter, he rolled right, held the ball too long and was hit and stripped by Frogs defensive lineman Wayne Daniels.
At the start of the third quarter, with TCU up 23-0, Wynn was hit as he released and threw an interception that linebacker Tanner Brock returned 57 yards to set up one of the Frogs' three one-play touchdown drives on the day.
As TCU's lead grew and Wynn's struggles continued (he finished 16-of-35 for 148 yards, a touchdown and three turnovers), the frustrated home crowd turned on him, distastefully booing a kid who'd led Utah to nine wins since taking over as a freshman last season. The second-largest crowd in school history was dressed entirely in black to match the honorary "Wounded Warriors" jerseys its team donned Saturday.
Afterward, the only happy guy wearing black was Patterson, who, after donning purple shirts the first four games of the season, switched to black for the Oct. 2 Colorado State game -- the one that started TCU's string of defensive dominance.
"I'm a superstitious guy," Patterson said.
He's also a cautious guy, which means every time someone asked an inevitable question about the Frogs' national title chances, he tempered it by reminding the group that next week brings a date with dangerous San Diego State (6-2). The Aztecs took Missouri to the wire earlier this season.
But it also sounded like the 11th-year coach, who remained mostly quiet last season about any BCS controversy because he was thrilled just to earn the school's first BCS bowl berth, is starting to plant the seeds for a possible lobbying campaign this time. TCU's season ends Nov. 27 at New Mexico, which notched its first win of the season this week over Wyoming.
"We'll see if we can win the next two [games]," said Patterson, "and then we'll have a conversation."
Young, a senior, said he wasn't upset last year that the Horned Frogs didn't get to play for a title. But this year? "Yeah, I'd be upset," he said. "We can play with anybody."
Of course Boise State, the only team that's beaten TCU in the past two years, could easily argue the same thing. If it came to picking one over the other, the debate would be interminable. As of now it's moot, with undefeated Oregon and Auburn sitting comfortably in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots in the BCS standings. If the Ducks and Tigers win out, they'll go to Glendale, and there really won't be an argument as to why they shouldn't.
Then again, neither the Ducks nor Tigers have done what the Frogs did Saturday: go on the road and destroy a top 10 team. If there's a better defense in the country this season than TCU's, it could only be the one in Boise.
"We did all we could do today," said Patterson. "Everybody knows that we're sitting there. If you watched this game, you understand what you're getting. You know what kind of football team this is."
Yeah. The kind that could win a national championship.