PASADENA, Calif. -- When the game ended, All-American TCU safety Tejay Johnson bawled. He didn't shed little tears of joy; as he stood on the Rose Bowl field hugging assistant coach Dan Sharp, Johnson sobbed.
The third-ranked Horned Frogs did not win a national championship here Saturday, but you wouldn't have known it from watching the avalanche of emotion that spilled out of a sea of purple in the moments following their 21-19 Rose Bowl victory over No. 4 Wisconsin.
Backup safety Tyler Luttrell cried on the shoulders of teammate Bart Johnson. Staffers in TCU polo shirts charged with corralling the players into the locker room did so with big smiles and watery eyes. A couple of purple-clad fans got so carried away that they tried to join the on-field celebration. (Which did not end well for them, unfortunately. Security guards and handcuffs were involved.)
The game had not even ended before the denizens of cyberspace began lamenting the fate of the poor, 13-0 Horned Frogs, snubbed again by an unjust system. Such sentiment, while understandable, was nowhere to be found in the TCU locker room.
"I don't really care about the national championship right now," said standout defensive end Wayne Daniels. "I'm living in the moment. ... I'd say we're pretty good."
He's got that right. In holding previously 11-1 Wisconsin to its lowest points total of the year, and in doing so on the sport's biggest stage to date this season, the Horned Frogs showed definitively that the only difference between TCU and the nation's other elite programs is an arbitrary label -- "non-AQ" -- assigned to their conference by a pack of suits in a corporate boardroom. Player for player, down for down, the Horned Frogs lined up against the co-champions of the prestigious Big Ten (albeit a Big Ten saddled by a humiliating 0-5 New Year's Day bowl slate) and asserted their superiority.
It wasn't a mismatch by any means. The game ultimately came down to one particularly spectacular player, TCU linebacker Tank Carder, making one particularly special play, batting down Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien's potential game-tying two-point conversion pass with two minutes left.
But while the Badgers' three-headed tailback monster of Montee Ball, John Clay and James White combined for 231 yards on 41 carries, they did it in spurts, never asserting some sort of mythical BCS-conference dominance. While TCU struggled to run the ball itself, senior quarterback Andy Dalton picked apart Wisconsin's secondary the same way he had so many Mountain West foes before it.
"I don't think they're a Cinderella story," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "They proved it."
In an ideal world, the Horned Frogs would move on to play No. 1 Auburn or No. 2 Oregon next week. Maybe they'd win, maybe they wouldn't. They're certainly no less capable than any other contender on the horizon. If not for a few stubborn, power-wielding commissioners, they would have that opportunity. There would at least be a plus-one bowl system in which Saturday's game would have served as a semifinal. There still would have been 94,118 amped-up fans in the stadium, no extra classes would have been missed, all appropriate parties would get their same fat paychecks and we'd know one way or the other whether TCU was the best team of the 2010 season.
But even in the absence of that possibility, the atmosphere was no less tense, the ramifications no less palpable on Saturday. While TCU may serve as the new face of injustice to the many BCS critics, for those in attendance the game felt no less important than the Texas-Alabama championship game played in this same stadium 51 weeks earlier.
The venue was a big reason why. The Horned Frogs' mere appearance in the 97th edition of college football's most fabled event was a historic landmark, and while they weren't even underdogs (two-point favorites, to be exact), they were carrying the flag of Boise State, Utah and so many other underdogs before them.
"I don't think we were playing just for TCU," said Dalton. "We were playing for all the non-AQ schools to show we can play with anybody in the country."
Dalton, who finished 15-of-23 for 219 yards and a touchdown, played a big part in that. On its opening drive, TCU relied more on Dalton's feet, calling several zone-read plays in which the quarterback could tuck and run. He carried six times for 31 yards on his team's first two series ,but just three times the rest of the way. The draw plays helped negate the potential impact of All-American Badgers defensive end J.J. Watt while creating more opportunities for downfield passes.
"Their secondary has some holes in it, so our goal was to find those holes and get the ball to our receivers," said All-American center Jake Kirkpatrick, who credited tackles Marcus Cannon and Zach Roth for neutralizing Watt (three tackles) and helping hold Wisconsin without a sack.
TCU's defense allowed more total yards (385 to 301) on the day, but it delivered far more game-changing plays, most notably seven tackles for loss and five pass break ups. After going up 21-13 to start the second half, TCU pinned Wisconsin on its own five, its own three and its own 11 on consecutive series. The Badgers made progress on two of those drives, but ultimately stalled. Carder burst through the line for a ferocious third-down sack of Tolzien to thwart the first of the three possessions. A Daniels pass deflection ended the third.
The Badgers launched one more strike with 7:32 remaining. Former star Clay, relegated largely to short-yardage duty for much of the day, made the most of fresh legs to break off gains of 14 and 30 yards to start their final possession. Ball and Clay chipped away for 23 more yards on seven carries, the last a four-yard touchdown run by Ball with two minutes remaining to cut it to 21-19.
To considerable surprise, however, Wisconsin lined up in the shotgun for its two-point attempt, with Tolzien looking to pass -- a play Bielema said they'd been practicing for three weeks. For a brief instant Tolzien appeared to have an open receiver, but Carder got in the way of the ball before it could reach its target. Though outnumbered more than three-to-one, TCU's purple-clad contingent let out a huge roar that barely ebbed during the final clock-killing sequence.
Once the clock did reach 0:00, the Horned Frogs began mad celebratory dashes to every conceivable section of the field.
"This is the best feeling I've had in my life," said Johnson after the tears dried up. "I've been fighting it all morning -- this is my last college game, on this stage, against this team. This felt like a national championship game."
Ah yes, the national championship. The one TCU won't win, no matter what result Oregon and Auburn produce 10 days from now.
At his postgame press conference, Patterson had every opportunity to turn the stage into a personal pulpit, as former USC coach Pete Carroll did more than once after what he believed to be deserving but overlooked teams took down Big Ten foes in this same game. Instead, Patterson had this to say: "I've never been a whiner ... and I'm not going to start now."
For Patterson, this was the crowning moment of a decade-long project, one that began back when the Horned Frogs were first-year members of Conference USA just happy to be playing in the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl. Not even the staunchest TCU supporter could have foreseen what would ensue from there: Seven 10-win seasons in nine years, a move to the Mountain West (and, soon, the Big East), consecutive undefeated regular seasons, a Fiesta Bowl invite, and now a Rose Bowl championship.
"Today we proved we have just as good of players as anybody else in the country," Patterson said. "And I've been saying that for a while."
There are still those who won't believe that until TCU wins the BCS National Championship Game. Watching the Horned Frogs take turns posing for pictures with the Rose Bowl trophy in their locker room afterward, you'd never know they didn't do just that.