Riley Nelson's grit and BYU's defense played the Frogs tougher than in recent memory.
Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs, the defending Rose Bowl champions, whipped BYU 38-28 Friday night in Cowboy Stadium. They beat the Cougars easily again. But instead of humiliating BYU all over the field from start to finish like the last three meetings, Patterson had only to watch BYU self-destruct on its punt-hike game to tap out a victory over the Cougars.
In those three previous games, BYU wilted like TCU had taken a blowtorch to a flower. Oh, BYU did compete for the first half in Fort Worth last year and led 3-0 until the dam broke in a 31-3 loss.
But you can tell competing and not competing.
That turned out to be the difference in the game. TCU had polish. BYU, at times, looked like they'd swallowed a real bad Polish dog.
"I can't even describe it night now," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall of the punter hike issue. "It completely caught me by surprise."
That single aspect of a game that lasted 3 hours and 34 minutes loomed catastrophic for BYU.
The first time it happened, it was on BYU'S first series of the game.
Stephenson couldn't get to a left side, low snap to even attempt a punt. He chased the ball and as TCU defenders chased him and the ball, he illegally kicked it off the turf and out of bounds for a penalty and TCU got a first and goal at BYU's 4.
This had never happened to BYU all season. The first time, it looked like something out of a Keystone Cop movie. Made you wonder if BYU even practiced the play.
Then, on BYU's second possession of the second half, it happened again. Same thing, low flier to Stephenson's left foot he couldn't handle. TCU got the ball deep in BYU territory and scored four plays later to take a 35-10 lead.
"Not only once, twice but three times. I didn't think it could happen. It wasn't until the third time that we decided to do something different because there hadn't been any issues," said Mendenhall.
It marked the first time in Mendenhall's tenure, he genuinely looked perplexed and confused about one thing in a game. He could accept the rest.
He couldn't accept this because it was so odd and senseless nine games into the season.
"First one, accident. Second one, something wasn't right. Third one, probably one too many," he said. The coach said the subsequent field position disadvantage on those plays, plus another or two, was the difference.
Despite two interceptions by quarterback Riley Nelson, the feisty junior time and time again led BYU into scoring position, enough times to win if you took away the special team's errors. You could even erase his two interceptions/fumbles inside the 17, one at TCU's 9 on second down — and BYU may have won.
But ifs are ifs. If the queen had certain anatomical differences, she'd be king. If I could sing like Paul McCartney, I'd have a tough time spending money. If BYU hadn't made so many goofy mistakes, well?
For the previous three TCU games, the average score was TCU 34, BYU 6. BYU had no chance. On Friday, they still got behind and had little hope, but they won the numbers game, which, of course, doesn't count on the scoreboard.
In this one, TCU led 14-0 on just four offensive plays. Yet the Cougars outgained TCU 354 yards to 283, out-rushed the Frogs 215 to 147, had the edge in time of possession 31:31 to 28:29, ran more plays (81 to 62) on offense and converted more third downs (8 of 15 to 5 of 14) and lost by 10 points.
"It was a matter of two teams fighting hard and one played cleaner than the other," said Mendenhall.64 comments on this story
It was a consolation that BYU played TCU much tougher than the last three. But it was still a painful, frustrating loss and left the Cougars 6-3 heading into a bye weekend — a lost opportunity to beat a team with a winning record.
BYU scored five times more points against TCU Friday than they'd averaged the last three outings.
"It helped," said TCU coach Gary Patterson of BYU's bumbling efforts to punt the football.
"A couple of fumbles gave us short fields," said Patterson.
In a great matchup of two former MWC brothers, all those plays, all those statistics we can hang here or there, that is all it took for TCU.