PASADENA, Calif. — TCU will never know how it would fare against prolific Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Thanks to the impenetrable BCS, the Horned Frogs can only speculate on whether they could match Oregon's spread offense point for point.
Yet third-ranked TCU's dramatic 21-19 win over No. 4 Wisconsin in the 97th Rose Bowl on Saturday answered just about every other question the world could pose to this modest program with enormous heart.
The Frogs (13-0) then celebrated their perfect season on the hallowed Pasadena turf in the name of all those small schools that never even imagined they could get there — every non-automatic qualifying school with dreams of validation.
"We weren't just playing for TCU," said Andy Dalton, who threw for 219 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score in his 42nd career victory. "We were playing for all the non-AQ schools out there. ... The way the system is, it didn't give us the opportunity to play in the (title) game, but we did everything we were capable of doing."
TCU's first Rose Bowl victory wasn't secure until Tank Carder batted down a 2-point conversion pass attempt with 2 minutes to play. The Frogs' star linebacker saved the game with a serendipitous play after the Badgers (11-2) made a gutsy late scoring drive to get to the brink of a tie.
Bart Johnson caught an early TD pass and recovered a late onside kick for the Mountain West champion Horned Frogs, who followed up their second straight unbeaten regular season with their first BCS victory.
TCU lost last year's Fiesta Bowl to Boise State by a touchdown, but that's still the only loss of the past two seasons for the improbable power built deep in the heart of football-crazy Texas by coach Gary Patterson.
"It's hard for me to believe we even got an opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl, let alone say we're the Rose Bowl champs," Patterson said. "As a program for 13 years, we've been trying to climb the mountain. ... Today has been the climax of the last (13) years and what we've tried to get done."
Most of the Frogs stayed on the field after the trophy presentation to soak in another minute of the biggest achievement for TCU football since its national championship season in 1938 — the only other unbeaten campaign for the school that has produced Davey O'Brien, "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Patterson plans to watch the BCS championship game on his couch, relaxing while Oregon's Chip Kelly and Auburn's Gene Chizik sweat out the details in nine days. Patterson's ferocious Frogs already proved they can play with anybody on college football's biggest stages.
"I've been saying for a while that parity in college football is here," Patterson said. "I got texts from everybody across the nation, from Boise State and schools all over. ... Today we played for us, and for all the schools that wanted a chance."
Although nobody would have guessed from the raucous crowd comprised of roughly three-quarters Wisconsin fans, the game was just the third Rose Bowl since 1919 without a current Pac-10 team in it. With Oregon otherwise occupied, TCU beat out Orange Bowl-bound Stanford for the Pasadena slot because of a BCS rule requiring the Rose Bowl to take a non-AQ team this year.
The non-AQ schools improved to 5-2 in BCS bowls with the Frogs' triumph — 4-1 vs. the leagues with automatic bids. Fans can debate where TCU's win in Pasadena ranks with Boise State's thrilling one-point win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or Utah's upset of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, but the Frogs will always be the first back-to-back BCS busters — even after they head to the Big East in 2012.
Montee Ball rushed for 132 yards and a late score for the Big Ten co-champion Badgers, whose loss capped a nightmare New Year's Day for their conference. The Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games Saturday, including the Badgers' loss to one of those teams Ohio State president Gordon Gee said didn't deserve to play for the national championship because they play opponents like "Little Sisters of the Poor."
"Hopefully the scar that we're going to take from this game can get us back here sooner than later," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "This game wasn't decided on one play or two plays. It was probably an accumulation of about 10 or 12 plays that we failed to execute, and they did."
TCU's defense led the nation in several categories this season, but critics said the Frogs hadn't faced the likes of Wisconsin's fearsome offensive line. The Badgers were dominant at times, particularly in a frenetic first quarter that featured 24 combined points, but TCU hung on against Wisconsin's attack with guts, third-down stops — and plenty of Carder.
With a litany of big plays that included a de-cleating sack of Scott Tolzien to kill a third-quarter drive, Carder was the leader all game — and the hero on Wisconsin's final snap.
Luke Shivers' 1-yard TD run put TCU ahead 21-13 early in the third quarter, but neither team scored again until Wisconsin mounted a 77-drive in the waning minutes. Ball rushed for a 4-yard score with 2 minutes to play, and the Frogs expected the Badgers to run for the conversion behind their dominant line.
But Wisconsin came out in a spread, and Carder batted down Tolzien's throw, timing his leap perfectly. Jacob Pedersen was open in the end zone after the Frogs blew their coverage scheme, but the ball never got close to the Wisconsin tight end.
"I figured it was going to be a run," Carder said of the final play. "Coach P called a blitz. I went to go blitz and got blocked and couldn't get through the hole, so I just stopped, backed up, saw him cock his arm back, and that was the end of it."
Johnson easily grabbed Wisconsin's onside kick, and TCU rushed for a final first down to kill the clock.
Tolzien went 12 of 21 for 159 yards for the Badgers, and John Clay rushed for a first-quarter score. Wisconsin outgained the Frogs 385-301 and held the ball for all but three plays in the second quarter, but twice settled for field goals by Philip Welch, who also missed a 39-yard attempt before halftime.
"We know how much this means to everybody involved," Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said through tears. "We work 365 days for this, and then we come out here and don't execute."
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