It wouldn't be a normal college football week without another unbeaten team and BCS bowl aspirant getting knocked off its temporary pedestal, but the force with which the BYU Cougars were thrown off the Mountain West summit had to surprise a number of observers. On a night when Bronco Mendenhall's boys played pancake-flat football, Gary Patterson's purple people devoured their conference foe with a nearly flawless performance. As a result of this 25-point trouncing, TCU just put Utah and Boise State in the driver's seat, as the Utes and Broncos now lead the group of non-BCS conference teams who are pursuing a pigskin paradise with a flavor known as Fiesta, Sugar or Orange.
More than a little payback accounted for the strength of the Horned Frogs, an enlivened team that fired off the ball from start to finish in this doubt-free demolition. TCU's intensity came from an undeniable sense that the honor of a proud program rested on the night's outcome.
Two years ago, BYU ventured into Amon Carter Stadium on a Thursday night, but the roles entering that contest were reversed. The Horned Frogs, fresh off an 11-win season in 2005, were riding a 13-game winning streak and feeling rightfully full of themselves. TCU had the best non-BCS brand name in college football at the time, because Boise State's breakthrough against Oklahoma--in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl--would not occur for another three months. But the turnaround of BYU football engineered by Mendenhall began on that Thursday, as the Cougars hogtied the Horned Frogs in a 31-17 decision. That moment marked the shift in power from Forth Worth to Provo in the Mountain West Conference.
Fast-forwarding to two years later, the Cougars now stood on the opposite side of the divide. BYU now represented the cream of the crop in the Rocky Mountain region. The Men of Mendenhall entered Forth Worth as the football force that feasted on all of its foes. The Cougars carried a 16-game win streak into town. TCU, after a miserable train wreck of a tour through 2007, sought redemption and renewal on this occasion. Everything that existed on one Thursday in 2006 existed yet again in 2008. This time, however, the extra energy and electricity--always friends of the upstart looking to make its mark--stood on the opposite sideline.
From the game's very first snap, a freight train of Frog fury rolled over a Cougar club that didn't know how to respond. While TCU flew across the field defensively, BYU's backs and receivers displayed stage fright. In BYU's first two offensive series, the Cougars committed two fumbles, losing one, while nearly suffering a pick-six that was avoided only because TCU linebacker Daryl Washington dropped the ball. Washington would quickly make amends, though, as he and defensive end Jerry Hughes terrorized Cougar quarterback Max Hall throughout the evening. And when TCU's front seven wasn't able to register a sack, pressure from the purple-clad pass rushers forced Hall to telegraph a weak-armed throw into the teeth of a waiting Horned Frog secondary. Cornerback Nick Sanders snagged two interceptions for TCU, both coming deep in his team's territory. All three lines of the home team's defensive unit played their part in fashioning TCU's dazzling defensive display.
So thorough was TCU's defensive domination that BYU's one scoring drive--achieved when down 26-0 in the third quarter--took nearly seven minutes off the clock, which represented a small victory for TCU in the bigger picture. At a time when the Cougars needed to score quickly, the Horned Frogs forced them to inch the ball down the field and consume precious time. The one time when BYU did something well still added to TCU's advantage in a larger sense.
On the other side of the ball, TCU proved to be just as proficient if not more so. The Horned Frogs' offense roared with rhythm and purred with precision in an extremely efficient evening. Quarterback Andy Dalton--who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass in 2008--played the very best game of his collegiate career, considering the high-pressure circumstances. Dalton finally tallied a pair of touchdown tosses, but more importantly, he made sound decisions and zero mistakes. An offense that imploded at times in 2007, including and especially during a season-wrecking loss at Air Force, now clicked on all cylinders, as its potential spilled out in full flower before a gleeful gathering of Frog fans who found a lot to cheer about.
While Dalton ran a tight ship as the field general of TCU's offense, the Horned Frogs had other heroes who stumped and staggered BYU's beleaguered and befuddled defense. Receiver Jeremy Kerley--in TCU's own version of the Wildcat formation--consistently zoomed past statuesque Cougar defenders who were out of position and slow to react for the balance of the proceedings. And when TCU played it straight, employing a more traditional offensive formation, the Frogs still flourished. Receivers Walter Bryant, Jimmy Young, Bart Johnson, and Ryan Christian repeatedly exploited a soft Cougar secondary for third-down conversions that kept TCU trucking down the field.
In no phase of football did BYU come even remotely close to matching the fine form of the Frogs, who now stand at 7-1 and--just as importantly--atop the Mountain West alongside Utah, one game ahead of the crushed and crestfallen Cougars. Because of this breakthrough, Gary Patterson's team--even with one loss in the next few weeks--will be playing for Mountain West hardware when it tackles Utah on Nov. 6.
On that day, TCU could very well be in position to give the Utes their first loss of the season. However, while national football fans--including those in Boise and, perhaps, even Tulsa--will support TCU for purely selfish reasons in the coming weeks, the Horned Frogs won't care about BCS bowl busting; they merely hope that upending other unbeaten teams will lead them back to the mountaintop they once occupied a few short seasons ago. Beating BYU on Thursday wasn't a matter of shutting down a seasonal Cinderella. The Horned Frogs--no longer upstarts, and swimming in swagger once more--are now intent on regaining their place as the best in the Mountain West.