Instant Analysis: TCU-Utah

The story for coach Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs is one of absolute heartbreak, with a little anger thrown in. TCU's defense will find little consolation in the fact that it held yet another opponent to 14 points or fewer.

The Utah Utes haven't hammered their high-profile opponents in 2008, but they've never failed to beat them, and Thursday night's last-minute come-from-behind victory over the TCU Horned Frogs was a perfect case in point. On the ropes against TCU much as they were a month before against Oregon State, the Utes and their never-say-die quarterback, Brian Johnson, simply refused to lose in the final minutes of regulation, stealing a win with the guts of a midday burglar.

If America hadn't heard of Johnson before this BCS blockbuster began in Salt Lake City, the nation now knows about the uncommon resolve and inexhaustible pluck possessed by the serene and savvy signal caller. He merely stared down TCU's world-class defense on a last-ditch drive and delivered the goods, lifting his team to the kind of win that defines a magic carpet ride through a heaven-kissed season of college football.

Johnson faced his defining moment with just over one minute left in regulation time, and the Utes trailing by a 10-6 score. Johnson had just overthrown a wide-open Brent Casteel in the end zone to set up a fourth-and-5 at the TCU 26. The play clock snuck up on the Utes, and a rushed shotgun snap barely avoided a delay of game penalty. Johnson—with no time to think, and in the face of two oncoming Horned Frog pass rushers—had to instinctively throw a dart past the line of scrimmage, avoiding a deflection while also getting the ball to its intended target. Sure enough—and that's a literally accurate description of Johnson's throw—the ball avoided four raised TCU paws and found the breadbasket of Utah receiver Freddie Brown, who cradled the pigskin for 11 yards, a first down, and a final escape from death. After that fourth-down conversion, the result of Utah's drive seemed like a foregone conclusion, and when Johnson hit Brown once again for a nine-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left, the deed had been officially completed.

Always steady under fire and excellent when he needed to be, Johnson rewarded his valiant defense by carrying the Utes across the threshold. Unable to score a touchdown for the game's first 59 minutes, Johnson hit paydirt in minute number 60, when the game's outcome hung in the balance. Utah's quarterback has constantly proven to be a consummate winner, this season and throughout his career. By reaffirming his considerable credentials in the exact moment when his team's season rested on his very broad shoulders, Brian Johnson earned himself a special place in the Utah football pantheon—so special, in fact, that a BCS bowl could return to the program for the first time since a man named Urban Meyer prowled the sidelines four years ago in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

While Utah enjoys this victory and prepares for a two-game closing stretch that will feature an in-state battle with conference rival Brigham Young, the story for coach Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs is one of absolute heartbreak, with a little anger thrown in. TCU's defense will find little consolation in the fact that it held yet another opponent to 14 points or fewer, with the Oklahoma Sooners remaining the only team to score more than two touchdowns against the Purple People. The Frogs will find little fulfillment in the fact that they outrushed the Utes by a ratio slightly better than 4 to 1 (193 yards to 45), and played almost all of the fourth quarter on the Utah side of the field.

TCU should not have had to see this game come down to the final minutes, thanks to four key plays that will haunt this team throughout the offseason.

Twice, quarterback Andy Dalton—who survived a wobbly middle section of the game to provide an entirely respectable showing—took sacks for double-digit-yard losses that pulled the Frogs out of reasonable field goal range. A 14-yard sack on a scrimmage play starting at the Utah 21 (taking a 38-yard field goal to a 52-yarder that was subsequently eschewed by Patterson) prevented the Frogs from getting one three-pointer; an 11-yard sack taken on a play from the Utah 24 (41-yard field goal to another 52-yarder that was forsaken in favor of a punt) did the very same thing all over again.

That pair of painful plays carried a lot of significance, but as big as those momentary lapses were, they couldn't hold a candle to another pair of snaps that kept the Utes in the fight down the stretch. TCU kicker Ross Evans—given the opportunity to bring his team a 13-6 lead and the ability to avoid losing on the very touchdown Brian Johnson eventually delivered—twice missed field goals an FBS kicker has no business missing. Once from 25 yards out and shortly later from 36, Evans erred on two relatively easy attempts that wasted TCU's solid effort. After being twice deprived of the chance to kick field goals because of two devastating third-down sacks, Evans—gifted with two chances to solidify his team's advantage—cracked in the 35-degree cold, setting up Johnson's heroics. The force from Fort Worth, so close to victory on numerous occasions throughout the fourth quarter, will now have to settle for a lower-tier bowl, and lament yet another loss to the Utes, the third straight in this series.

Utah's done nothing this decade but win, a fact revealed by streaks of five straight bowl appearances and five consecutive bowl wins. Thanks to this triumph over TCU, the Utes stand just two more regular-season victories from an appearance in a bowl game with particularly pronounced prestige. It's perfectly clear that destiny's darlings have a chance to do something even more special before their magical campaign comes to a conclusion.


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