Instant Analysis: Poinsettia Bowl

The football gods, who just welcomed Sammy Baugh into their embrace, smiled on Texas Christian University Tuesday night in San Diego. Just one week after TCU's football legend passed away, the boys from Fort Worth were finally able to win the kind of game that had broken their hearts in recent years. The greatest Horned Frog of all would be proud of a team that finally laid its demons to rest.

The 2008 Poinsettia Bowl was no shrinking violet of a postseason party. Pre-Christmas bowls usually offer very uninspiring fare, but this top-11 tussle was the exception that proved the rule. As a result, a TCU squad that had been unable to make a BCS bowl found a showcase and an opponent worthy of its credentials.

For all the winning seasons and bowl victories produced in the Gary Patterson era, the Horned Frogs needed a scalp that would legitimize their standing as one of the best non-BCS conference teams in all of college football. Boise State provided that formidable foe, since the Broncos--after all--have been the single best non-BCS team over the past three seasons. A win over Chris Petersen's unblemished ballclub would validate the rise of TCU football to a considerable degree, providing a final stamp of significance on a program that has won consistently, but fallen short in prime-time championship showdowns.

Yes, TCU's current senior class had won 40 games heading into this battle against Boise. Yes, that same group of seniors had won three bowl games entering this ballgame against the unbeaten Broncos. Yes, the Horned Frogs' seniors had already attained two 11-win seasons, and were looking for a third with a win in the home of LaDainian Tomlinson's San Diego Chargers. But as much as TCU has achieved in recent years, one thing was missing from the trophy case in Texas: A victory in a high-stakes game with the whole nation watching, a cash-money conquest that would make the rest of America understand the firepower of the Frogs. TCU's normal modus operandi in big games has been to croak and choke. Against Boise State--a team known for keeping its composure in the face of stronger, faster opponents--Gary Patterson's pupils had to prove, to themselves and the college football community, that their physical talents could be accompanied by mental mastery.

It took a long time for a verdict to be rendered, but when the smoke cleared, TCU finally crossed the threshold and claimed the victor's crown by the smallest possible margin, a thin point that carries untold meaning for Frog followers everywhere.

To understand what this 17-16 triumph means for TCU, consider a few of the stomach-punch setbacks that tormented the program in the past two seasons. Last year's most damaging loss--the game that upset TCU's emotional apple cart--was a 20-17 overtime defeat at the hands of Air Force. In that game, TCU scored only 17 points on 11 drives that penetrated the Air Force 40. This season's most crushing failure for the Frogs was their three-point loss at Utah, in a game that cost TCU both a conference championship and a Sugar Bowl berth against Alabama. In that contest, TCU penetrated the Utah 25 on six separate drives, only to register 10 points. The theme was as unsettling as it was obvious: TCU has been consistently able to move the ball in big games, but has rarely been able to finish drives and deliver daggers. This same pattern played out in the first 50 minutes of the Poinsettia Bowl.

Repeating the cycle that has given their fans nightmares in recent seasons, the Horned Frogs marched up and down the field against Boise State's resilient but physically inferior defense, only to crack at the precise moments when they entered scoring range. Through the first three quarters and change against the Broncos, TCU made five separate forays inside the BSU 35, only to produce 10 points in the process. Turnovers and panicky third-down plays wiped out sustained snap-by-snap consistency between the thirties. An all-too-familiar horror show was emerging again for the Frogs. Trailing 13-10 a few minutes into the fourth quarter, TCU needed the finishing kick that's been absent in the program's ultimate man-making motivational moments. Something more than a season was at stake when a yard-rich but point-poor offense once again cracked Boise's 35-yard line with roughly 10 minutes left in regulation time. Another scoring-zone failure would dent the reputation of a senior class that needed to beat a brand-name opponent before graduating.

Sure enough, the toughs from TCU responded. Maybe Sammy Baugh provided an extra nudge from the heavens, and maybe everyone in dark shirts simply decided to write a different narrative. Whatever the cause, the team from Fort Worth finally proved to be worthy in a five-star fistfight.

Let the record show that when TCU made one more march into that final third of the field--the area of real estate that has separated a program from even greater football feats over the past four seasons--the Frogs' offensive line took matters into its own hands. Without need of a forward pass, an option run, or a gimmicky misdirection run from a funky formation, TCU's trench warriors used pure power to rear back and pancake Boise's gallant but increasingly tired front seven. Smashmouth running back Joseph Turner--the hard-charging complement to shifty breakaway back Aaron Brown--ran eight yards to convert a third-and-2, and then rumbled for a 17-yard touchdown to give TCU a lead it would never relinquish.

Boise State played hard and smart on a night when the Broncos--exceeded in terms of both power and athleticism--used guile and textbook fundamentals to keep the proceedings close. But when TCU found its margin for error reduced to nothing, Sammy Baugh's gridiron descendants finally managed to finish a drive and enhance their national stature. No, the Frogs didn't win the Cotton Bowl or the Sugar Bowl the way Baugh did in the 1930s, when TCU was an even bigger powerhouse in the sport, but this breakthrough against Boise and Petersen, its brilliant coach, will do much to wipe away the bitter taste of the Utah loss, which denied this terrific team a BCS bowl bid.

You could look at the stat sheet and say that this game wasn't close. You could point out that TCU outrushed Boise, 275 yards to 28. You could say that TCU notched 28 first downs to 15 for the Broncos. You could reference TCU's 12-minute, 14-second advantage in time of possession. But for all those considerable statistical advantages, the Horned Frogs tallied just one point more than the dogged and determined WAC champions, who very nearly became the first team in the BCS era to produce two perfect seasons.

That one point, however, will matter for a very long time. That one point will substantially reshape the reputation of TCU football when this decade is viewed by football historians 20 or 30 years from now.

Indeed, just as so many of TCU's most crushing defeats have involved razor-close scoreboard margins, it's entirely appropriate that, at long last, Gary Patterson's group finally fell on the sunshine side of a supreme squeaker. On previous occasions, massive statistical advantages haven't even produced victories... victories that would have lifted the program to BCS bowls and even greater heights in the college football pecking order. Two nights before Christmas, then, a ballclub that had already registered many accomplishments received a gift that didn't need to be wrapped in style points. The simple ability to finally win a close game against an A-list adversary will make this holiday season sing for the Texas Christian football team.

Somewhere, you can bet that Sammy Baugh is leading the chorus.

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