Maybe Casey Pachall will prove to be the young man to succeed Andy Dalton with distinction as TCU heads into a new era of its storied history. He certainly showed glimpses of greatness in leading the team back from 24 down in crunch time to take the lead late. But when his final pass of the night flew into the hands not of a Horned Frog receiver but Baylor safety Mike Hicks in the closing seconds, he started his career 0-1.
It was a rare defeat for a team that had broken the BCS party two straight years as the Mountain West champion. Not since Utah defeated them in November 2008 had TCU lost a regular-season game, the past three years yielding just two losses altogether. It all culminated with an undefeated season last year that was punctuated with a Pasadena exclamation point when they defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Expectations now come back down to earth for Gary Patterson’s crew. In twelve months a non-conference loss won’t doom the Horned Frogs’ BCS hopes; all they will have to do is outplay the rest of the Big East. But as a Mountain West member for one final campaign, a loss renders them mortal in the hunt for the big time.
The loss renders TCU lame-duck mid-majors in their last MWC run. But for Baylor, long the also-ran among the Big XII, the win is a statement that puts the Bears on the radar of darkhorse candidates for conference supremacy. Behind the cool leadership of redshirt junior QB Robert Griffin III, who completed 21-of-27 for 359 yards and five touchdowns, Baylor staked out a 47-23 lead by the middle of the third quarter.
It was a masterful display against a defense that has consistently ranked among the top units in the nation. They found balance in the backfield not with Griffin’s scrambling — he stood in the pocket most of the game, finishing with 10 carries for 38 yards.
Instead it was rumbling senior RB Terrance Ganaway who carried the workload on the ground. Ganaway bulled all 240 of his pounds into the Horned Frogs line, finishing with 24 carries for 120 yards that included a 2-yard touchdown five minutes from halftime. Yet it was almost all for naught for the home team.
I was sitting at the bar on a visit to Portland, rewatching the game after midnight, and that lead never was guaranteed. TCU won the 1st-quarter battle, up 16-14 on the road after 15 minutes. And they won the 4th quarter, with Pachall leading four scoring drives that yielded 25 points. Baylor won the middle quarters but let everything else stay far too interesting to keep the home fans comfortable.
When kicker Ross Evans hit from 27 yards out with four and a half minutes left, it seemed inevitable that TCU would hold the momentum and keep their winning streak alive. Griffin’s fumble to give away the ball and set the Horned Frogs up for the go-ahead score seemed to deflate the Bears, a midnight bell pealing for Cinderella.
Griffin had a different idea about how he wanted to be remembered for this night. Engineering an 11-play, 60-yard drive that brought the clock down to 64 seconds, the Bears set Aaron Jones up to be the hero. The redshirt sophomore, who entered the season on Groza Award watch lists, was cool as can be as he drilled through the 37-yarder that reclaimed the lead for the home team.
Still, though, there were 64 seconds left. And Pachall, showing reserves of poise rare for a freshman making his first collegiate start, had been carving up Baylor’s defense for the better part of the quarter. Indeed that’s what he was in the process of doing, driving TCU all the way deep into Bears territory. They were well within range for Evans, whose two earlier misses were now proving pivotal.
But Pachall went for more, throwing the interception that would seal the defeat. TCU is left to lick their wounds and focus on winning one last Mountain West title. In the process they can ruin some BCS Buster hopes for Boise State and the rest of their rivals. A last Bust of their own is now out of the question, no matter what successes Baylor continues on to realize beyond this victory, a cruel loss come twelve months too soon to be of lesser consequence for a school riding the cusp of AQ status…