Rose Bowl is TCU’s big chance
LOS ANGELES – Over the past decade, Gary Patterson has built TCU from an also-ran into one of the most consistently successful programs in college football.
When the Horned Frogs (12-0) square off against Wisconsin (11-1) in the Rose Bowl on Saturday, they have a chance to stamp the private school from Fort Worth (enrollment 7,600) as a more than a good team from a non-power conference. They can show they belong with fellow unbeatens Oregon and Auburn in the national championship discussion.
Or they can be trampled by Big Foot.
Champions of the Mountain West and a non-automatic qualifier for a BCS bid, TCU has run off consecutive perfect regular seasons. Last season, it broke through to earn a berth in the Fiesta Bowl opposite another non-AQ power, Boise State. That meeting, which ended in a 17-10 Broncos victory, left most of the nation less than sated. Two unbeaten teams from non-Big Six leagues battling it out proved nothing, the critics said. What would TCU or Boise do against the biggest of the big boys?
We’ll find out in a Rose Bowl matchup that pits the speedy, defensively stellar Frogs against the overwhelming offense of the Badgers.
“I mean that’s like a Ferrari and a dump truck,” TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas said. “We are fast, but the reality of it is when the dump truck is going straight ahead, it’s a dangerous weapon.”
Everything about Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin is, well, big. A gargantuan offensive line that averages 321 pounds. A punishing running game that could finish with three 1,000-yard rushers. A coach, Bret Bielema, who has made more than a few enemies by running up scores in ruthless fashion en route to seven consecutive victories.
[Related: Celebratory TD salute proves costly]
But this isn’t David vs. Goliath. David wasn’t nearly as fast, talented or crafty as TCU.
With a 4-2-5 defense stocked mostly with fleet, lightly regarded recruits from Texas who have adapted to new positions, the Frogs have forged the nation’s No. 1 unit. Featuring three safeties and two linebackers, the set has proven perfect for stopping spread offenses, the en vogue approach across the nation.
“The one thing that we always look at [in recruiting] is can the young man run, and if he can, then that’s a good basis to start for a lot of positions,” Bumpas said. “Consequently, when they get here, then we look where they best fit in. It’s worked very well for us.”
Free safety Tejay Johnson, a former receiver, is the leader of the group. End Wayne Daniels and tackle Cory Grant provide interference up front. It will take a village to slow down Wisconsin.
“We have to do a great job of tackling,” Bumpas said, “because if we don’t, it’ll be a long afternoon.”
The smash-mouth Badgers eschew the spread. Wisconsin’s offense is prefaced on a relentless ground attack that wears down the opposition and forces safeties to cheat up in run support, leaving them vulnerable to the pass. John Clay (936 yards) is a bruiser at 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds. James White (1,029 yards) and Montee Ball (864 yards) add sizzle to the steak. They set the table for efficient quarterback Scott Tolzien, who can count on All-America tight end Lance Kendricks and wide receiver Nick Toon to make cheaters pay in the passing game.
The question: Can TCU adapt defensively and use its speed and smarts to counter the Madison muscle? The Frogs, whose toughest challenges to date have come from teams such as Oregon State, San Diego State, Utah and Air Force, haven’t seen anything like the Badgers.
“We’re talking about somebody who’s going to be big, strong and physical,” Grant said. “They run a lot of powers, and they’re running right at you. We have to make anchor points, and we have to defend the outside really well because the running backs there like to cut back and things like that. So we have to have good support positions.
“It’s going to be a big challenge and I’m all up for challenges. It’s going to be a really fearsome game, and I’m excited to play it.”
TCU learned a lot from the way it prepared for and played against Boise State in the 2010 Fiesta. They were a little too happy just to be in a BCS game and their practices and game-day execution were lacking. They won’t make the same mistake this season. The Frogs arrived in Los Angeles before Christmas, have a nightly curfew and have had crisp, focused workouts.
“We’ve definitely approached it differently because last year was our first BCS and we kind of saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” linebacker Tank Carder said. “All week, we kind of were like, ‘Oh, we’re at the BCS.’ But this year we kind of know how to prepare a little bit differently and a little bit better.”
This time, Johnson said, it’s about winning.
“The whole attitude of the coaching staff … practices are really intense,” he said. “And just from a player’s standpoint, everybody is a little more cognizant of what they’re doing and the habits that they’re keeping throughout the week.”
If TCU loses in the Granddaddy of Them All, it will be dismissed by some as nothing more than a pretender that played a so-so schedule before being put in its place by a power conference team.
Should the Frogs – who move to the Big East – prevail against arguably the hottest team in the country, they would have a legitimate national championship beef.
“We’ve all strived to play for the national championship,” Patterson said. “But we feel like we’re playing a team that’s worthy of a national championship in Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.”
Sure, the winner of the title game between Auburn and Oregon will be unbeaten and will have done everything necessary to claim the crystal ball under the current system. But an undefeated, Rose Bowl-champion TCU team would churn the best by-product of the imperfect BCS system.
Another great argument for a playoff.
TCU rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense: As with Wisconsin, the Horned Frogs know a little bit about running the ball. They boast their own three-pronged attack in Ed Wesley (1,065 yards), Matthew Tucker (694) and Waymon James (489). They average 261.2 yards per game, eighth-best in the country. The Badgers have limited their opponents to 131.7 rushing yards per game, 30thh -best nationally. But they allowed at least 160 rushing yards in each of their final four regular-season games, and two of those teams weren’t bowl-eligible. Edge: TCU.
TCU pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense: QB Andy Dalton has won 41 games as a starter. He has thrown for 2,638 yards with 26 TDs against just six interceptions, and he will look to hook up with WRs Josh Boyce (33 catches, 602 yards, six TDs) and Jeremy Kerley (50-517-10). The Frogs average 230.3 passing yards per game, 53rd nationally. Wisconsin has given up 191.8 yards per game in the air, 25th nationally. CBs Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus will be counted on to keep Dalton in check. E J.J. Watt has seven sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss, and his battles with TCU OT Marcus Cannon will be important ones. TCU has allowed just nine sacks, tied for fifth-fewest in the nation. Edge: Even.
Wisconsin rush offense vs. TCU rush defense: The Badgers feature three running backs – true freshman James White (1,029 yards), John Clay (936) and Montee Ball (864) – who have rushed for more than 800 yards. They can throw multiple pitches at a Frogs defense that has yielded just 89.2 yards per game on the ground (third-best in the country). But TCU hasn’t seen this powerful a rushing attack or this mammoth of an offensive line (average weight: 321 pounds). Wisconsin All-America T Gabe Carimi is a force. TCU LBs Tank Carder and Tanner Brock have to play at a high level. Wisconsin has rushed for 46 TDs; TCU has allowed just seven. The Horned Frogs have allowed more than 100 rushing yards just twice, and no one has rushed for more than 192. The Badgers have had at least three rushing TDs in eight games and have rushed for at least 250 yards six times. The Badgers’ low total of the season is 142, against Iowa. Edge: Wisconsin.
Wisconsin pass offense vs. TCU pass defense: Senior Scott Tolzien is the winner of the Unitas Award. He boasted a national-best 74.3 completion percentage, throwing for 2,300 yards, 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His top targets include All-America TE Lance Kendricks and WR Nick Toon. TCU, No. 1 nationally against the pass, will pressure Tolzien and try to avoid getting sucked in by play-action. The play of E Wayne Daniels, T Cory Grant and FS Tejay Johnson will be key. TCU allowed fewer than 150 passing yards eight times and allowed more than 200 once. TCU has 25 sacks, but Wisconsin has allowed just 12. Edge: TCU.
TCU special teams vs. Wisconsin special teams: Wisconsin K Philip Welch hasn’t missed a PAT and is 15-of-19 on field-goal attempts with a long of 49 yards. TCU counters with Ross Evans, who has missed five extra points and is 11-of-13 on field goals; his longest 43 yards. WR David Gilreath was the Badgers’ special teams MVP and averages 25.8 yards per kick return. Kerley is one of the best return men in the nation; he averages 28.0 yards per kickoff return and 12.9 yards on punt returns. Brad Nortman (42.8-yard average) handles the punting for the Badgers. Anson Kelton (42.2) boots for TCU. The Horned Frogs’ coverage units have been good, but Wisconsin’s have been poor. The Badgers have allowed two kickoffs and one punt to be returned for scores. Edge: Wisconsin.
TCU coaches vs. Wisconsin coaches: TCU coach Gary Patterson has stayed out of the headlines and kept his focus on the big picture. He allows talented co-offensive coordinators Jarrett Anderson and Justin Fuente to do their thing. Patterson calls the defensive signals with help from coordinator Dick Bumpas. Subtlety is lost on Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who has become a controversial figure by going for a two-point conversion up 25 points against Minnesota and for ringing up 83 points against Indiana and 70 against Northwestern. But his results can’t be questioned as the Badgers are back in Pasadena for the first time since 2000. Paul Chryst directs Wisconsin’s prolific offense. Dave Doeren, who will depart for the coaching job at Northern Illinois, heads an improving defense. Edge: Wisconsin.
X-factor: Despite Tolzien’s gaudy statistics, he remains one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation. He has become an astute game manager, eschewing the mistakes and turnovers that sometimes plagued him in the past. If Tolzien and the Badgers can move and hold onto the football, TCU will find few opportunities.
Wisconsin will win if: Bielema’s team wants to play “BadgerBall,” pounding the football on the ground behind its behemoths and taking shots as they present themselves in the passing game. It might not be a flashy approach but it has proven effective, as they have reeled off seven consecutive victories after a stumble at Michigan State, some in devastating fashion.
TCU will win if: The defense has to stymie Wisconsin’s running game and force the Badgers into bad down-and-distance situations. The Frogs must relentlessly pressure Tolzien and force him out of the pocket. Dalton, Wesley and Kerley can take care of the rest.
Gerry Ahern: Wisconsin 27, TCU 24
Olin Buchanan: TCU 20, Wisconsin 17
Tom Dienhart: Wisconsin 24, TCU 21
David Fox: Wisconsin 28, TCU 21
Mike Huguenin: TCU 24, Wisconsin 20
Steve Megargee: Wisconsin 27, TCU 21