- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
PASADENA, Calif. -- Forget the debate about speed versus power. When a game comes down to one snap, that one's pretty much a draw.
Forget the debate about the non-AQs against the AQs. Anyone who came into New Year's Day still arguing that TCU does not belong in the college football elite is beyond reason.
What carried No. 3 TCU past No. 5 Wisconsin, 21-19, what made the difference on a crisp, clear New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, is that an All-American did what All-Americans do.
In the end, Horned Frogs linebacker Tank Carder stuck his arms up and batted away Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien's pass on a two-point conversion with 2:00 to play.
"Anytime you get into big games, great players make great plays," TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas said. "You see it time and time again. That was it."
Bumpas shrugged. "He got in there and he did it."
No big deal. That's what TCU has done all season. That's what TCU has done throughout the Gary Patterson era. The Horned Frogs make plays. They don't make mistakes.
OK, maybe a small one. Horned Frogs safety Alex Ibiloye got the call wrong on the two-point play. That's why Tolzien saw one of his tight ends, Jacob Pedersen, open going into the end zone. But Carder saw Tolzien. The rest is history -- the greatest moment in TCU football history.
"I went to go blitz," Carder said, "and got blocked and couldn't get through the hole. So I just stopped, backed up, saw him cock his arm back and I jumped, and that was the end of it."
Speed versus power? That argument has been ongoing since the first time that 3 yards kicked up a cloud of dust. But speed and execution versus power tilted the needle ever so slightly. On Saturday night, before a filled-to-the-brim crowd of 94,118, TCU gave Wisconsin no shortcuts to victory. The Horned Frogs committed no turnovers. They committed no major penalties. They went into the red zone twice and scored two touchdowns.
"That's why they're where they are," Wisconsin All-American offensive tackle Gabe Carimi said after the game. "They don't beat themselves. They've been pretty low on turnovers all year and I think that's an obvious guess why they've been successful. It's been the same with us. That's one of the reasons we were in the game late even with all our missed opportunities."
Wisconsin, unlike the rest of the Big Ten on this 0-for-5 New Year's Day, played well enough to beat most teams. The Badgers committed no turnovers. They didn't punt until the third quarter. But that's what left defensive end J.J. Watt in tears and unable to speak in the postgame media conference. When you come as close as Wisconsin came, you think of all the little things that you didn't make happen.
On defense, the least-penalized team in the nation committed pass interference on two of the Horned Frogs' three touchdown drives.
"We know what this means," Watt started, then paused for his lower lip to stop quivering, "to everybody."
Longer pause. "To everybody involved."
The tears began to flow. "We worked 365 days a year for this and then we come out and don't execute."
Watt sat back, shielding his eyes with his gloved right hand.
On offense, the Badgers crossed midfield on their first five possessions and scored only one touchdown. In the third quarter, with TCU ahead 21-13, Wisconsin had the ball at the Horned Frogs' 37, third-and-6. Carder -- him again -- blitzed and bowled over Tolzien for an 8-yard loss.
"We were going to have to blitz," Patterson said. "We weren't going to just be able to play base defense. We blitzed quite a bit. This year, it's way unusual. We weren't going to be able to stay toe-to-toe with those guys and outlast them. That was not going to happen. We weren't going to win that match."
The blitzes may have worked, but the Badgers' size took its toll on the Horned Frogs. Midway through the fourth quarter, Wisconsin junior tailback John Clay, the 248-pound road grader, came onto the field with a puppy's energy. He had had only five carries all night. Clay rushed for 14 yards right up the gut. He rushed for 30 more right up the gut again.
"Amazing," TCU nose tackle Cory Grant said. "There was nothing you could do but like, 'Wow.'"
Clay mashed TCU four more times, parking the ball at the Horned Frogs' 4, before Montee Ball scored the touchdown that closed the margin to two points with 2:00 to play. Thanks to Carder, that's where it will stay until the San Gabriel Mountains no longer peek into the Rose Bowl.
TCU beat Wisconsin because quarterback Andy Dalton completed 15 of 23 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown. TCU beat Wisconsin because it forced the Badgers to start their eight possessions from an average of their own 20.
"Coach P said all we have to do is hold them to field goals," Carder said. "They're going to drive the ball down the field. They're going to have long drives. As long as we hold them to field goals, we felt we could win the game."
TCU beat Wisconsin because AQ, non-AQ, A-to-Z, the Horned Frogs play championship football.
"I think," Grant said, "all the questions have been answered."
All but one, anyway, the one question that the BCS system will not address. TCU (13-0) will be one of two teams that finish the season undefeated. But the Horned Frogs will not be No. 1, not unless Oregon and Auburn stage such a frighteningly bad performance in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10 that one poll or another awards TCU a trophy.
"Anybody would like a shot at the national championship," TCU wide receiver Jeremy Kerley said, "but you got to take what they give you. This is a great way to go out. Couldn't ask for more."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com. Arash Markazi contributed to this story.
On Saturday night, TCU made history, becoming the first non-AQ to win the Rose Bowl. The Horned Frogs answered every question but one.