Saturday, September 3, 2011

Brief Reprieve On The Field Of Battle

It's been a tremendously disappointing eight months if you've been following the state of NCAA football. Not actually surprising, mind you, but disappointing. Oregon has a recruiting scandal on its hands. Miami is living an extended encore of everything that made The U infamous the first time we went through this nonsense, only they upped the debauchery quotient in Round 2. A lot. Ohio State is a mess because Jim Tressel found it convenient to ignore several of his players strutting around with ill-gotten folding money and shiny new ink. In an incident that, if true, trumps everything above, LSU starting Jordan Jefferson QB allegedly kicked a United States Marine in the face during a bar fight. Call me crazy, but that's a tad more concerning than kids hawking tiny gold pants for cash and free tats. And of course, hanging over everything, we're still locked in a fairness and efficacy debate over the current BCS system, how it awards championships, and how it perhaps ought to (fiscally) award the athletes who make it profitable.

Overall, not a strong showing for NCAA gridiron-related activities of late.

With all the overarching negatives drifting about, I don't want to attach any undue attributes or superlatives to last nights' Baylor/TCU game. On-field exploits, no matter how spectacular, can't hide or alter the fact that the BCS is a broken system, and the NCAA needs to figure out how to prevent, or at least reduce, the kind of behavior that has some people clamoring for the Death Penalty in regards to The U. Unfortunately, the games, the only things that still function like they ought to in college football, are not magic elixirs for the sport as a whole.

Nonetheless, it was extremely gratifying to sit down last night, crack open a cold one, and forget all the junk for a little while. We had to wait all of a day for our first back-and-forth, shoot-out, upset of the 2011 season. Baylor. TCU. Barn. Burner.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't have much of a conception of Baylor's squad heading into this season. Because, well, they're un-ranked and hadn't notched a victory over a ranked opponent since beating Texas A&M in 2004. As they were facing the TCU Horned Frogs and their 25-game regular-season win streak, I just assumed that they would be steamrolled by the defending Rose Bowl champs.


Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, or "RG3" as the hip kids are calling him these days, ripped through TCU's secondary for 359 yards and 5 TDs on a 21-of-27 performance. The Frogs' secondary simply couldn't keep up with Bears receiver Kendall Wright, and they didn't have any first-half luck containing RB Terrance Ganaway either, as he racked up 100+ rushing yards before the half.

After the 45-10 drubbing the Bears received at TCU's hands last season, Baylor coach Art Briles wasted no time putting his foot on the gas. Dialing up a trick play just 2 minutes into the game, Griffin flipped it to Wright, who played QB in high school, and watched him complete a 40-yard touchdown strike to Terrance Williams. Both teams were firing on all offensive cylinders through the opening quarter, but Baylor clamped down on defense and took a commanding 47-23 lead on four straight TDs that bookended halftime.

As the clock began to run on the fourth quarter, it looked like a certifiable rout, but TCU was not about to go gentle into the humid, 100-degree Waco, TX night. Starting the final period on the Baylor 1-yard line, Frogs QB Casey Pachall went to work. He completed a touchdown pass to Logan Brock and ran in the 2-point conversion. 3 minutes later, he laced another scoring throw to Josh Boyce, then hit Boyce again for another two points. He rifled a 19-yard TD to David Porter. 22 unanswered points in just 7:12 of game clock, and TCU was back within two points.

They almost tied it up. The 2-point attempt found Boyce more-or-less wide open near the sideline of the end zone. Pachall's pass wasn't quite on the numbers, but it was a pretty catchable ball. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, "catchable" does not always mean "caught." As the pigskin hit the turf, you got the sense Baylor's offense, thus far stymied the final quarter, got a boost from that dropped ball. They were starting the next drive on their own 25, with a chance to salt the game away by eating the clock and putting some points on the board. Anyway, I got the sense they were ready to do that. Turns out that sense was either wrong, or the emotional boost of that missed 2 was too much adrenalin for Griffin, who promptly coughed up a fumble on the Bears' first play from scrimmage.

On the ensuing possession, Pachall drove TCU down to within field goal range, and Ross Evans booted through a 27 yarder to give the Frogs a one-point lead. The furious rally they'd staged to regain control of the game seemed indicative of the fact that this team had been in the National Championship discussion for the past two seasons, and after an inglorious start, they were hellbent on reminding everyone of that fact.

Problem: Baylor still had 4:27 of clock to work with. TCU's defense put the shackles on the Bears and forced them into a game-altering 3rd and 10 on their own 20 when Coach Briles decided that some more trickery was in order. Griffin took the snap, once again flipped it to Wright, and took off down-field on a shallow crossing route. He made the catch, got the 1st down, and promptly received a bell ringing to rival the biggest, baddest cathedral tower in the world. Rattled but unwilling to show it, RG3 led his squad down the field, finally pausing to let Terrance Ganaway to eke out a few last yards on the ground to set up a field goal attempt. Kicker Aaron Jones drilled a 37 yard shot through the uprights, and all of a sudden that missed TCU 2-point conversion moments earlier took on sinister implications. Baylor 50, TCU 48.

But Casey Pachall and the Frogs weren't done quite yet. Pachall rifled a ball down the right sideline to Michale Tucker, who made a spectacular catch over the back of a defender for 30 yards. With 17 seconds on the clock, TCU needed roughly 15 more yards to get within comfortable field goal range and a chance for the win. It was at this critical juncture that Pachall finally made a mistake. The QB (along with numerous other TCU players) had been suffering from leg cramps for much of the night. With trainers working on him every moment he wasn't on the field, it was obvious he wasn't 100% by this point. To be perfectly blunt, he was gassed. But Pachall has a tattoo on his right arm that reads "Sacrifice." By all accounts, he takes that word seriously, especially as it applies to his teammates, and he wasn't about to let a little fatigue and cramping remove him from the contest. Unfortunately, his pass attempt to Antione Hicks simply did not have enough juice on it coming off those weakened legs. The pass did find Hicks ... but it was Baylor's Mike Hicks. He scrambled around to kill time before taking a seat with 0:02 left. One knee later, the Baylor faithful were charging the field, eager to celebrate the school's most significant victory since the aforementioned A&M win in '04.

Wire to wire, this game was an adrenalin rush. Nine lead changes, just shy of 100 total points, and roughly 28 highlight-worthy plays, it had everything a fan could have wanted. (Except, you know, defense.) It was an incredible upset for Baylor, and a hyper-fast ending to TCU's title hopes. As I said up top, no game on the field can really conceal or ameliorate the myriad problems facing the BCS system as it is currently constructed. But this game, on this field, at least allowed me to forget that for a little while.

Now if only we could enjoy epics like last night without wondering who's on the take, and whether Casey Pachall's tattoo was paid for on the level.

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