Despite feeling slighted yet again by the BCS, the TCU Horned Frogs are back in the postseason this year and will tangle with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in the seventh annual Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.
TCU, which has already won this bowl twice, the most recent victory coming against Boise State, 17-16, back in 2008, didn't do itself any favors by opening the 2011 campaign with a 50-48 loss to Baylor and the eventual Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, but from there head coach Gary Patterson was able to get his group back on track for 10 wins in the next 11 games and a sweep of the Mountain West Conference yet again. Unfortunately, finishing the regular season ranked 16th in the AP poll and 18th in the BCS was not enough to get the team into a more prestigious postseason position.
As for the Bulldogs, they too hit a sour note coming out of the gate this year, losing to Southern Miss in the opener by two points, but unlike the Horned Frogs the team appeared destined for another disappointing campaign as it dropped four of the first five games overall and had just a 48-42 overtime win against Central Arkansas to show for its efforts. But then a strange thing happened on the way to the second month of the season as the Bulldogs, after losing the Western Athletic Conference opener to Hawaii at home (44-26), ran the table in league play and emerged as the champion of the WAC for the first time since 2001 with a record of 6-1.
"It's been a fun ride for this whole football team and it's been great for everybody associated with this program," noted head coach Sonny Dykes once the 44-0 victory over New Mexico State was in the books in late November. "Surely, it feels great to win a championship and when we started camp, we knew we had the personnel to do so. We started off the season kind of rough, and everybody hung in there. It speaks about the character of our team as a whole because losing is a difficult thing to do."
When it comes to the Bulldogs and the postseason, their bowl history is not nearly as extensive as that of TCU, consisting of just five games, four of which were played nearby in Shreveport in the Independence Bowl. Three years ago, LaTech recorded a 17-10 win over Northern Illinois in the 2008 version of the Independence Bowl, the victory marking just the second in five tries in the postseason for the Bulldogs who are 2-2-1 entering this meeting with TCU.
TCU has been a fixture in the postseason since 1998 and made its biggest statement last year with a 21-19 triumph over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The victory was the fifth in the last six postseason efforts by the Horned Frogs, but still the team is just 12-14-1 in bowl games dating back to the Fort Worth Classic in 1921 when the squad bowed to Centre by a lopsided 63-7 score.
Strangely enough, even though these two institutions are located less than 300 miles from each other, this games represents the first-ever meeting between them on the gridiron, and is one of four bowl games this year that features a pair of conference champions. Working in favor of the Frogs is their familiarity with Qualcomm Stadium already, having beaten San Diego State there earlier this season and winning six straight in the venue, which is temporarily being renamed Snapdragon Stadium for advertising purposes.
For the last several years the Horned Frogs have had one of the most dominating defenses in all of college football, but this season the group took more than a few steps back and the slide began with the very first game when it surrendered a whopping 50 points to the Baylor Bears on the road. In the last two games of the regular season, TCU appeared to have put all the necessary pieces together, limiting Colorado State and UNLV to a combined 19 points, but up until then there were plenty of outings in which the Frogs were pushed to their limit time and time again. Overall, the program finished second in the MWC and 32nd nationally with 346.3 ypg allowed and 30th in the country in points permitted (21.3 ppg).
As weak as those numbers might sound for a team that has dominated the defensive landscape for several years leading up to 2011 coach Patterson, who with a win in this bowl battle will tie Dutch Meyer as TCU's all-time winningest coach with 109 victories, knew he could count on linebacker Tank Carder who was not only the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl last year, but was also named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Considering the Horned Frogs played almost the entire season without Tanner Brock, who was supposed to be the top defender in the MWC, they can't be too disappointed with their overall performance.
On the offensive side of the ball this season the Horned Frogs have to be thrilled with the emergence of quarterback Casey Pachall who stepped into some very large shoes as he took over for Andy Dalton. Pachall completed a stellar 67.8 percent of his pass attempts for an average of 226.2 ypg, leading to 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
On the ground the program ranked 20th in the nation with 210.2 ypg and produced a whopping 35 touchdowns, compared to a mere six rushing scores by the competition. Doing much of the damage was Matthew Tucker who hit the end zone 11 times on 116 attempts.
For the Bulldogs, finding the right man to direct the offense on the field took a little time, but in the end the team settled on Colby Cameron who ended up converting 56.4 percent of his passes for 233.8 ypg and 11 touchdowns, against only two interceptions. Nick Isham could get some playing time in this game as well, but it all depends on the situation.
However, no matter who it is lining up under center for LaTech, Quinton Patton will surely be the most sought-out receiver seeing as how he was one of the most productive players at his position in the WAC this year with 74 catches leading to 1,135 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Running back Lennon Creer, who had seven touchdowns through the first five games this season, should have been the premier back for the squad, but he missed the final two games of the regular season with injury and that puts Hunter Lee at the top of the list for the time being.
Although he doesn't fall under the umbrella as an offensive player, punter Ryan Allen was still a very valuable asset for the team when the offense stalled in 2011 and his efforts did not go unnoticed as he was named Second Team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and the winner of the prestigious Ray Guy Award as the top punter in the nation. Allen finished the regular season ranked first in the nation in punts inside the 20 (37) and punts inside the 10 (20) and third in punting average (46.31 yards per punt), all of which gave the LaTech defense an advantage even before taking the field in most instances.
Speaking of the Louisiana Tech defense, the group was led by Christian Lacey who recorded 8.5 sacks on just 35 total tackles, followed closely by Matt Broha with 7.5 sacks of his own, the team placing second in the WAC and 17th nationally with 2.67 sacks per game overall.
"We get the chance to play a great opponent in Louisiana Tech," says TCU's coach Patterson. "They have won a lot of big ballgames. They beat an SEC team (Ole Miss). (Head Coach) Sonny Dykes has done a tremendous job. They are very explosive on offense and very physical on defense...They are right there with Boise State and Baylor as far as skill players. They are all over the place with their wide receivers. They've got a good quarterback and a great running back with a big offensive front. Defensively, they've shown they can hold an SEC team to seven points."