PASADENA, Calif. – When Tank Carder leaped with perfect timing and swatted Wisconsin's final pass to the turf, the TCU linebacker felt as if he got a boost from every player at every school that never even imagined playing in the Rose Bowl.
Sure, these unbeaten Horned Frogs realized they couldn't win the national title. They still celebrated their perfection on the hallowed Pasadena turf in the name of all the little guys outside the monolithic powers of major college football.
Andy Dalton threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score, Carder batted down a 2-point conversion pass attempt with 2 minutes to play, and third-ranked TCU hung on to beat No. 4 Wisconsin 21-19 on Saturday.
Bart Johnson caught an early TD pass and recovered a late onside kick for the Mountain West champion Horned Frogs (13-0), who followed up their second straight unbeaten regular season with their first BCS victory.
TCU is the first school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in the Rose Bowl since the advent of the BCS, and the Frogs were right at home.
"All the critics don't feel like the non-AQ teams should have a shot," said Carder, the defensive MVP. "But I feel that TCU has proven that we can play with the best of them. Definitely taking this win back to Fort Worth ... I feel like we came in here and made a statement today."
Either Auburn or Oregon will win the national title after they meet in the BCS championship game in nine days. These ferocious Frogs proved they can play with anybody on college football's biggest stages.
"The way the system is, it didn't give us the opportunity to play in the (title) game, but we did everything we were capable of doing," said Dalton, who passed for 219 yards. "All we could do is control what we could control. I guess it's just the way the system is, but in my time here at TCU, we never thought we would have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, and we got that opportunity today, and got a big win."
TCU lost last year's Fiesta Bowl to Boise State by a touchdown, but that's still the only loss of the past two seasons for the improbable power built deep in the heart of football-crazy Texas by coach Gary Patterson.
The non-AQ schools improved to 5-2 in BCS bowls with the Frogs' triumph — 4-1 vs. the leagues with automatic bids. Fans can debate where TCU's win in Pasadena ranks with Boise State's thrilling one-point win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or Utah's upset of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, but the Frogs will always be the first back-to-back BCS busters — even after they head to the Big East in 2012.
"I've been saying for a while that parity in college football is here," Patterson said. "I got texts from everybody across the nation, from Boise State and schools all over. ... Today we played for us, and for all the schools that wanted a chance."
Montee Ball rushed for 132 yards and a late score for the Big Ten co-champion Badgers (11-2), whose loss capped a nightmare New Year's Day for their conference. The Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games Saturday, including the Badgers loss to one of those teams Ohio State president Gordon Gee said didn't deserve to play for the national championship because they play opponents like "Little Sisters of the Poor."
"Hopefully the scar that we're going to take from this game can get us back here sooner than later," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "This game wasn't decided on one play or two plays. It was probably an accumulation of about 10 or 12 plays that we failed to execute, and they did."
Luke Shivers' 1-yard TD run put TCU ahead 21-13 early in the third quarter, but neither team scored again until Wisconsin mounted a 77-drive in the waning minutes. Ball rushed for a 4-yard score with 2 minutes to play, and the Frogs expected the Badgers to run for the conversion behind their dominant line.
But Wisconsin came out in a spread, and Carder was blocked in a blitz attempt at the line — and he still batted down Scott Tolzien's throw. Jacob Pedersen was open in the end zone, but the ball never got close to the Wisconsin tight end.
Johnson easily grabbed Wisconsin's onside kick, and TCU rushed for a final first down to kill the clock.
"We know how much this means to everybody involved," Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said through tears. "We work 365 days for this, and then we come out here and don't execute."
Patterson stopped his players from dumping a Gatorade bucket on him before time ran out, lecturing them with a smile on his face. When the final seconds ticked off, the Frogs ran about the field in a frenzy, eventually collecting near the TCU band and the quarter of the Rose Bowl stands filled with purple-clad fans.
And eventually the Frogs doused their coach, too.
Dalton went 15 for 23 and rushed for a first-quarter score, winning the game's offensive MVP award. But the defense deserved the credit for hanging on when TCU couldn't score in the game's final 26 minutes.
TCU's defense led the nation in several categories this season, but critics said the Frogs hadn't faced the likes of Wisconsin's fearsome offensive line. The Badgers were dominant at times, particularly in a frenetic first quarter that featured 24 combined points, but TCU hung on against Wisconsin's attack with guts, third-down stops — and plenty of Carder.
With a litany of big plays that included a de-cleating sack of Tolzien to kill a third-quarter drive, Carder was the leader all game — and the hero on Wisconsin's final snap.
"We came up with a great tip, and it's like your life passes before your eyes," Patterson said. "You can't even really say what you think about."
Tolzien went 12 of 21 for 159 yards for the Badgers, and John Clay rushed for a first-quarter score. Wisconsin outgained the Frogs 385-301 and held the ball for all but three plays in the second quarter, but twice settled for field goals by Philip Welch, who also missed a 39-yard field goal attempt before halftime.
Most of the Frogs stayed on the field after the trophy presentation to soak in another minute of the biggest achievement for TCU football since the national championship season in 1938 — the only other unbeaten campaign for the school that produced Davey O'Brien, "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh and LaDainian Tomlinson.
While O'Brien won the Heisman Trophy in 1938, Dalton has his own unbeaten season — and his third bowl MVP award.
"We weren't just playing for TCU. We were playing for all the non-AQ schools out there," Dalton said. "It's something we've worked so hard for, and to see all the hard work pay off and play an outstanding game against a great opponent in Wisconsin, we're thrilled with the victory."