In terms of style, college football’s season premieres fell with a thud. Ugliness infested gridirons across the land and reared its head throughout a messy Thursday night.
North and South Carolina couldn’t get out of their own way for much of their game. Utah State needed an eternity to finally outlast Southern Utah (12-9 was the score), and it seemed no one could kick a convincing field goal.
That inability to play with style touched TCU in the night’s biggest game.
The Horned Frogs, ranked number two in the preseason, were dragged into the slop against a talented Minnesota team in front of a massive crowd in Minneapolis. Texas Christian scored the game’s first 10 points and led by margins of 13 and 14 points for much of the game, but the Frogs could not figure out how to put the Gophers away.
TCU’s offense, statistically, clicked. Trevone Boykin amassed 338 of TCU’s 449 yards (246 by air, 92 on the ground). Boykin threw for a score and ran for another. The Frogs earned 25 first downs compared to Minnesota’s 17. The numbers all pointed to a good night for TCU, but it wasn’t.
The Frogs could not send the Gophers to the canvas. Minnesota scored a late touchdown to make the score 23-17 in the final two minutes, and got a last-ditch shot to tie in the final seconds, before TCU finally ended the show.
It’s counterintuitive to say so, but this was great for the Frogs. Excellent even.
Tonight the talking points ought to focus on the fact that TCU won ugly. Assuming Minnesota plays to its potential (the Gophers have won eight games each of the last two seasons) and TCU stays in the playoff conversation, this game will be remembered through a much rosier lens in the future. People will talk about how TCU went into a hostile non-conference environment and beat a quality team. No one will talk Minnesota’s K.J. Maye scoring a touchdown with 1:30 left to make it a one-possession game. They’ll talk about Boykin’s great night and highlight-worthy touchdown run.
Winning close and ugly is a part of being a top team in college football. Getting those kinds of wins early is a blessing in disguise. An “ugly” win in September becomes a “gutty” win in the playoff committee room in December.
What it also does is that it gives players the satisfaction of knowing that they overcame their shortcomings and lapses. It gives coaches the ability to praise their players for persevering, but it also gives those same coaches ample opportunities to point to game film and show players all the ways they can get better.
It’s quite paradoxical: In September, it’s better to win ugly than cleanly, because an early-season game in which everything goes right does not prepare players — mentally — for future slugfests in which adversity is a constant companion and games need to be won without a team’s best fastball. The ugly early-season win creates the intended and necessary result — a victory — while also letting players know that this same level of execution in future weeks will not be sufficient. A team gets to celebrate on the plane flight home, but it won’t become overconfident when Gary Patterson gathers his guys for the next round of practices in the coming week.
TCU won’t be complacent in the days to come… and it isn’t 0-1 in the present tense.
That’s the perfect way for a highly-touted team to start its season. It can save the better peformances against better opponents when Big 12 competition ultimately arrives.