TCU comes out flat in its biggest game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For the first time all season, TCU squinted from the glare of the spotlight.

The desert lights were the brightest the Horned Frogs had seen all season, and they looked desperate to find some shade.

The team that seemed to play its best against its toughest opponents this season just didn't have it in Monday's 17-10 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. The best TCU season since the glory days of the 1930s ended with its worst performance of the season. It was clear from a quiet TCU locker room that it was not the way the Frogs planned on finishing the 2010 campaign.

TCU came out nervous and tight. Coach Gary Patterson and quarterback Andy Dalton admitted that. From the beginning, things didn't go the Frogs' way. They even lost the coin toss.

Less than four minutes into the game, it was 7-0 Boise State. Dalton threw an interception on his third pass attempt and watched as Brandyn Thompson rumbled 51 yards untouched to the end zone. It was TCU's first deficit in 2 ½ months, and the team looked stunned and flustered.

Things didn't improve when the headsets used to communicate between the press box and field failed to work for part of the first half. TCU had co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente scurry to the sidelines to call plays without the benefit of information from up top. It was something that hadn't happened to the Frogs all season, and they looked confused by it.

Mix in the most important ingredient -- some inspired and innovative play by the Boise State defense -- and it led to a terrible TCU start.

"I think nerves had something to do with it, and the whole communication thing," Dalton said. "A lot of stuff that was unexpected happened. Usually this season we've been able to come out in big games and play pretty well, but we made too many mistakes tonight."

TCU never seemed to fully recover from the slow start. It ended up tying the score, but never really found a sustained rhythm.

Dalton was off the mark on some passes and had trouble figuring out Boise State's defensive formations, which disguised coverages and gave Dalton looks he'd never seen on film. TCU was unable to start its running game, which had been a staple of the offense all season. The Frogs had 36 yards on 20 carries, the first time all season TCU was held below 127 yards rushing. The Frogs were 1-for-12 on third downs, and Dalton tossed three interceptions. He had thrown five all season.

In other words: TCU may have come into Arizona with the No. 1 defense in the nation, but it was Boise State's defense that put on a clinic in front of 73,227. And the Broncos also made sure to throw in their signature trick play, this one a fake punt from their own 33-yard line in the fourth quarter.

The play gained 29 yards and got the orange-clad crowd fully into it.

"They outcoached us on that play," Patterson said. "It was a good call."

The call wasn't the only reason TCU lost the game. But it sure seemed to deflate the team. The defense couldn't stop Boise State on the rest of the drive as the Broncos went up by seven.

"That was huge; it was an emotional play," TCU's All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes said. "They obviously had the momentum on their side and then we were just unable to execute on the defensive side of the ball, which led to them getting a touchdown."

TCU's only touchdown came at the end of the first half. An offense completely out of sync found some semblance of tempo in the two-minute drill. Dalton led the team on a 62-yard drive that took just 1:11. He threw a 30-yard touchdown to Curtis Clay to make it 10-7 at the half.

The Frogs tied the score in the third quarter on a field goal, and the game became one in which the next big play could win it. Boise State made that play on the fake punt, and TCU couldn't make it when Antoine Hicks dropped a pass in the corner of the end zone that could have tied the score with less than three minutes left.

It left Patterson to try to pick up his team as he talked to the players after the game. The coach, always looking toward the next challenge, talked about 2010.

"I told our team, 'You've got to decide how you want to handle this,' " Patterson said. "When you are growing up, a kid knocks you down, how are you going to get back up? OK. Are we going to get back up? Are we going to get back up crying or are we going to get back up, dust ourselves off, get ready and jump right back into it? That's what I intend for this program to do, is jump right back in."

The loss means TCU might not start in the top five of AP's preseason rankings, something that would have positioned it well for a run at the national championship game next season. But a spot in the top 10 is certainly within reason with most of the starters returning. Boise State, which also brings back nearly every one of its key players, will probably begin 2010 in front of TCU.

And the Frogs now have the ultimate in motivation: a loss that should stick with them the entire offseason. Just as Boise State used its loss to TCU in last year's Poinsettia Bowl as a rallying cry for this season.

"It's going to be a large motivation to have this feeling after a loss in a big game," Dalton said. "We have a lot of guys coming back, a lot of starters coming back, so it will be a big motivation for us."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.