AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Any win looks like a work of art for a TCU team with a lot to play for this season -- even if the art looks more like an ice sculpture than a Picasso.
Andy Dalton and the 10th-ranked Horned Frogs slid their way through the icy mist, bitter wind and Air Force defense Saturday to keep their BCS hopes alive with a dicey 20-17 win over the Falcons.
"Every way we do it, we're going to do it the hard way," said TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose team won its previous two in driving rainstorms.
This time, with wind chills in the single digits and a frozen mist and drizzle falling, Dalton threw for 198 yards, receiver Jeremy Kerley had a rushing touchdown and a 52-yard kickoff return and TCU (5-0, 1-0 Mountain West) piled up 371 of its 393 yards in the first three quarters.
But TCU had to fight for four quarters for this win, thanks to three turnovers, including two after driving inside the Air Force 10 and another at the end when the Horned Frogs could've run out the clock.
"Easily, we could've scored 35, 40 points but we didn't," Patterson said. "I feel very fortunate right now."
The last TCU turnover led to an 8-yard touchdown run by Connor Dietz that cut the Air Force deficit to three with 57 seconds left. But TCU recovered the onside kick to end the suspense and improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2003.
The Falcons (3-3, 2-1) fell short because of an offense that produced only four plays of more than 15 yards and a starting quarterback, Dietz, who completed only one pass for 5 yards over the first three quarters.
"Our execution has got to be better," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "And we've got to get execution from all 11 guys."
TCU came in with the nation's top-ranked rushing defense -- a stat that likely will suffer after allowing 229 yards against Air Force's triple option. But the defense was good enough to secure a win in nasty conditions -- the kind of game Patterson's team knew it would have to grind through if 2009 is going to be a special season.
"The only way to get to be 12-0 is to get to 5-0," he said. "We're 5-0 right now."
With the win, TCU should stay, along with No. 6 Boise State, in the top 10 -- still a candidate to give the Bowl Championship Series some small-conference flavor come January.
Dietz finished 6-for-17 for 42 yards for the Falcons, but their biggest completion came on a trick play when receiver Jonathan Warzeka took a pitch and threw a 16-yard touchdown to Kevin Fogler to cut Air Force's deficit to 14-7 before halftime.
It was the first offensive touchdown for the Falcons in more than 11 quarters, though it didn't stop lines of traffic from streaming out of the Academy at halftime, as the announced crowd of 30,104 dwindled to a few brave thousand who were willing to hang out in the drenching cold -- part of an unusually brisk autumn storm to hit the Rockies this weekend.
With a kickoff temperature at 19 degrees, it was the coldest game for the Frogs since they joined the Mountain West five years ago.
"Miserable weather," Dalton said. "Came out with a win, so it's nice."
TCU opened the third quarter with a 5 1/2-minute drive to the Air Force 7, but Falcons defensive back Reggie Rembert forced and recovered a fumble by Joseph Turner to keep the game close.
TCU's first drive of the game also ended with a turnover, when Andre Morris intercepted a deflected pass at the Air Force 3.
What Air Force really needed from its defense was a score or two. The Falcons defense came in with five touchdowns in five games, but did no scoring in this one despite hanging tough after staying on the field for nearly 29 minutes over the first three quarters.
"Character-wise, we've got the makings of a good football team," Calhoun said. "My gut tells me we're going to be a better football team the next six games."
A few minutes after TCU's second turnover, the Horned Frogs got the ball back and drove 41 yards to set up the first of two short field goals from Ross Evans. The second was set up by Kerley's long kickoff return after Air Force got its own field goal to cut the deficit to 17-10.
Turner ran for 72 yards and Jimmy Young had six catches for 113 yards for the Horned Frogs, who have gone on to win 11 games the last two times (2003, 2008) they've started the season with four straight victories.