FORT WORTH, Texas — Shortly after 6 p.m. Central, the coach of the Big 12’s lone unbeaten team heaved a football umpteen rows deep into a pumped-and-purple student section. Considering TCU’s knack for unleashing unexpected passes Saturday, why wouldn’t 57-year-old Gary Patterson take a turn?
Competing for conference titles can be tricky at a small, private university, so the Frogs embraced trickery during their 31-24 win over West Virginia. Kenny Hill caught a quarterback throwback — and caught defenders entirely out of sorts — for a 48-yard touchdown that stood out amid a volatile second half.
“We’ve been practicing that play all week,” Hill said. “I told the coaches, ‘If y’all throw to me, I’m going to score. I’m not letting anyone tackle me on this.’”
Hill kept his promise, and ultimately kept TCU undefeated because he kept finding different methods to score. In conjunction with his highlight gadget play, the senior rainbowed an impeccable 45-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Reagor in the third quarter. Then, with the game at stake and under 3 minutes remaining, Hill cracked through two defenders on third down to carry in the go-ahead score.
Hill’s rugged running spared Patterson from a fourth-and-goal conundrum. Maybe TCU would’ve taken the sure field goal for the lead, or then again, perhaps Patterson would’ve felt compelled to go for the six, seeing as how his defense had been shredded for three touchdowns on Will Grier’s previous four drives.
Margins being so narrow, it took a lengthy booth review to resuscitate TCU’s winning drive after Elijah Battle’s sideline interception was overturned. I watched the replay six or seven times from the press box, concluding resolutely that it was wholly inconclusive.Add in the fact West Virginia ran 84 plays to TCU’s 65, and you begin to sense the extent of Patterson’s relief.
“I would bet t
hat every game is going to be like this,” he said. “If you are going to win a championship there is a general rule … you win about three or four of them that are going to be ugly.”
West Virginia knows about losing those types of games this season. Twice tied with top-25 teams in the fourth quarter, twice denied on final-drive opportunities.
“We’ve got to find away to win those games,” Grier said.
Coach Dana Holgorsen finds the 3-2 record to be a function of an offense that hasn’t delivered on its situational potential. If that sounds ludicrous for a unit entering this weekend No. 2 nationally at 48 points per game, consider that West Virginia is 3-of-7 on red-zone touchdowns against Virginia Tech and TCU. (Against the tackling dummies from ECU, Delaware State and Kansas, they’re a sparkling 16-of-18.)
Grier’s gifts are so obvious, his grasp of the offense so acute, that his occasional misfires command extra attention. TCU was relieved that he twice overthrew David Sills down close. First, a potential 21-yard touchdown sailed out of the end zone, and later, a too-tall third-and-3 crossing route prevented Sills from gaining the first down. Because Mike Molina flubbed one of his subsequent field-goal tries, West Virginia settled for three points out of a possible 14.
“This is our second loss where we didn’t score enough points, which means we have to get better,” Holgorsen said.
Yet in Big 12 terms it’s only the first loss, and that currently puts the Mountaineers on equal footing with K-State, Oklahoma State and, yes, Oklahoma, whose upset loss to 30-point underdog Iowa State reminded us that the wrong Stoops retired.
With another seven weeks of regular-season drama in store, odds now point toward a two-loss team reaching the Big 12 title game. And for whatever value this next fact holds, West Virginia is the only Big 12 team yet to host a league home game.
“The Big 12’s really good this year, and I think we’re really good too,” Grier said. “We’re going to fight for our position in the championship.”
That title game will be staged Dec. 3, a mere 17 minutes from TCU’s campus. Based upon the illogical results encompassing the league so far, how can anyone rule out the Mountaineers making a return trip?