TCU won the Rose Bowl for all those schools that never even imagined they could get there.
Andy Dalton threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score, linebacker Tank Carder swatted down a 2-point conversion pass attempt with 2 minutes to play, and the third-ranked Horned Frogs completed a perfect season with a 21-19 victory over No. 4 Wisconsin 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 by busting the BCS in dramatic fashion at the Rose Bowl.
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Dalton passed for 219 yards for TCU, which won't win the national title -- that will go to either Auburn or Oregon after they meet in the BCS championship game in nine days.
These ferocious Frogs still proved they can play with anybody on college football's biggest stages.
"I've been saying for a while that parity in college football is here," TCU coach Gary 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, and the Badgers fell just short of a late rally when Carder made a defensive play that will live forever in TCU lore.
TCU lost last year's Fiesta Bowl to Boise State, but that's still the only loss of the past two seasons for Patterson's remarkable Fort Worth power. TCU is the first school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in the Rose Bowl since the advent of the BCS, but the Frogs were right at home in Pasadena.
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. Montee Ball rushed for a 4-yard score with 2 minutes to play, but Carder made a perfectly timed leap at the line to bat 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.
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.
After 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 man at the end.
"I saw him cock his arm back, and I jumped up and swatted it away," Carder said. "I was in the right place at the right time. They almost (wore us down), but we pulled it out at the end. It seems like we got a little bit better toward the end."
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 a few fortunate plays -- none bigger than Carder's leap.
"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.
"Hopefully the scar from this game will 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."
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.
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 its national championship season in 1938 -- the school's only other unbeaten campaign. The school that produced Davey O'Brien, "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh and LaDainian Tomlinson had played in every other major bowl game except the Granddaddy of Them All.
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."