PASADENA, Calif. -- Everything came up roses for Texas Christian University on Saturday, except for the part about how college football crowns its national champion.
The No. 3 Horned Frogs defeated No. 5 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, 21-19, behind the playmaking of senior quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Tank Carder, but the sport's crystal trophy will go not to unbeaten TCU, but the winner of the Jan. 10 BCS title game between Oregon and Auburn.
What else could TCU (13-0) have done to state its case as national champion?
Nothing, short of piling even more style points against Mountain West Conference teams during the season.
The Horned Frogs led the nation in total defense and averaged 43 points per game, and they did themselves one better on Saturday when they outquicked, outpassed and outcoached a very good Wisconsin team. While all of that will not be enough to put TCU atop the final AP and coaches polls, the Horned Frogs enjoyed both the journey and especially its fragrant ending.
"We did everything we were capable of doing," Dalton said. "I guess it's just the way the system is. But in my time here at TCU, we never thought we'd have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl."
Noting that it was TCU's first Rose Bowl appearance, coach Gary Patterson said he didn't want to say anything to detract from what the Horned Frogs accomplished by beating Wisconsin (11-2) before a crowd in which Badgers partisans outnumbered TCU fans by at least two to one.
"The Rose Bowl deserves a lot more than that," he said. "To us, this was a national championship-caliber ballgame ... I would be doing (bowl hosts) an injustice by saying anything less than I was glad I was here today."
The game's storyline: TCU made the bigger plays and Wisconsin made too many mistakes.
Dalton played nearly a perfect game in running for a team-high 28 yards and completing 15-of-23 for 219 yards. "He's a very, very good quarterback," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema.
When Wisconsin tried to throw for two points that would've tied the score 21-21, Carder jumped up and swatted Scott Tolzien's pass with two minutes left.
Patterson's blitzes slowed a Badgers' attack that pasted its final three Big Ten opponents to the tune of 83 points against Indiana, 48 against Michigan and 70 against Northwestern.
Prepared by film study, Dalton exploited Wisconsin's interior pass defense and also threw accurately to the flanks. His receivers were a step faster than Wisconsin's defensive backs for most of the game, and TCU's offensive line held up against a Badgers pass rush that was short on creativity.
Many oddsmakers had favored TCU by a field goal. The Frogs' Mountain West Conference pedigree seemed an advantage, notwithstanding the contention by Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee that the Little Sisters of the Poor oppose TCU. Entering this bowl season, the MWC was 18-8 over the last six bowl seasons, which was the best mark of the 11 FBS conferences. The conference was 4-1 in bowls a year ago and 9-3 in bowls against BCS automatic-qualifying leagues since 1999.
The MWC isn't part of the BCS cartel that includes the Big Ten, which went 0-5 on Saturday. And another team headed to the Big Ten -- Nebraska -- lost to Washington in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday.
"All of the critics don't feel like the non-(AQ) teams should have a shot," Carder said. "But I feel TCU has proven that we can play with the best of them. Taking this win back to Fort Worth, it feels a little better knowing that the non-(AQ) teams can play with the best of them."
In 2012, TCU will join the Big East, whose champion automatically receives a berth in a BCS bowl, so TCU could be on the other end of the David-and-Goliath debates in years ahead.
"I think it's going to be a great addition to the Big East to have TCU in it so they don't have to answer that question any more," Bielema said. "The truth will come out when they enter into a BCS conference and play someone of the caliber of those conferences week in and week out. I don't think they're a Cinderella story."