15th-ranked TCU (11-3, 7-2 Big 12) used an electric fourth quarter to overcome an early 21-3 deficit and defeat 13th-ranked Stanford (9-5, 7-2 Pac 12) 39-37 in the Alamo Bowl on Thursday night in San Antonio. Quarterback Kenny Hill rallied from two first half interceptions to lead the Horned Frogs comeback. The senior threw for 314 yards and added four total touchdowns. Even in defeat, junior running back Bryce Love had a fitting end to his outstanding Heisman runner-up season, as he scored yet another long touchdown and broke Christian McCaffrey’s school record for single-season rushing yards.
The TCU comeback was sparked by versatile performances from Hill and senior wide receiver Desmon White. Both scored touchdowns in three different ways. Hill threw for two scores, ran for another, and even caught a 27 yard touchdown thrown by White on a trick play. White was on the receiving end of Hill’s first touchdown pass and then scored the Horned Frogs’ final touchdown on a dynamic 76 yard punt return.
“Kenny Hill’s a special football player,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game. “He’s streaky, and he got hot.”
Hill had a fairly inefficient first half, as he completed just 10 of 19 passes for 71 yards and was intercepted twice by junior safety Frank Buncom. But he was a completely different player in the second half. His best throw came at the perfect time. While backed up in his own end zone, Hill hit freshman wide receiver Jalen Reagor in stride for a 93 yard touchdown that brought TCU within two at the start of the fourth quarter. Reagor was Hill’s favorite target throughout the game, as he finished with five catches for 169 yards and the touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, Stanford went three-and-out and Jake Bailey booted away a 60 yard punt that outkicked his coverage. White took advantage of the opportunity to show off his blazing speed as he raced up the sideline and into the end zone to give TCU the lead for the first time and complete the Horned Frogs comeback attempt.
Stanford did take advantage of Hill’s early mistakes and struck first after junior safety Frank Buncom returned his first interception 37 yards down to the TCU 23. Three plays later, Bryce Love barreled into the end zone, shaking off multiple tackle attempts and even running over a referee who couldn’t get out of the way in time to give the Cardinal an early 7-0 lead.
Love declared himself close to 100% strength before the game after battling through a left ankle injury for the second half of the season. He showcased his newfound health on a 69 yard touchdown run to extend Stanford’s lead in the third quarter. Love burst through a nice hole opened up by the Cardinal offensive line and then zoomed past everyone on his way to the end zone. However, TCU’s fourth-ranked rushing defense did a solid job containing Love overall. Outside of his long touchdown, he averaged just three yards on his other 25 attempts before having to exit the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent thumb injury. Overall, he had 145 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, Love had a season that will never be forgotten on the Farm. He rushed for 2,118 yard and 19 touchdowns on the year, averaging an incredible 8.1 yards per carry. He became the fastest player ever to reach 1,000 yards rushing in a season, accomplishing the benchmark in just four-and-a-half games. He will forever be remembered in Stanford lore for his gritty performances after he suffered a high ankle sprain against Oregon on October 14th. He only missed one game with the fairly serious injury. When he did come back, Love rushed for over 100 yards in his last five games despite limping off the field after almost every carry in some cases. Breaking Christian McCaffrey’s single-season rushing record was just the latest in a year of remarkable accomplishments for Love.
“Bryce is just a warrior,” Stanford fifth year offensive lineman David Bright said about his teammate. “We love being able to block for him.”
The other bright spot for Stanford offensively was junior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside who had three touchdown catches, including two where he outmuscled defenders who were draped all over him for jump balls. His second touchdown gave Stanford a 21-3 lead with 7:24 remaining in the first half. His third briefly halted TCU’s comeback and put Stanford back on top 37-36 with 6:07 left in the game. That would be the Cardinal’s last lead of the game, however, as TCU proceeded to go on a nine play, 59 yard drive that culminated in a 33 yard field goal from Cole Bunce that put the Horned Frogs up 39-37 with 3:07 remaining. After sophomore quarterback KJ Costello’s pass was intercepted on third-and-15, the game was essentially over.
Costello had 212 yards and three touchdowns, but he was only 15 of 27 passing and had two costly interceptions. He was under tremendous pressure for most of the second half. Though he was only sacked once, he was hurried on six different occasions and rarely seemed to have time in the pocket. The first-year starter also seemed too intent on forcing the ball into double coverage. He paid the price on both interceptions and missed another chance for a touchdown late in the third quarter when he tried to get the ball to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith in spite of double coverage while two other Stanford receivers were wide open in the end zone. Though the final game was not his finest, the talented young signal-caller did show excellent signs of promise this season, as he finished the year with 1573 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air against just four interceptions.
Stanford’s early commanding lead was nothing new for TCU in San Antonio. In the 2015 Alamo Bowl against Oregon, the Horned Frogs fell behind 31-0 at halftime but then erased that deficit and won in overtime for one of the largest comebacks in the history of college football. Though this year’s comeback was not nearly as dramatic, it still highlighted the tremendous composure and belief that TCU head coach Gary Patterson instills in his players.
“Gary Patterson is a phenomenal football coach,” Shaw said about his colleague on the other sideline. “He’s got an outstanding program.”
Patterson is now tied with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer for the most 11-win seasons by an active head coach.
For Stanford, the long countdown until the September 1st, 2018 opener against San Diego State has officially begun. In the meantime, Cardinal fans will anxiously await the NFL Draft decisions of key players like Bryce Love and junior safety Justin Reid, who exited the Alamo Bowl at halftime with an undisclosed injury. Several Stanford stars have either run out of eligibility or have already announced their decision to enter the Draft, such as Bright, senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, and fifth year outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi.
Shaw acknowledged that several players will have decisions to make in the near future but also commented on his optimism about the players he has coming back.
“When I look at what’s coming back, there’s so much work to do,” Shaw said. “But I’m so excited. I think we’re gonna make a huge jump, and I think we need to.”
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.