Steven Johnson: How should TCU feel after nearly pulling off the upset of Texas?

How should TCU feel after coming up just short against No. 7 Texas in the final Big 12 battle between the two schools?

It’s the question I’ve been grappling with since the final horn of the Horned Frogs’ 29-26 defeat to the Longhorns. On one hand the fight shown in the second half deserves to be commended.

Trailing 26-6 at halftime, TCU could’ve easily folded and let the game get out of hand like it did against Kansas State. But coach Sonny Dykes said all he did at halftime was ask the team to play hard and not worry about the score.

The Horned Frogs responded to that with what Josh Hoover called their best half of football this season. At the very least it means that Dykes hasn’t lost the locker room and TCU hasn’t lost the fight within itself with two games remaining in the regular schedule.

It’s a fact that admittedly had Dykes excited for TCU’s next game against Baylor.

“We’ve got a game against Baylor in seven days and I am so excited,” Dykes said on Saturday. “Because I want to see our guys come and play like they’re capable of playing, so I’m already fired up to see that game and see our guys play.”

If the effort from the second half carries over to start of Saturday’s rivalry game then the Horned Frogs should be in great shape, but the more I pondered the game the more I couldn’t ignore the issues that put TCU in a position where it needed to overcome a 20-point halftime deficit.

Once again TCU lost the turnover battle, it’s the fourth time that’s happened in five games. Last season the Horned Frogs only lost the turnover battle two times in 15 games.

It’s not like the Horned Frogs didn’t have their fairshare of giveaways last year as there were plenty of instances of TCU having a multi-turnover game. However, the team was usually able to offset any of its own mistakes by creating turnovers to defense.

That hasn’t happened this season, but what happened against the Longhorns is what we’ve seen all season. TCU doesn’t just make mistakes, they make game-altering mistakes like the two interceptions in the end zone in the season opener against Colorado.

Against the Longhorns TCU was about to be in great position to take early momentum and another lead after a Millard Bradford interception return got deep into Texas territory in the first quarter, but the senior safety was stripped and Texas recovered near the original line of scrimmage.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s almost like the play never happened. Dykes was asked if it felt like that play was a summary of the season afterwards.

“I hate to think like that, but it’s hard not to at times,” Dykes said. “There are times where you go and you’re like ‘Man, this is how things have bounced this year.’ I think that play is indicative of that, I hate to say that, but there’s probably something to that.”

There is a certain level of luck that’s built into football especially with turnovers. You need to hit football just right to dislodge from a ball carrier or be in the perfect position to catch a ball that’s deflected into the air, but good and great teams create a lot of their own luck by dictating the game with physicality and execution.

The more good plays you string together, the more the odds increase of one of these ‘lucky’ moments happening. The problem for TCU is that the Horned Frogs still aren’t stringing together enough positive plays on either side of the ball consistently.

For as well as TCU played in the first half, the Horned Frogs gifted Texas with a late touchdown as Hoover tried to force a pass into a tight window. It was throw he had admitted he had no business making and completely changed the tone of the game.

“We’re going to go into halftime down two scores if we don’t throw that late interception,” Dykes said. “That was a big play, it gave them a quick touchdown and all of a sudden it’s a three-score game. Against a good football team you can’t make those kind of mistakes, but those are the mistakes we’ve made this year.”

Aside from turnovers what else has plagued TCU this season? Red zone execution. The Horned Frogs are currently No. 16 in total offense and 124th in red zone offense. How does that happen?

It happened at the worst time for TCU in the third quarter after the Horned Frogs marched all the way to the Texas 4-yard line. TCU lost a yard on the first Emani Bailey carry and then added 3 more on his second carry. With the success TCU was having establishing the run that you could make the case Bailey should’ve gotten one more touch.

Instead on third down Hoover threw a low percentage fade route to Savion Williams and on fourth down TCU went five wide and attempted another pass that wasn’t close to being completed.

Another instance of short-yardage struggles came in the fourth after a JP Richardson touchdown cut it to 29-19. The Horned Frogs went for two and once again ran the low percentage fade route to Williams. There was contact and the Amon G. Carter stadium crowd wanted a flag.

But contact or not it would’ve been a tough pass to complete, even to the 6-foot-5 Williams and it’s not like jump balls have been an area TCU has excelled at like last year. Converting in either of those situations would’ve changed the tenor of the game and gave TCU an even better chance of pulling off the upset with Texas playing surprisingly conservative.

And then finally there was the game-clinching play. TCU had Texas pinned facing a 3rd-and-12, but the pass rush wasn’t able to get home to Quinn Ewers and he threw a beautiful deep ball to Adonai Mitchell to clinch the game.

TCU corner Avery Helm was in the vicinity, but not close enough to even make it a contested catch as the game ended in such an anti-climatic way.

“Unfortunately a lot of this thing comes down to what happened when they converted that third down,” Dykes said. “The ball is up in the air and somebody makes a play on it. If we want to break through and be as good as we’re capable of being we have to make those plays.”

So how should the Horned Frogs feel in the immediate aftermath of another close loss? TCU should have pride with the fight it showed in the second half, but it can’t let the near comeback make the team lose sight of the fact that once again the Horned Frogs were their own worst enemy in another winnable game that could’ve salvaged the season.