Richard Justice: “Tonight isn’t going to take away from this season and what we were able to do as a program.”

Jan 9, 2023; Inglewood, CA, USA; TCU Horned Frogs players react from the sideline in the 4th quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFP national championship game at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: “Tonight isn’t going to take away from this season and what we were able to do as a program.”

   Perfect endings are elusive things, and that why there are so few of them. TCU accomplished so much in this magical season that it’s just about impossible to feel disappointment about how it ended. Georgia’s 65-7 destruction of the Horned Frogs in the National Championship Game on Monday night will sting for awhile.

   Years from now, though, when these players and coaches come together to remember a season in which the Horned Frogs surprised, inspired, and entertained us, this hopefully will be but a bitter footnote to a splendid season.

“Tonight isn’t going to take away from this season and what we were able to do as a program,” TCU quarterback Max Duggan said. “I don’t think that’s going to define all the good memories and all the success that we had this season to put this program in the right direction and moving forward. There were so many great memories this year. Obviously we’re disappointed tonight, but not going to let this take away from a remarkable season.”

   What they’ll remember is a 12-0 regular season and an upset of Michigan in the national semifinals. That in a season in which TCU was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs established a new standard for the program.

   That first-year head coach Sonny Dykes showed what a lot of people already knew: that he’s one of the very best coaches in the land, a communicator and an innovator who represents the very best of his profession.

   They’ll remember that a quarterback named Duggan, who began the season No. 2 on the Horned Frogs depth chart, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

   TCU beat both Texas and Oklahoma in the same season for the first time in eight years. TCU overcame second-half deficits to beat Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Baylor. TCU never trailed Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl.

   All those memories will soothe the disappointment of this final game. On the sport’s biggest stage, TCU blinked, and badly, in attempting to win its first national championship since 1938. Georgia’s 58-point margin of victory is the largest ever in a championship game, surpassing USC’s 36-point thrashing of Oklahoma in 2004.

   “Well, tough one tonight,” Dykes said. “I think anybody that saw that could see that we certainly didn’t play our best. You’ve got to give Georgia a ton of credit. I think we’re all disappointed that we didn’t play better and we didn’t coach better and we didn’t represent our team better than we did tonight. We’ll learn from it. And next time we’re on a stage like this we’ll handle it better.

“I think that’s the best thing that happens when you face adversity like this, you make mistakes and you learn from them. And you get better as a program. You get better as a coach. You get better as players. And the next time you handle the situation a little bit better.”

   Georgia, mighty Georgia, was every bit as good as advertised in becoming the first team in a decade to win back-to-back national championships. Georgia began this season as the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25. That’s also how Georgia will begin next season after going 15-0.

   After becoming the first team to go back-to-back since Alabama in 2011-2012, Georgia will attempt to become just the second team to win three straight national championships. Only Minnesota has done it, winning in 1934, 1935, and 1936.  

   Perhaps it’s the greatest tribute to Dykes that he’d convinced his team — TCU was a 13.5-point underdog by kickoff — that it was capable of beating a nearly perfect Georgia team.

“First play of the game for us was a false start,” Dykes said. “We probably have had three false starts all year. You know what I mean? And probably over a thousand plays, maybe had three false starts. Just things like that. That’s just not who we are. We’re not that kind of football team. If we make those mistakes we’re not going to win football games. We’re certainly not going to be playing for a national championship making those kind of mistakes.”

   Georgia scored on all six of its first-half possessions for a 38-7 halftime lead. The Dawgs made it 52-7 in the third quarter, and in doing so, tied the record for most points in a playoff-era championship game.

   “We couldn’t get anything rolling,” Duggan said. “They were playing well on defense. We were shooting ourselves in the foot. I was making bad decisions. I wasn’t executing well and not putting us in a position to score some points and move the ball. 

   “But they’re a great team. Obviously that’s not what we thought was going to happen or wanted to happen or what we worked for. But it was just one of those nights where we couldn’t really do much on our end.”

   Later in the third quarter, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart began removing his starters from the contest and allowed them a fourth quarter on the sideline to soak in the scene.

   Quarterback Stetson Bennett received the biggest ovation after three quarters in which he passed for four touchdowns and ran for two.

   Georgia won the big battles and most of the little ones in rolling for 589 yards and limiting TCU to 188. Georgia had 32 first downs and allowed nine. Georgia converted nine of 13 third downs, TCU two of 11. Georgia forced three turnovers, all in the first half.

   Georgia outgained TCU by 233 yards in just the first half, the most lopsided margin in a championship game since at least 2004. At one point in the third quarter, Georgia had produced 45 points on — wait for it — 48 offensive plays.

   “They didn’t really do anything special,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “We just kind of beat ourselves up. Kind of just executed on our mis-alignments and kept scoring on those. We just kept beating ourselves up, just overthinking, trying to run too fast to the ball and things of that nature.”

   Georgia’s pressure on TCU quarterback Max Duggan was relentless. He completed just 14 of 22 passes and was intercepted twice. TCU could not offseason the pressure with any sort of consistent running game. TCU’s 28 rushes got them 36 yards.

“I was making bad decisions, and I wasn’t executing well,” Duggan said. “They had some blitzes, some pressures they got through. I held on to the ball too long, wasn’t getting through reads and was kind of causing trouble for the O-line myself.”

In the end, though, everything that happened at SoFi Stadium on Monday will be assigned its place in the dustbin of history. Instead, TCU’s season will be rightfully remembered for the revival of a program and how it energized a campus, the city of Fort Worth and thousands of us who love college football.

   “We talked about this a little bit in the locker room a second ago,” Dykes said, “just about how far we’ve come in a year and what these guys have been able to accomplish really when nobody outside of our locker room expected it or really believed in them.

   “Again, I’m disappointed we didn’t make a better show tonight because that’s not indicative of who we are. But we’ll look back—it’s going to take some time for the sting to go away, I assure you—but we’ll look back on the season and build on it from here.”

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