TEMPE, Ariz. -- Texas Christian coach Gary Patterson could not have made it any clearer after his team's 17-16 loss to Michigan State in Saturday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: It's time for the Horned Frogs to grow up.
TCU, which played 28 freshmen this season -- tied for most in Division I -- came up short against the Spartans due largely to a handful of youthful mistakes and failure to finish. Save a few bright spots, the Horned Frogs came away empty-handed.
"It's like I told my team inside: There's no moral victories," Patterson said. "They're not freshmen anymore. We're going to move forward. We as a program are used to being in the top 25 and doing the things we need to. That's where we want to get back to."
Patterson is essentially saying the bar has been raised. No more blaming close losses on being young. Those freshmen will be sophomores next year, eight of them having earned freshman All-America recognition, and 12 of them third-year sophomores.
The youth was evident Saturday in crucial moments. Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin overthrow a wide-open receiver on TCU's final play of the game, a fourth-and-16 on which a conversion might have put the Horned Frogs in field-goal range. When Boykin did hit his receivers earlier in the game, they often dropped the passes.
But the growing TCU still needs to do was most evident in the games final moments, when Michigan State trailed 16-14 with 2:42 to play. The Spartans drove 60 yards with the help of a holding penalty on TCU redshirt freshmen linebacker Chris Hackett and a defense that couldn't come up with a needed stoop.
Eventually, the TCU defense gave up enough ground that the Spartans got into position for Dan Conroy to hit the game-winning 47-yard field goal.
"You've got to learn how to find a way to win," Patterson said. "Plain and simple, got to find a way to win.
"What I thought happened in the fourth quarter, I thought Michigan State turned up the heat, and I didn't think we answered it. You've got to find guys that go make plays."
Patterson mentioned in his postgame press conference that he has joked this season about his players being so young that they needed diapers at practices. Now, he's done joking.
This TCU team has now endured a season filled with countless injuries, the suspension and departure of starting quarterback Casey Pachall four games into the season after a drunken-driving charge, a 2-4 finish in Big 12 play and now a bowl loss.
"If it was easy, anybody could do it," Patterson said. "We're trying to move forward. Everybody's got problems. How you deal with those problems is how you're going to move forward."
To that end, there is a silver lining. Despite all the drama, heartbreak and frustration of 2012, TCU heads into 2013 with a group of seasoned youngsters and the prospect of some stability. To endure all TCU did and come out with a winning record in a new, tougher conference and a respectable bowl appearance is nothing to scoff at, and it's not a bad place to start in 2013.
Boykin, who was a dismal 13 for 29 for 201 yards Saturday, will have nearly a full season of experience under his belt. Leading rusher B.J. Catalon, a true freshman, will be a year older, and 2011 starter Waymon James should be back from an early-season knee injury. Sophomore receiver Brandon Carter, the team's second-leading receiver, also returns, and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Devonte Fields will be back to anchor the defense.
"We've been in big ballgames," Patterson said. "We know how to close ballgames -- teams before this group have. They need to learn how to close ballgames. I don't mean that in a bad way. That just comes with maturity and more 'want to' and more 'put into.' You have to have more at stake."
The abundantly honest Patterson admitted Saturday night that he and his team didn't feel good. It was probably hard to see a silver lining, especially for the programs' seniors -- like Sky Dawson, whose muffed punt may have cost TCU the game.
But in Patterson's call for his team to grow up, it was obvious that there's already optimism about the very near future for TCU.