TCU’s hopes for a fourth-quarter rally seemed dashed Saturday when Kansas defensive end Josh Ehambe separated Horned Frogs quarterback Kenny Hill from the football on a third-and-12 play.
But a penalty flag flew. Ehambe, who grabbed Hill’s facemask while making the tackle near the TCU 30-yard line, hung his head in disappointment. He stopped running. Other defenders followed suit.
Hill, meanwhile, picked himself up from the turf and grabbed the loose football at the 26-yard line. He began running and game officials, who never blew a whistle to stop the play, watched Hill sprint 34 yards down the right sideline before being bumped out-of-bounds at the Kansas 40-yard line.
With the face mask penalty tacked on, Hill’s hustle play produced a first down at the Kansas 25. The drive ended with a touchdown, flipping the fourth-quarter momentum in TCU’s 24-23 victory at Memorial Stadium.
At the time Hill was separated from the football, TCU trailed 23-14. But because the ball popped free before Hill hit the turf, it remained a live-ball situation. Hill’s alertness set the stage for a fourth-quarter rally that allowed the Horned Frogs (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) to remain in the conference race and avoid becoming the first league team to lose to Kansas (1-4, 0-2) since the 2014 season.
“That was a really big play. It’s exactly what we needed,” TCU running back Kyle Hicks said. “During that play, I didn’t hear a whistle. I saw … the ref was just looking at the ball. I saw Kenny pick it up and I just told him, ‘Go, go, go.’ I got to blocking for him. It was a big break.”
Hicks said he was “surprised” most players near the loose ball stopped running when the flag flew for the face mask penalty. TCU coach Gary Patterson echoed the same sentiments.
“I thought it was a fumble and everybody stood around,” Patterson said. “Once I saw the replay, he didn’t go down and the ball went backwards. There was no whistle that blew.
“It’s one of those where somebody’s going to be a really bad loser when it comes to a play like that because you’re mad about it and what happened. If you win those plays, a lot of times you get a chance to win the ballgame.”
Hill, who was not made available for interviews after the game, made the most of the Frogs’ unexpected opportunity two plays later with a 25-yard touchdown strike to Jaelan Austin. That cut the deficit to 23-21 with 13:54 remaining and put the Frogs in position to win the game on Brandon Hatfield’s 34-yard field goal with 1:21 remaining, capping a 59-yard march on TCU’s final possession.
But the comeback began in earnest on Hill’s hustle play, which drew kudos from Kansas coach David Beaty.
“What a heads-up play by that kid. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Beaty said. “It was a crazy play because we grabbed Kenny by his face mask, and the tendency there was to kind of hold up and the ball came out. There were so many crazy things. He made a big run out of that.”
From Hicks’ perspective, his teammate merely followed TCU coaches’ orders.
“That’s what we’re taught to do, to play until the whistle’s blown,” Hicks said of Hill’s game-changing moment. “It was very heads-up. Just right place, right time and he made a play out of it.”
The most pivotal play, as it turned out, during Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback.