Third time’s the charm, right?
Max Duggan has had three opportunities in late game situations to either win a game for TCU Football or salt it away in this, his debut campaign. Against SMU a month ago, the precocious gunslinger found his team trailing by three points with two minutes and thirty-five seconds to go and the ball on the SMU 41 yard line. Realistically, he needed to pick up about 20 yards to put his team in position to take a game-tying field goal, but a couple of runs, a recovered fumble on a four yard loss, and an incompletion on fourth down doomed the Frogs to a loss.
A week ago, trailing by a touchdown, he found himself on his own 25 yard line with 2:45 remaining in Manhattan. Three straight completions to Jalen Reagor got TCU near midfield, but an eight yard sack and a couple of incompletions doomed the Frogs to yet another loss.
On Saturday, back home, but up against the first ranked opponent of his career, Duggan took the field again — this time with his team nursing a three point lead, needing to get in the end zone to ice the game, or at the very least, take enough time off the clock to leave the dangerous Sam Ehlinger sitting on the sideline.
With 6:50 to play, Duggan got the ball on his own 25, and engineered a nine play, 75 yard masterpiece that frittered away nearly five minutes of game clock and put TCU on top by two scores. He faced long odds, penalties, and a pair of third and longs — but every time his back was against the wall, the freshman stood tall and made a play.
Third and 11?
How about a looping sideline out from the far hash that nestled perfectly into the waiting arms of John Stephens, Jr?
Third and 14?
A 36 yard bomb to Taye Barber (that was a little behind him, but Barber made an incredible adjustment to haul it in).
And then, immediately following that play, Duggan decided to get in on the fun, flying across the goal line after an 11 yard run, bouncing up, and gleefully throwing his Frog up as he took the Horns down.
Saturday was the first game Duggan played start to finish (apparently Sonny Cumbie and Gary Patterson read Frogs O’ War) and it was the first game he threw and interception in, but, most importantly, it was the first game that we saw Max command the passing game and make big plays through the air consistently.
It can’t be overstated how important getting Taye Barber was to that fact; the sophomore wide receiver had five receptions for 94 yards, making several exceptional adjustments in the process. Gary Patterson talked in the postgame about what having Barbers hands and speed meant for his team and his QB. “The problem is, we haven’t had some of those people to throw it to. If they’re not fast enough to outrun the guy, then it doesn’t do you any good to throw deep. We’ve started to get some of those guys back, and now that they’re back, everybody doesn’t double-cover [Jalen] Reagor like they have.”
But it’s not just about completing passes to the best players (which certainly helps), it’s about how you carry yourself as a player and a person — especially in the huddle and the heat of the moment. “He reminds me honestly of myself, just how he’s savvy,” Jalen Reagor said. “My freshman year I played with a lot of emotion. With him just being young some of the stuff is just growing pains. Once he really settles in y’all see what he can do.” Those are heady words coming from a player the caliber of JR, but they’re right. And he’s not the only one to see it. “I’ve seen it since the spring when he first came. We just knew he needed a little experience, get the flow going, go against a couple teams, get started,” Barber echoed.
And really, it’s not just his play on the field, it’s how he deals with his teammates, the way he commands a moment, his character, the respect he has from the guys on both sides of the ball. The kid is a natural born leader — he’s got the juice. He showed it on the final drive, according to Barber. “He was aggressive, I can’t tell y’all what he said word for word [in the huddle], but he was really aggressive, he just wanted to keep going and score to put them away.”
Patterson wanted to be sure to slow the anointing of his true freshman — because of course he does — comparing playing with a young quarterback to... dating in high school? “It’s like dating in high school. If I’d had the answer, I wouldn’t have had to break up, find somebody else — you’d just have the perfect answer. It just is what it is. That’s exactly the way high school [dating is] — the way it is when you have a freshman quarterback.” That’s a Patterson-ism way of saying that sometimes it looks like you’ve found the perfect partner, but there are going to be growing pains, there are going to be fights, there are going to be struggles. But, fortunately for TCU, Patterson and his staff have refrained from breaking up with their young QB, instead giving him the space and support to grow.
Making the right read, getting some tough plays from your receivers, leading scoring drives after big defensive plays... those things pay off. “When those kind of things happen, they gain more confidence in the quarterback, and the quarterback gains more confidence in throwing to them. And it’s that time of year when we need a little confidence to be honest,” Patterson said. Safety Trevon Moehrig felt that it was only a matter of time before Max gave the program that confidence. “I felt like it was coming. This game was just one of those games for him, it was a big game for him. I knew he could do it. Everybody knew he could do it. It just came with time.”
Time has been the key factor here. As has the patience of the coaches. That’s by design, according to Patterson. “Everybody wants players to be like hot cocoa. You just rip off the cover, pour it in, pour hot water in and they’re a great player. It’s hot, cocoa’s ready to go. It’s not that easy.”
But again, slow your roll. “He’s not where we need to be yet. But we’re farther along. I think it’ll help our confidence going forward now.”
That being said, don’t expect Saturday’s 273 yard, two touchdown day to be a blip in the radar. According to Taye Barber, it’s just the beginning. “He’s going to get up every time. Ain’t nothing phase Max, so we’re all behind Max.”