Regarding the complicated matter of playing quality defense in an unprecedented era of offensive success for college football teams, TCU coach Gary Patterson clings to three basic tenets.
“Our whole thing is about getting three-and-outs, third-down defense and red-zone defense,” said Patterson, who also calls the team’s defensive signals. “Every year, the question is how you make yourself better in those categories. We didn’t do what we needed to do a year ago.”
But the Horned Frogs are making strides this season, with the latest evidence coming in Saturday’s 56-36 victory over SMU at Amon G. Carter Stadium. TCU, ranked No. 20 in the latest Associated Press poll, handed the Mustangs (2-1) their first loss of the season and kept SMU 20 points below its scoring average heading into the contest (56.0).
The Frogs (3-0) kept possession of the Iron Skillet in their annual D-FW rivalry game by leaning on a defense that stepped up with multiple second-half stops on a day when it struggled to live up to the standards it set while emerging as one of the nation’s stingiest units during the first two weeks of the season. For Patterson, that worked. For this week.
It worked, in Patterson’s estimation, because SMU scored just one touchdown from six drives that involved snaps inside Frogs’ 30-yard line.
“We didn’t play that well. But I’m proud of the defense again,” said Patterson, whose unit headed into the contest ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense (3.5 points per game) and total defense (166.5 yards per game) after stifling Jackson State and Arkansas. “We played well in the red zone. If we can keep doing that in the Big 12, we’ll have a lot of success.”
Rest assured, Saturday’s performance was hardly a vintage defensive effort by TCU. SMU scored on five of its first six possessions, burning the Frogs with trick plays that included a flanker pass and a touchdown run from Wildcat formation while building a quick 19-7 lead.
But TCU began finding its defensive stride in the second half. The Frogs broke open a tight game by having its defense match the Mustangs’ offense, point-for-point, during SMU’s first five drives after intermission. The Frogs’ touchdown came on a 19-yard interception by linebacker Travin Howard and followed drives when SMU came away with zero points after reaching the TCU 30-yard line (downs) and the TCU 25 (blocked field goal). Eventually, the Frogs built a 56-29 lead on a day when TCU faced its most prolific offensive opponent to date before starting Big 12 play next week at No. 9 Oklahoma State (3-0).
“I don’t necessarily think we took a step back,” TCU defensive end Ben Banogu said, summing up the defensive effort. “We just didn’t take a step forward. And when you’re stagnant in a conference like this, you can’t stay stagnant. Our defense came out not as mentally ready for this game. We need to fix that.”
Patterson and his players are counting on a mental rebound next week against Oklahoma State after facing an SMU team that treated Saturday’s matchup against TCU as “their Super Bowl,” in Patterson’s estimation. Patterson said the Frogs got SMU’s best effort while the Mustangs produced 463 yards and a 6-of-14 conversion rate on third down.
In its first two games, TCU allowed opponents to convert just 17.9 percent of their third-down opportunities (5-of-28), tops among Big 12 defenses. Patterson said the numbers dipped against SMU because several key defenders, including Ty Summers and Sammy Douglas, played sparingly in efforts to make sure they are at full speed for the OSU game.
Even in the wake of the SMU performance, Patterson remains confident in his veteran-laden defensive unit as TCU prepares for the start of Big 12 play.
“We’ve got some guys in the intelligence positions that are making good checks. Any time you get a defense to play hard and have a little smarts to it, you’ll have a chance to stop people,” Patterson said.
“We’ve done a good job of leverages and playing hard. These guys know there’s a standard here of how you want to play defense. You’ve got to be able to play red-zone defense. It’s definitely something we pinpoint and we’ve done well down there.”
Of SMU’s six drives that involved snaps inside the Frogs’ 30-yard line, the Mustangs managed only one touchdown. The other five marches included three field goals and two failures. Patterson and his players will welcome similar production against Big 12 opponents.
“We could have played better this week. But I still feel like we have a chance to be a really good defense,” safety Nick Orr said. “This is just one game and we’ve got a long season ahead of us. There are better offenses that we’re going to play in the Big 12. So we’ve got to make sure we play better next week.”