It is obvious just by glancing at the box scores that the TCU defense has improved since the season-opening meltdown at Baylor. But the question staring the Horned Frogs in the face this week as they prepare for SMU (3-1) is this: How much have they improved?
From game to game the overall yards allowed have come down from the 564 the Bears hung on the Frogs. TCU (3-1), which stayed at No. 20 in The Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls Sunday, held Portland State to 295 yards, including 107 in the fourth quarter when reserves filled the Frogs' defense.
"We're still our worst enemy," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "You have to tackle and do your job. But six, almost seven, out of the last eight quarters the No. 1 defense hasn't given up a touchdown."
That streak for the first team is even better when you include the one touchdown the first team allowed in the first three quarters at Air Force.
Patterson tipped his cap to the Vikings' coaching staff for a smart opening game plan offensively. Portland State drove 71 yards on 14 plays. Connor Kavanaugh completed 4 of 5 passes and rushed three times for 13 yards to set up a field goal.
"We have to play quicker, instead of catching up as the game goes on," Patterson said. "As the game went on, you can see on film, we played faster."
Against the Mustangs, the Frogs' secondary will have its toughest test since Robert Griffin III burned them for 359 yards passing.
TCU has made adjustments, inexperienced players have a few skins on the wall, and improvement is clear from the statistics. SMU's J.J. McDermott (1,133 yards, four touchdowns) may not have the mobility of Griffin, but he has some talented receivers. He took over for Kyle Padron, who threw two interceptions on SMU's first two drives in the season opener at Texas A&M.
Patterson said after Saturday's game that he was glad the Frogs would finally face a traditional offense in SMU instead of the read-option-heavy offenses early this month.
"Our guys are finally going to get a chance to play the draw, the zone and the pass instead of the veer option, where you have to think about all these different things instead of just turning them loose," he said. "We play a lot better passing team and we'll find out [how much we've improved] against SMU."
Ed Wesley, who has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, is expected to play Saturday. Gary Patterson said Wesley, who led the Frogs with 1,078 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing last season, was able to go against Portland State but was given another week of healing.
Center James Fry, who has battled an unspecified flu-like illness since the Air Force game, will likely start against SMU. Eric Tausch started for Fry against Portland State.
Waymon James: The sophomore, who shined in Ed Wesley's absence at SMU a year ago, has been an excellent counter punch to Matthew Tucker while Wesley has been sidelined with an injury this season. James rushed for a career-high 136 yards on 10 carries and returned a kickoff 82 yards for a score against Portland State.
Slow starts: It's not just the defense anymore. The offense was moving as slow as molasses in the first quarter against Portland State. Casey Pachall copped to the Frogs' likely being underwhelmed by an FCS opponent. He knows that won't fly against SMU, which would cause bedlam in the streets of University Park with an upset of TCU.
SMU (3-1) at No. 20 TCU (3-1), 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Amon G. Carter Stadium
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760