There are two ways to look at TCU's defensive performance through three games.
The pessimistic, fatalistic view holds that TCU's penchant for giving up the big play early in the 2011 season -- 16 plays of 20 or more yards, including 14 that led to points -- is a sign of horrible things to come against upcoming pass-happy opponents SMU, San Diego State and Boise State.
But the big plays have diminished from the opener at Baylor in which the Bears burned the Frogs with seven big pass plays, including five touchdown passes of 28 yards or more. Against Air Force, there were five big plays, including three runs. And last week, Louisiana-Monroe was held to four big plays, all in the first quarter.
"We're very average as a secondary," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We improved, but we're not up to that standard and I don't think we'll reach that standard this year. Can we be good enough to win a lot of ballgames? Maybe, if we keep improving."
No. 20 TCU, which hosts Portland State (2-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium, is allowing 431.3 yards a game, a far cry from this time last season when TCU, the top-ranked defense three years running, held its first three opponents to a combined 668 yards.
But there's reason for optimism if TCU's young secondary can minimize the big play. The rest of the defense, including a defensive line that has six sacks, has been solid. Injuries at linebacker have also hindered the defense.
"There were some coverage sacks, there were some positives but what we see on film is what we coach," Patterson said Sunday. "Right now, we're not getting what we need. We're not as physical and I don't even know if we'll even get to that point this season. You don't have a long enough column for me to tell you what we need to do. I don't even know if it'll get fixed this year, to be honest with you."
But Patterson, who gives the defense a C-minus to D through three games, is quick to point out the improvements over the last week. He wants his team to play with "confidence and swagger," which comes with positive results. After holding ULM to 71 total yards in the final three quarters Saturday, those intangibles might be coming back.
"Cornerback is all about confidence," said cornerback Greg McCoy, who has been beaten on several big scoring plays this season. "When you get scored on it's hard to keep it. You have to depend on your team. We have a standard here, Coach P holds us to that standard. Some of the plays that happened we don't want to happen. It comes with maturity and getting better."
On Tuesday, Patterson pointed out that TCU was hurt by three long passes against San Diego State last season and won the Rose Bowl two games later.
"So you have to keep things in perspective," he said. "It's kind of the nature of how we play defense. We know we've got to get a little bit more swagger and we've been working on it. Our guys have made tremendous strides."
But he also knows there are tougher tests for the secondary down the road.
"We've got some really good throwing teams coming up in the next four or five weeks," he said. "When you play somebody who throws the ball 60 times we're going to find out what it's like. You're only judged by your weakest link. Not by your best player, but the weakest part of your football team."