Josh Boyce could see center Eric Tausch's eyes widen as he darted toward the middle of the field on a screen route. When Boyce caught Casey Pachall's quick pass he could see Tausch beginning to smile. Boyce knew it meant one thing: six points.
Boyce turned upfield and saw what Tausch was seeing: nothing but wide open space. Boyce turned on the jets and sprinted 66 yards for the touchdown with just under two minutes to go in the first half Saturday against Portland State.
The play energized an understandably listless crowd of 33,825 at Amon G. Carter Stadium, ignited a 21-point outburst from the Horned Frogs in the final 1:55 of the half and jumpstarted a 55-13 win.
Until that play, TCU (3-1) had played down to the Football Championship Subdivision Vikings, had been outmuscled on Portland State's opening drive and picked apart by the Vikings' short passing game. But, as coach Gary Patterson said, the defense was "very strongly bent," but didn't break, and held the Vikings to an opening-possession field goal.
"We're going to have to play a whole lot better the next two weeks to win," Patterson said, referring to games against SMU and San Diego State.
Linebacker Tank Carder snagged an interception off cornerback Jason Verrett's deflection and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown 15 seconds after Boyce's score, and suddenly the Frogs had turned a 3-3 tie into a 17-3 lead.
But they didn't stop there. The defense, which had found its footing after allowing 96 first-quarter yards, stuffed the Vikings with a three-and-out, and Skye Dawson returned the punt 42 yards to set up his 10-yard touchdown reception from Pachall with 37 seconds left in the half.
"That turned the momentum of the game," Carder said. "That shows what we're capable of and the team we have. We've been starting slow every game this year. That's something we have to work on, starting faster."
TCU started slowly, but it kept the momentum in the second half. Waymon James took the opening handoff, and after rolling over the backs of two players on the ground, he sprung back to his feet and raced 65 yards for the score.
"I went to block the safety downfield, and I thought I heard the whistle, so I turned around and the next thing I know Waymon is running at me," said Boyce, who finished with 94 yards on four catches.
Dawson, running an incorrect route, according to Patterson, caught a deflected pass and beat everyone down the sidelines for a 73-yard score to make it 41-3 with 4:07 left in the third quarter.
"I got real lucky that play," Pachall said of the nearly-intercepted pass. "Once he tipped the ball, I wasn't sure what was going to happen after that."
Meanwhile, the TCU defense remained stingy. The Vikings were held to 82 yards in the second and third quarters combined and finished with 295 total yards, a season-low for the Frogs' defense.
The Vikings had 107 yards and 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a 1-yard scoring run with 1:39 remaining against mostly reserves.
But during Portland State's opening drive and for much of the first quarter, once again the young Frogs defense appeared wobbly. Connor Kavanaugh completed 5 of 7 passes for 57 yards in the first quarter and hurt the defense with several keepers.
"When you have everybody covered and he's running for 16 yard ...," Patterson said of his frustration. "It probably won't be the last thing I'm frustrated about in the next 10 years ... or the next 10 minutes."
But TCU, which has dealt with injuries to three of its primary linebackers, including Tanner Brock, who learned last week that he'll miss the rest of the season with a foot injury, made the adjustments to the Vikings' fast-paced offense.
"They went awfully fast in their huddle, but the key is our guys made them kick a field goal," Patterson said. "Those kinds of things, I think, give your kids confidence. And we just have to keep building on it."