TCU reaches midseason with lots of questions, areas to improve

TCU football coach Gary Patterson exhaled deeply, cracked a brief smile and played the glass-half-full card after a 24-23 escape against Kansas allowed the Horned Frogs to carry a 4-2 record into this week’s open date.

The Frogs, limited to a season-low 366 yards by a team seeking its first victory over a Big 12 opponent since the 2014 season, walked out of Lawrence, Kan., with a mathematical chance to rebound in the Big 12 title race only because Kansas kicker Matthew Wyman missed three fourth-quarter field goals.

If he’d made any of the three, the Jayhawks (1-4, 0-2 Big 12) would have secured a victory as a 28-point underdog and triggered two weeks of soul-searching for TCU players, who began September as the highest-ranked college football team in Texas.

Patterson, however, viewed the KU escape differently.

“We’re about two to four plays away from being 6-0,” Patterson said. “You were due a game like that.”

Without question, TCU had its chances in narrow losses to No. 16 Arkansas, 41-38 in double overtime, and No. 20 Oklahoma, 52-46. But the Frogs couldn’t capitalize, just as Kansas could not make the telling plays against TCU in losing its 14th consecutive conference game. To adapt the wisdom of a noted philosopher from another sport: That’s the way football go.

It’s all about making plays when the opportunity arises, and TCU does not do that consistently. Through six games, and with six remaining after this week’s open date, some midseason realities are emerging about these Frogs:

The preseason ranking (No. 13) was too high, triggering unrealistic August expectations for a young team with only eight seniors on the depth chart and five in the starting lineup. As things stand, with the season’s four easiest games safely tucked in the win column, TCU may be hard-pressed to do much more than secure the six wins needed to become bowl-eligible.

On the flip side, this also is true: The quality of Big 12 football is down among league title contenders, meaning a late-season surge by a team that corrects its early flaws could make up a lot of ground in the final standings. This will be TCU’s week to try to make those corrections.

Patterson and his staff have several points to stress as the Frogs head into the second half of a season that includes six coin-flip propositions on the remaining schedule. It should not surprise anyone if TCU staggers home at 0-6 if it continues playing the way it did against Kansas. Nor should it surprise anyone if the Frogs finish with a 6-0 surge after their open date, provided they clean up key areas that require attention. Among them:

Quarterback Kenny Hill must cut back on interceptions. Hill has thrown eight interceptions in six games, the most of any Big 12 starter, and had three against Kansas. The transfer from Texas A&M ranks third among FBS players in passing yards (2,142) but only four of the nation’s top-50 passers have thrown more picks: New Mexico State’s Tyler Rogers (9), Temple’s Phillip Walker (9), Purdue’s David Blough (9) and SMU’s Ben Hicks (9). None of Kansas’ interceptions were difficult to make because Hill forced throws into coverage. After the game, Patterson said Hill and the offense must learn to rely less on big plays and be satisfied “to take hitches, outs, be smart about what you do and move the sticks.”

TCU must limit penalties. The Frogs rank No. 120 among the nation’s 128 FBS team in fewest penalty yards (79.67 per game) and trumped several promising plays against Kansas with ill-timed flags. The offense, in particular, has been plagued by holding infractions and procedure calls. Among Big 12 teams, only Baylor can match TCU’s total of 50 penalties this season. The offensive gaffes have been most vexing.

“Offensively, you can’t play when you’re behind the sticks,” Patterson said.

The defense needs more third-down stops. TCU ranks next-to-last among Big 12 teams in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 43.3 percent of the time (45 of 104). Kansas, the league’s least successful offense in third-down situations this season, converted 8 of 19 against TCU and also converted a fourth-and-22 on a hook-and-ladder play to set up Wyman’s final field-goal miss, from 54 yards with two seconds remaining.

More energy required in future road games. TCU seemed flat emotionally and did not score until its sixth possession against Kansas. The contest marked the Frogs’ first road game in league play. Better efforts will be needed in future road venues if this team is to become bowl-eligible.

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