It’s not at full strength, and never will be. But TCU’s defense has gotten somewhere at last — it can use the full Gary Patterson playbook.
“They really have in the last three weeks,” the No. 5-ranked Horned Frogs’ coach and defensive play-caller said. “We ran about everything we could possibly run in a ballgame on defense last week against Iowa State after the first quarter. Started throwing it all at them.”
Every defense on every team wants to get to that point — where experience catches up with ability.
Problem for the Frogs was, their experience had a long way to go. Injuries knocked out six starters in the first three weeks, and a seventh starter left the team on his own. An eighth defender was suspended for the second, third and fourth games.
Patterson didn’t dream of using his most complicated defenses.
“We couldn’t have back in the second or third week,” Patterson said. “Could not.”
TCU has forced three-and-outs on 34 of 95 possessions, or 35.8 percent. The most were eight against Minnesota and Stephen F. Austin. The fewest was one against Iowa State.
Reorganizing on the run, the Frogs survived an SMU onslaught.
They escaped at Texas Tech.
They lived through K-State.
And they got past Iowa State.
The defensive numbers in those four games were disturbing — 145 points allowed, 107 first downs allowed, 11 pass-interference penalties, 41 percent of third-down conversions allowed, just four turnovers forced, and only 11 three-and-outs in 42 drives.
I’m not having to stop practice for the defense every play. They’re running what we do.
TCU coach Gary Patterson
But in Ames, and for a while in Manhattan, there were signs of a turnaround.
Iowa State was shut out for the final three quarters.
K-State managed only 10 points and 119 yards after halftime.
And a week before that, with the team’s most experienced player, defensive tackle Davion Pierson making his season debut, the defense had produced its best game of the season in the 50-7 win against Texas.
Since then, senior defensive ends Terrell Lathan and Mike Tuaua have also returned. Linebackers Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson, both moved from safety in Week 2, have become the leading tacklers. A pass rush is appearing, as are big plays. Derrick Kindred’s pick-six started the rally at K-State. Wilson’s strip-sack ended the K-State game. Nick Orr had a similar play at Iowa State, when the Frogs played the second half without another starter, safety Denzel Johnson, who was ejected in the first half for targeting.
“It was a good thing Travin could play strong safety, because we really didn’t have anybody,” Patterson said. “Ty Summers came in at linebacker and made some plays.”
Patterson shook his head in wonder.
“Not very many teams can move their safety to linebacker and then halfway through a game move their linebacker to safety and win the game.”
But now the combination of health, experience and confidence might be on the verge of producing results Patterson and TCU fans recognize.
“I’m not having to stop practice for the defense every play,” Patterson said. “They’re running what we do.”
For Patterson, the development comes just in time, with Thursday night’s game against West Virginia kicking off a critical five-week stretch that ends with games against No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 2 Baylor.
“Are they farther along than they were in the first ballgame of the season? Yes. What does that mean? I don’t know,” Patterson said. “Like I said, we might have been the worst first-quarter defense in the nation, and then they were one of the better defenses in the league the last three quarters at Iowa State. So what’s the reality? Hopefully the last three quarters is closer to reality than the first quarter in the next five, or we won’t win a bunch of the next five.”
So what’s the reality? Hopefully the last three quarters is closer to reality than the first quarter in the next five, or we won’t win a bunch of the next five.
The Frogs are as healthy as they can be on defense. Linebacker Sammy Douglas (knee), safety Kenny Iloka (knee), defensive end James McFarland (toe) and cornerback Ranthony Texada (knee) aren’t coming back — they’re out for the year. Linebacker Mike Freeze, who requested a personal leave after starting the season opener, said last week he won’t be back, either.
But Patterson still has options. He said freshman defensive tackle Joe Broadnax will play Thursday night, which would make him the 30th true or redshirt freshman to play for TCU this season.
“That’s like getting a free agent,” Patterson said and smiled.
True freshmen who have played for TCU in 2015: Jaelan Austin, Alec Dunham, Arico Evans, Mike Freeze, Tipa Galeai, Tony James, Julius Lewis, Breylin Mitchell, DeShawn Raymond, Niko Small, Jarrison Stewart, KaVontae Turpin and Montrel Wilson.
He can only shake his head at the evolution his defense, his pride and joy, has undergone this season.
“If you had told me that I was going to be playing Julius Lewis and Montrel and Travin — just go down the list of guys, young defensive linemen — and said that you’d be sitting where you are right now, then probably you and I would both be laughing,” Patterson said. “You just got to keep finding ways to get it done.”
At least a bigger playbook is now available.
No. 5 TCU vs. West Virginia
6:30 p.m. Thurday, FS1
Head to head
TCU (7-0, 4-0)
West Virginia (3-3, 0-3)
3rd down conv. %
3rd down conv. defense %