TCU defense struggles in opener against FCS foe

TCU football coach Gary Patterson envisioned leaning on a veteran, improved defense to carry the day in Saturday’s season opener against South Dakota State while the offense attempted to find its rhythm under new quarterback Kenny Hill.

Instead, the Horned Frogs arrived at halftime in a dogfight with their FCS opponent after allowing the Jackrabbits to produce a 100-yard rusher (Isaac Wallace), 100-yard receiver (Jake Wieneke) and a 100-yard passer (Taryn Christion) in the opening half.

The early struggles caused Patterson to offer his troops a spirited pep talk after Wieneke’s 31-yard touchdown grab in the final minute of the first half at Amon G. Carter Stadium upped the visitors’ totals to 296 yards and 24 points by intermission. And the numbers kept building in the second half.

Patterson said three key defensive starters missed more than half of fall camp because of injuries: cornerback Ranthony Texada, linebacker Travin Howard and safety Denzel Johnson.

Their lack of conditioning showed.

“We’ve got to get them in playing shape and get them ready to go,” Patterson said.

No. 13 TCU eventually squeezed out a 59-41 victory. But the growing pains on defense, where the Frogs surrendered 461 yards despite the presence of seven returning starters from last season, plus 2014 sack leader James McFarland (missed last year with broken toe), raised eyebrows in the aftermath of an opener that was far more shootout than blowout.

The Jackrabbits had finished with 437 yards through the first three quarters while exchanging salvos with the Horned Frogs’ offense at a rate that made it look like SDSU should be added to the latest list of Big 12 expansion candidates because of its offensive prowess. From what they showed Saturday, they’d fit right in.

South Dakota State crossed the 40-point mark at the 12:02 mark of the fourth quarter, becoming the first FCS opponent to put 40 points on a Patterson team in the coach’s 16 seasons at the school. Patterson accepted the blame for the disappointing final digits but said he expects improvement to occur next week against Arkansas.

“There’s only one person I can blame and that’s me. Obviously, I didn’t do a very good job of getting them get things fixed,” Patterson said. “The second half, we did a better job. We’ve got to clean up our free safety position. Our linebackers have got to tackle better. And we’ve got to rush the passer better.”

Although the Frogs surrendered more than 40 points on four occasions last season, TCU won three of those contests (Texas Tech, Kansas State, Oregon). In the Frogs’ last four matchups against FCS foes, the Frogs scored lopsided victories over Stephen F. Austin (70-7 last year), Samford (48-14 in 2014), Southeastern Louisiana (38-17 in 2013) and Grambling State (56-0 in 2012).

But that was not the case Saturday against SDSU, a team ranked No. 8 in the FCS preseason poll and an FCS playoff participant last season.

After forcing a pair of punts on the Jackrabbits’ first two possessions, TCU allowed scoring drives of 38, 99, 27 and 63 yards before heading into the half facing a 24-24 deadlock. Wallace, who finished with 112 rushing yards, broke loose for an 87-yard touchdown burst that erased the Frogs’ early 7-3 lead.

Christion found Wieneke, the team’s leading receiver the past two seasons, six times in the first half for 110 yards and the 31-yard touchdown strike that triggered Patterson’s sideline talk with his defensive backs.

But the Frogs never completely stopped the Jackrabbits in the second half, either.

However, Christion found Wieneke for a 34-yard touchdown strike, then connected with him for a 52-yard that triggered another Patterson sideline session with his defensive backs. At that point, the gap had closed to 45-41.

TCU eventually pulled away, finishing with four sacks and six tackles for losses. But surrendering 40 points?

“That’s not ideal,” said defensive end Aaron Curry, who led the team with 1.5 sacks and 2.5 TFLs. “There were some communication issues. But we were all on the same page by the end. I’m not that concerned about the big plays. Those were communication problems. Once we get those ironed out, we’ll be good.”

In his first game back after missing last season with a broken toe, defensive end James McFarland had a sack and five tackles. He said Patterson told the team to stay level-headed despite the struggles.

“He kept preaching that it’s a long game,” McFarland said. “The first half was done. The second half, we had to go out there and we had to finish. That’s something we eventually did successfully.”

But not nearly as successfully as Patterson and most TCU fans envisioned heading into the contest.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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