As TCU comes into the first bye week of the season, Trevone Boykin, Aaron Green and Josh Doctson are unstoppable, and arguably the best offensive trio in the country, this much is certain.
However, what’s been questionable so far is the defense, one of the strangest things to say about any TCU team.
So far in 2015, the Frogs’ D is giving up an average of 397 yards per game and drawing an average 8.14 penalties per game - only 15 teams in the country can claim a worse average. These stats for a TCU defense and a Gary Patterson coached team are a highly unusual gathering of information.
Then again, this is a highly unusual year for Gary Patterson’s defensive personnel.
An ungodly amount of bad luck has plagued TCU’s defense, with at least five starters suffering season-ending injuries or leaving the team. Several more have been seriously injured, banged up or otherwise out of commission for stretches at a time.
No wonder more than a dozen defensive players have seen their first career college starts this season at TCU, and no wonder that TCU’s had a lot of on-the-fly reshuffling this year on the defensive side of the ball.
"If you don't like the fire, get out of the pan," Patterson said during a September press conference. "Sometimes you lose players. Last year, we didn't. Sometimes you're lucky. I don't know if I've ever been in a situation where it's specifically starters."
For a team that’s relied on several new faces, now is the best time for the defense to reset, rebuild and charge up for the hardest slate of the season’s schedule. And for all the grief that TCU’s defense has received since the beginning of the year, the Frogs are starting to show resiliency and flashes of great play.
Yes, yes, while giving up 45 points to Kansas State and having a slow start against Iowa State aren’t exactly banners to raise for the Frogs’ defense, consider some of the highlights of the defense in those games and ponder what the team is capable of doing. The second halves of those two games have been phenomenal for TCU’s defense and show several proofs that the defense is getting things together.
In those second halves, the Frogs gave up just 10 combined points to the Cyclones and Wildcats, holding those opponents to a 33 percent conversion rate on third downs and forcing four turnovers, including a 56-yard pick six by Derrick Kindred.
Additionally, TCU held Iowa State this last week to under 200 yards of offense and forced two turnovers following the end of the first quarter on Saturday, following up a second-half performance against Kansas State which saw the Frogs hold Bill Snyder’s team to only 119 yards of offense in the second half.
Say what you will about TCU’s slow starts on defense on the road, but those defensive adjustments are a marked assurance that TCU knows how to play defense. The Texas game also might be a good sign for those concerned, especially for those who wanted to see Patterson get a trademark chip back on his shoulder.
“I’m tired of hearing people say that we can’t play,” Patterson said after the game, citing analysts’ claims that TCU doesn’t have a deep enough or talented enough defense for a playoff run.
The comments were fresh off a 50-7 drubbing in which Patterson’s team held the Longhorns to one offensive yard in the first quarter, and shut out Charlie Strong’s squad until garbage time in the fourth quarter. The win got TCU to 5-0 and back into the national spotlight as a team that deserved its top-5 ranking.
Flash forward to today, and now that same team is 7-0 as they get a well-needed break. TCU took two days off following a light Sunday practice, according to Patterson, before fully padding up Wednesday and today. With one full week left until West Virginia comes to Amon G. Carter Stadium, it’ll be the last time the Frogs practice in full gear until the game.
“I’m one of those that believes you get it done and then you get your rest in between it, and then you just work on specifics when you practice,” Patterson said Wednesday after practice.
One of those specifics will likely be developing defensive backs to avoid pass interference calls, which has plagued the Frogs so far this season. The TCU secondary was tagged five times for interference against Kansas State, and cornerback Corry O’Meally was tagged multiple times for the penalty against the Cyclones. Patterson hinted after practice that TCU’s defense is focusing more on playing the ball as opposed to the receiver, which should hopefully improve the Frogs’ luck with avoiding the yellow flag.
Another specific will likely be an improved nickel set featuring Travin Howard, who seems to get more and more playing time as either a linebacker or safety, depending on TCU’s needs. Howard played safety against Iowa State following Denzel Johnson’s ejection for a targeting penalty.
“Well, you know he plays our nickel,” Patterson said about Howard after practice. “So he practices a lot of it but still it’s a hard thing to do. For a young man, it’s a hard thing to do.”
But for that challenge, there’s likely fewer better candidates or young men to try their hand at filling that need.
“Every week there’s room for improvement,” Howard said after the Texas game. “Every week is a grind, and it’s always about preparation. Any way I can help the team, I’ll do it.”
With a bye week to add extra days for rest and preparation before playing the Mountaineers at home, it shouldn’t be surprising for TCU’s defense to see some more highlights.