FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU junior safety Niko Small remembers the adjustments he had to make, and how much he had to learn, when he was getting used to coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 defense.
“It’s like going from geometry to calculus,” said Small, a good student who also could have gone to Stanford. “It’s a big change. It’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving pieces.”
Patterson’s defense is a formula that opposing coaches in the Big 12, with all those big-play and fast-paced offenses, have been trying to figure out since the Horned Frogs joined the league in 2012. TCU led the nation in total defense five times before that — still second only to Alabama all-time — and has consistently been among the conference’s top defenses.
“I think, No. 1, Gary’s a bright defensive coach, he’s going define those things that a defense has to do in any given game, and that can vary game to game,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, whose Wildcats host sixth-ranked TCU on Saturday. “He gets the very best out of them. He does a nice job of motivating them, and they play extremely hard.”
In the past five seasons since TCU got into the Big 12, only the Frogs and Oklahoma finished in the top half of the league in both total defense and scoring defense each year. They are both there again this season.
The Frogs lead the league allowing 19.6 points per game, though that is 31st among FBS teams. They are fourth among Big 12 teams giving up 360 total yards per game, but that is only 6 yards more than Texas, whose Big 12 games have been against Iowa State and Kansas State — two of the league’s worst offenses. Kansas State and Oklahoma are tied for second, giving up 356 total yards a game.
TCU (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) has already had to face Oklahoma State and West Virginia, who are second and third nationally in the league — and nationally — in total offense.
West Virginia managed 508 total yards in a 31-24 loss at TCU, which was about 100 yards below their season average. A big chunk of that yardage came on 64- and 76-yard touchdown passes in a 2 1/2-minute span of the third quarter.
“(Patterson) does a great job of getting those guys to line up quickly and be in position,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The thing that’s always stood out is their effort that they play with, and then being able to get off blocks and make tackles. … That’s no different than he’s been doing for the last 20 years.”
Patterson is in his 17th season as TCU’s head coach, and still calls defenses like he did in the three years before that as the Frogs’ defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione.
Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier said he saw about six different defensive formations from TCU on the opening series alone last Saturday.
“They didn’t do anything that we thought they were going to do,” Grier said. “They did a really good job of prowling around and I couldn’t tell what they were in a lot of times. … They didn’t have any tendencies throughout the game. They just mixed it up and did a lot of different stuff.”
When the Frogs were still in the Mountain West Conference, they became only the third NCAA team ever to lead the nation in total defense three consecutive years (2008-10), allowing minuscule totals of 217.8 yards a game in 2008, 239.7 yards in 2009 and 228.5 yards in 2010 — giving up between 11.3 and 12.8 points per game over that span.
TCU is still working out of the same formations, though the competition in a Power Five conference certainly is better. And that, at times, may change how Patterson calls his defenses, though the Frogs are aggressive with their secondary like they always have been.
“I don’t know if it’s the Big 12 or just getting older. When I was younger, your house payment wasn’t as much, you’re not as close to retirement, you’re not all those kind of things,” Patterson said. “So you’d blitz and maybe you leave somebody free at the post. Now there’s very few times that I don’t leave anybody free at the post. I don’t know if it’s maturity or if I’ve lost my guts. It’s one of the two.”
Whatever Patterson is doing, it still works.