FORT WORTH, Texas -- Until he did it, no one thought Gary Patterson would embrace an up-tempo spread offense. Not even his boss.
TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte was among the slack-jawed this offseason when, on the heels of a 4-8 campaign, his decidedly defensive-minded coach said it was time for a philosophical change on offense. “You’re talking a complete departure from anything we’ve ever done during his time here,” Del Conte said.
Patterson had fought the change long enough. After two seasons in the Big 12 that didn’t meet the standards the Horned Frogs set during their conference-traipsing days, the program’s 14th-year coach elected to employ the offense used by the majority of the teams in TCU’s new league home. He knew he was considered the impediment to offensive progress. “They say ‘Gary Patterson won’t let them do that,’” he said. Then, suddenly, Patterson did.
In December Patterson turned co-offensive coordinators Jarrett Anderson and Rusty Burns back into position coaches. He hired Sonny Cumbie away from Texas Tech and Doug Meacham away from Houston. Patterson didn’t want to adopt a full Mike Leach-style approach; he wanted to mix the Air Raid with an effective run game as Art Briles does at Baylor and Mike Gundy does at Oklahoma State. (Meacham spent eight years in Stillwater.) But Patterson knew something needed to change. The Horned Frogs’ defenses remained as good as they had always been. They were among the best in the Big 12 on that side of the ball in 2012 and ‘13. But that only netted them records of 7-6 and 4-8. They weren’t getting blown out. They simply weren’t scoring enough.
This season the defense has remained as tough as ever, but the offense is finally pulling its weight. With Cumbie and Meacham calling the shots and quarterback Trevone Boykin pulling the trigger, TCU has turned into a Big 12 title contender. The Frogs beat Oklahoma 37-33 last week at Amon G. Carter Stadium. If they can upset Baylor in its new stadium on Saturday, they will have the inside track on the conference title and a College Football Playoff berth. Those who have paid attention to TCU for the past 10 years know this isn’t a fluke.
“Since we’ve been here, all we’ve ever done is prove people wrong,” Patterson said. “They told us we couldn’t build a stadium. They told us we couldn’t win conference titles. They told us we couldn’t play in a Rose Bowl. All anybody has ever done since we came here is tell us we couldn’t do something. This is just the next climbing of the mountain.”
TCU’s rise is different from Baylor’s. The Bears were the Big 12’s doormat from the league’s inception in 1996 until Briles’ hiring before the 2008 season. Meanwhile, the Frogs were great relative to their conference for years. After the Southwest Conference broke up and TCU was forced to wander the mid-major desert for 16 years, the Frogs won league titles as members of the WAC, Conference USA and the Mountain West. But jumping to the Big 12 proved to be a bigger adjustment from budgetary and depth standpoints. “We were the New York Yankees of the Mountain West,” Del Conte said. “We came into the Big 12 as the Oakland A’s.”
Del Conte maintains that TCU’s starting 22 was initially as good as anyone else’s in the Big 12. The Frogs weren’t as good from players 23 to 85. That was partially because of the mid-major stigma in recruiting and partially because the roster was much younger in 2012 and ‘13 than it was when going 12-1 in ‘09 or 13-0 in a Rose Bowl season in ‘10. This year TCU starts a combined 19 juniors and seniors. It also has an offense built around its quarterback.
For the past two seasons the offense was built for howitzer-armed drop-back passer Casey Pachall. But Pachall’s 2012 season ended when he was arrested on a drunk driving charge the Thursday morning before TCU’s fifth game in early October. Boykin, then a redshirt freshman who had switched positions to provide the Frogs another option at tailback, moved back to quarterback. While the defense was the Big 12’s best that year, the offense struggled. The Frogs went 4-1 on the road in league play but lost all of their conference home games. Pachall returned in ‘13, but he broke a bone in his left arm during TCU’s second game, forcing him to miss the next five and forcing Boykin back into an offense that didn’t suit him. The Frogs lost four Big 12 games -- including matchups with Baylor and Oklahoma -- by a combined 11 points. “We were very close,” Del Conte said. “We were a lot better team than our record of 4-8, but your record is your record.”
Patterson decided to change the offense, partially to spark the team he had and partially to build the team he wanted. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is the largest metropolitan area containing a Big 12 school. The Frogs should be able to cherry-pick prized local talent. But top players were leaving home to run offenses like the ones run by their high school coaches, who borrow liberally from Leach, Briles, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. “I thought we were losing too many recruits out of the Metroplex,” Patterson said. “This offense is considered fun, and we want to keep guys at home. … Why would you have to leave the Metroplex to go to Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State -- all the people who do what we do -- if you can go 20 minutes away?”
Boykin wasn’t really supposed to win the job this year, either. To ease the transition, TCU brought in graduate transfer Matt Joeckel, who had spent the previous two seasons backing up Johnny Manziel in a similar offense at Texas A&M. Prior to the opener against Samford, Boykin and Joeckel were listed with an “OR” affixed next to their names on the depth chart. But Boykin had clearly won the job. What did Joeckel do after being forced to the sideline again? He kept helping teach Boykin the offense. Patterson believes some of Joeckel’s selflessness has rubbed off on Boykin. “He taught him how to be a ‘we’ person,” the coach said.
Boykin has thrived in the offense, throwing for 1,176 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in TCU’s first four games. He also leads the team in rushing with 260 yards, a 5.1-yard average and three scores. Against the Sooners Boykin threw for 318 yards with two scores and carried 22 times for 77 yards. He has improved as a passer to the point that TCU’s offense is a vertical threat, but his ability to run the option forces defenders to play their assignments perfectly to hold the Frogs in check. That has helped TCU average 6.3 yards per play, up from 5.23 in 2013.
If that strategy sounds a little like Baylor, which combines an ultra-wide spread with a hard-nosed, between-the-tackles running game, it should. Despite his rant at the end of last November’s 41-38 loss to Baylor -- Patterson was angry about a hit by Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon on Boykin and took offense at Dixon laughing on the sideline -- in which Patterson insinuated that Briles lacks class, Patterson clearly admires Briles and Baylor offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery for their X’s-and-O’s acumen. (Patterson’s reference to an off-field incident involving Dixon didn’t take into account the facts of that case.) If he didn’t admire what Briles had done, Patterson wouldn’t have authorized an offense that looks like a cross between what the Bears do and what Oklahoma State does.
Of course, that rant has popped up several times this week. This hype video from Our Daily Bears uses it. Patterson doesn’t mind. “We’re not putting out videos of Art Briles like they are Gary Patterson,” Patterson said. “I was on post office walls in Utah for the years I was in the Mountain West Conference. Utah and BYU, I still get things from them. That’s OK. I take that as a compliment. If they really like you, it means you’re not playing very well.”
If the Frogs can pull out a win on Saturday, Patterson might be the most disliked man in Waco. If they keep winning, that feeling might spread through the Big 12. He’s fine with that. “We have no reason,” he said, “to take a back seat to anybody.”
Back to square Driskel at Florida
After delivering one of the worst performances of his college career, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel watched from the sideline last Saturday as freshman Treon Harris led the Gators on two scoring drives to squeak by Tennessee 10-9. Then, on Monday morning, everything changed. Harris was under investigation for sexual battery and was suspended from the team indefinitely. Driskel became the starter again by default. To add to Florida’s embarrassment of signal-caller-related embarrassments, backup Skyler Mornhinweg helped make headlines when police were called after he and defensive end Gerald Willis scuffled on Tuesday because of a misunderstanding over a pair of cleats.
Saturday’s game against LSU will give Driskel another chance to prove himself, but how easy will that be when the rest of the offense had mentally moved on from him? Florida coach Will Muschamp met with offensive players this week and told them they need to be accountable. It isn’t up to Driskel to save them. Receivers, who have dropped 15 passes this fall, need to catch the ball. The line needs to open holes. The backs need to hit those holes. Driskel also must do his part. “Jeff’s a tough young man,” Muschamp said on Wednesday. “He’s resilient. I met with him Sunday. I talked to him Monday. He understands he needs to play better. … The way he has handled this has been outstanding.”
LSU has had its own issues at quarterback -- and on defense -- but issues in the SEC West and those in the SEC East are different animals. Given how sluggish Florida’s offense was at Tennessee with Driskel at the helm, it’s safe to assume Driskel will have to improve dramatically for the Gators to beat the Tigers.
If he can’t, the next man up is either Mornhinweg or freshman Will Grier. (Both have more famous relatives. Skyler’s father is New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg; Will’s little brother is Vine sensation Nash Grier.) Grier just began practicing at full speed after being slowed several weeks by back spasms, but he’s in play for snaps. Plans to redshirt him were shelved when Harris was suspended. “That’s probably where we were headed,” Muschamp said. “Given the situation we’re in now, probably not.”
If Driskel can’t do the job on Saturday, one of those two will likely get a shot sooner than later. “We’re going to do what we need to win the game,” Muschamp said.
• Washington State at Stanford: The single-game NCAA passing record (734 yards) Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday set last week in a 60-59 loss to Cal is safe against the Cardinal’s stingy defense.
• Florida State at Syracuse: The Seminoles could be without leading receiver Rashad Greene (concussion) and top tailback Karlos Williams (ankle). That shouldn’t matter against the Orange. Those injuries could matter a great deal if either player is also out when Florida State faces Notre Dame on Oct. 18. Jimbo Fisher said this week that Greene is day-to-day and experiencing no lingering effects, but don’t expect the ‘Noles to risk further injury in a game they can win without him.
• Texas vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas): The Sooners were supposed to crush the Longhorns last year and ended up falling 36-20. With Oklahoma aching to wash the taste of a loss to TCU from its mouth, don’t expect a similar result this season.
• Georgia at Missouri: Someone has to win the SEC East. There’s a good chance it will be the winner of this game.
• Northwestern at Minnesota: The Wildcats, who opened the season with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois, have a chance to go 3-0 in the Big Ten and 2-0 in the Big Ten West. Not bad for a group that didn’t appear capable of winning a league game a month ago. If this keeps up, Northwestern playing in Indianapolis on Dec. 6 becomes a real possibility.
• Duke at Georgia Tech: If the Yellow Jackets win here, it would combine with their victories over Virginia Tech and Miami to give them a stranglehold on the ACC Coastal Division. The Blue Devils, who lost to the Hurricanes 22-10 on Sept. 27, could hop right back in the race with a win.
• Auburn at Mississippi State: The winner of this one will be 3-0 in the SEC West. That’s the halfway point of the gauntlet, and with Alabama and Ole Miss remaining on the slate for both, it won’t mean anyone can breathe easier.
• North Carolina at Notre Dame: This looked like a much more interesting game at the beginning of the season. Still, with Florida State up next for the Fighting Irish, there is a definite possibility of a letdown. If Notre Dame can take care of business against the Tar Heels, it will roll into Tallahassee with a chance to prove itself as a national title contender.
• Oregon at UCLA: How does the introduction of the playoff make things different? In the BCS era, the losses these two teams took last week would have eliminated them from national title contention. Now, we get a bonus elimination game. The winner stays alive. The loser will have to adjust its goals.
• Louisville at Clemson: This happened this week. Your move, coach Petrino.
• Alabama at Arkansas: Is Arkansas really that much better than expected? Or were Texas Tech and Texas A&M just not as good as we thought? How the Razorbacks fare against the Crimson Tide should answer that question. Meanwhile, Alabama finds itself with a slim margin for error and plenty of challenging games ahead.
• Penn State at Michigan: This could be it for Brady Hoke. With a bye next week, a loss here would give the Michigan administration a convenient opening to make a coaching change. At this point potential interim coach Greg Mattison would probably give the Wolverines a better chance to win at Michigan State on Oct. 25.
• Ole Miss at Texas A&M: When I talked to Rebels coach Hugh Freeze on Sunday, he said his players seemed ready to put the euphoria of the Alabama win “in the trash” and move on to the Aggies. That’s much easier said than done. This could be must-see TV.
• USC at Arizona: The Wildcats find themselves in the same situation as the Rebels. Last year Arizona didn’t handle success well. After it beat Oregon 42-16 in 2013, it got creamed by Arizona State the following week. This Saturday Arizona faces a USC squad still stinging from last weekend's stunning loss on a Hail Mary. The Trojans need a win to stay alive in the Pac-12 South. With four more division games remaining after this one, so do the Wildcats.
Vintage video of the week
Michigan fans have suffered enough this season, so let’s give them a pleasant memory. The 1997 Michigan-Penn State game was supposed to be competitive. The Wolverines came in ranked No. 4. The Nittany Lions came in at No. 2. But Michigan crushed Penn State 34-8. The Wolverines would wind up undefeated to claim a share of the national title. Enjoy this classic ‘90s news team’s take on the game, and try to forget the 2014 Wolverines for a few minutes.
On the menu
Before heading southeast for a little Viva StarkVegas, I’ll be stuffing myself full of hush puppies and bone-in catfish filets at The Catfish Hole in Fayetteville, Ark. It is an old-school catfish house short on presentation and long on delicious. After the Auburn-Mississippi State game ends on Saturday, I’m hoping Starkville’s Strange Brew Coffeehouse will have some blueberry cobbler coffee brewed so I can perk up to watch the night games.