No alarms, no surprises: Not perfect, TCU still passes tough opening test
MINNEAPOLIS — Not far from the site of second-ranked TCU’s rugged 23–17 win on Thursday night, there is a bus stop, from which any individual with a couple bucks in his or her pocket can begin a short journey to the Minnesota State Fair. And there, for a couple more bucks, patrons can indulge in some local delicacies. Like deep-fried ribs. Or the Italian Dessert Nachos, which comprise cinnamon sugar cannoli chips with ricotta cheese filling that are covered in fruit, chocolate, nuts and candy. Or, even better, the Maple Bacon Funnel Cake, which is funnel cake infused with bacon pieces, then covered with more bacon pieces. It is as frightful and invigorating as it sounds.
So the lesson here is that maybe visiting Minnesota is just about getting out alive, debilitating heartburn notwithstanding.
From this perspective, there was nothing too terribly surprising or alarming about the Horned Frogs’ season-opening effort against the host Gophers. If participation in the College Football Playoff relied on a one-game audition in early September, well, even then a reasonable appraisal of TCU would be a favorable one. The defense lost six starters and was without the services of two others due to injury, and it effectively controlled the game anyway. An offense that averaged 46.5 points per game last year didn’t approach that level of efficiency, but the problems appeared fixable: overthrows and false starts and more, but nothing as corrosive as a lack of talent anywhere. And Minnesota is a team that could win its division—admittedly, this may be faint praise for Big Ten West denizens—for which a record 54,147 expectant souls packed TCF Bank Stadium. If TCU made it an easy night, that would have been a significant statement.
It was not easy, though, and the evidence points to another conclusion: The Horned Frogs won a tough game and still can improve substantially, when injured personnel return and healthy personnel play to full capability. And never again will they enter a game unclear about a No. 2 ranking and how it works to weigh one team down and free the other.
“This is what we expected,” TCU defensive end Josh Carraway said. “This is what comes with it. This is what we have to deal with.”
And, again, if we’re being somewhat sane about what transpired Thursday, there should be optimism that the Horned Frogs can deal with it properly.
Minnesota has some evident deficiencies in speed and game-breakers, but it seems as though Gary Patterson has Gary Patterson’d his defense. Gone were those half-dozen starters. Defensive tackle Davion Pierson and defensive end James McFarland were sidelined due to injury. For the better part of the game, TCU had a true freshman (Mike Freeze) and a redshirt freshman (Ty Summers) at linebacker. And that defense permitted one touchdown and less than 250 total yards in the first 57 minutes of the game.
For a night, the kinetic, game-breaking unit was not the one quarterbacked by a Heisman Trophy hopeful. A strip-sack by defensive end Terrell Lathan set up the first Horned Frogs touchdown. TCU later forced another fumble with Minnesota driving inside the five-yard line, the ball bouncing out of the end zone for a touchback and another gut punch to a Gophers team scraping by for any yards at all. This was a retooled and shorthanded bunch that established a tone early—Minnesota amassed just 10 rushing yards in the first quarter, dumping a trough of cold water on the idea of a fast start—and didn’t relent much after that. “You’d have to feel like you’re pretty happy,” Patterson said of the defense’s performance, all things considered.
Naturally, that defense will need help. It is fair to assume it will come.
Josh Doctson barely participated in preseason practices due to various ailments. He is still working back into proper game fitness. And the 1,000-yard receiver led TCU with seven catches Thursday while also securing a game-sealing onside kick.
Likewise, if Trevone Boykin did not throw 33 touchdown passes last year, perhaps you could be a little less sanguine after watching the senior airmail not one but two potential scoring tosses against Minnesota.
“They were so open, I might have been able to throw it,” Patterson said. “You have to make those plays. You have to make those plays in big ball games.”
These were indeed egregious mistakes. The nearest defenders were stationed in Bemidji. Such misses are, typically, gutting errors against good teams.
And yet there were Boykin and TCU after the fact, decidedly not gutted. “Just wide open guys,” Boykin said. “Too anxious, or whatever you want to call it. It’s something that just can’t happen if you want to go on the road and win games.”
Of course, it happened, and the Horned Frogs went on the road and won a game regardless. It happened, and presumably it won’t happen again with regularity. The player considered one of the best quarterbacks in the country almost certainly will perform more efficiently. That will support a defense that already looks fine-tuned, with more reinforcements coming. The team that won a national championship a year ago did so because it had talent that coalesced and improved by the week. The team that won Thursday similarly has plenty of room for progression, only a loss to a major-conference team wasn’t required for it to realize that.
“I’m sure I won’t be happy by about 5 o’clock tomorrow after I watch both sides of the ball,” Patterson said. “But right now, I’m just glad I’m getting on an airplane with something in the left-hand column instead of the right. A lot of people wanted this to be an upset. For us to come out with a win, I’ll take it as a positive.”
How this fits into the College Football Playoff puzzle for TCU is absolutely impossible to forecast in September. An overreaction to the errors and the tight final score may cost the Horned Frogs in the short term. In the longer term this might be the game that puts them in the title chase they were denied last winter. Who knows?
The only sure thing was the result. It was well after midnight when Patterson was asked if he had players smiling in his locker room, happy to survive. The TCU coach said he didn’t know. He said he didn’t ask. All he told them, he said, was that they won.