FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) TCU is finally starting to resemble a Gary Patterson defense again.
After so many injuries to key players and using 16 first-time starters, the fifth-ranked Horned Frogs have allowed only one touchdown in the past seven quarters. Their last four opponents have scored a combined 17 points after halftime.
''We're just playing faster, not thinking as much'' said Patterson, who still runs TCU's 4-2-5 scheme like he did as defensive coordinator before becoming head coach 15 years ago.
The improvement comes at the right time with the playoff-contending Frogs (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) heading into their toughest stretch of the season. They play Saturday at 12th-ranked Oklahoma State (8-0, 5-0), and still have games left against the Big 12's other ranked championship contenders - 14th-ranked Oklahoma and second-ranked Baylor.
''Now that we've got guys back every week, we've played a little bit better, and I expect them to keep doing that as we go along, even though the competition is going to get tough,'' Patterson said. ''That's what you have to do if you want to try to win a championship.''
The Frogs are coming off a 40-10 win over West Virginia, which was held to 327 total yards after an FBS-best streak of 27 consecutive games with at least 350 yards. The Mountaineers have been held to fewer points in a Big 12 game only once in their four seasons in the league.
Pierson is the Frogs' most experienced TCU starter with 35 career starts, 10 more than senior safety Derrick Kindred, the only returning starter from last year's defense who didn't graduate, leave for the NFL draft or get sidelined by injury. Pierson was out early because of a concussion and recurring symptoms.
''Like a spark, he comes back with all this energy, his craziness. We just feed of him, great to have him back,'' defensive tackle Aaron Curry said of Pierson. ''He has this energy about him that everybody feeds off.''
Curry, not counted among the 16 first-time starters, started eight games at Nebraska in 2013 before transferring to TCU and sitting out last season.
Patterson had never started a freshman linebacker in his 15 seasons as head coach until this season, and he's now used two of them. Mike Freeze started the opener before leaving the program for personal reasons, and Montrel Wilson started the last seven games though he is uncertain for Saturday after injuring his shoulder against WVU.
Senior defensive end James McFarland broke his toe on a sprinkler head before the season is among several players that could possibly return next season. Senior defensive backs Kenny Iloka and Ranthony Texada both sustained season-ending knee injuries the opening month, after sophomore linebacker Sammy Douglas got hurt in the opener.
Still, the Horned Frogs are the only Big 12 team with at least three conference games shutting out opponents at least three quarters. They have held league opponents scoreless in 10 different quarters, matching Oklahoma for the most.
''Those older guys getting back, and really to be honest with you, just the same guys playing together,'' Patterson said. ''You have got to find a way to win. That's why I take my hat off to my kids. They found a way to do that.''
AP College Football Website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org