TCU’s climb up the college football food chain—from a mighty mid-major into a College Football Playoff contender—was driven by a defense that stifled opponents and rarely committed mistakes. Winning games in the Big 12 this year will require an extraordinary effort on the other side of the ball. In a game that felt like a throwback to the scoreboard-rattling Big 12 of 2008 we so adored, the No. 3 Horned Frogs won 55–52 at Texas Tech on Saturday.
This game was an ongoing offensive outburst, with both teams running free in the open field over and over and trading scores seemingly at will. It elevated from “fun” to “completely insane” early in the fourth quarter, when a one-yard touchdown run from Red Raiders tailback DeAndre Washington sparked a flurry of 29 points over 11 minutes, featuring a wacky reverse pass on a two-point conversion to star TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin. The finale didn’t disappoint, either.
On fourth-and-four with under 30 seconds remaining and TCU trailing by four points, Boykin flinged a pass to the back of the end zone to top receiver Josh Doctson. Covered tightly, Doctson could only tip the pass, but tailback Aaron Green ran under it and tapped his foot down for the touchdown. It was a fittingly ridiculous play to win a ridiculous game, one that was wasn’t fully decided until Texas Tech’s last-gasp burst of laterals ended at the TCU 10-yard line.
The two teams combined for 187 plays and 1,357 yards. Boykin completed 34 of 54 passes for 485 yards with four touchdowns. Washington recorded 188 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. Doctson caught 18 passes for 267 yards with three scores. This was a rollicking affair that recalled last year’s meeting between TCU and Baylor in Waco. Yet while the Horned Frogs won Saturday, it did nothing to ease concerns over their thin defense.
TCU entered this season returning only five starters from a unit that ranked 13th nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P ratings last season. But coach Gary Patterson’s track record inspired confidence that TCU could field another stingy defense despite its lack of experience. That confidence waned over the first few weeks of the season—not as much because of what was happening on the field as on the depth chart, where the Horned Frogs lost a cast of key defensive players. It’s a long list:
Returning sack leader James McFarland underwent surgery after breaking his toe stepping on a sprinkler head. Linebacker Mike Freeze left the team for personal reasons. Fellow starting linebacker Sammy Douglas was lost for the season with an undisclosed injury. Defensive backs Kenny Iloka and Ranthony Texada sustained knee injuries. Defensive end Mike Tuaua was arrested on robbery charges. Defensive tackle Davion Pierson missed three games with concussion symptoms.
Patterson is a defensive wizard, but few teams could sustain that much carnage without slipping.
Players lining up at positions at which they’re not necessarily suited to play. Walk-ons being pressed into significant roles. The cracks in the dam are growing larger by the week, and on Saturday, TCU just barely held it together. Not every team the Horned Frogs face will feature an offense as potent as Texas Tech’s—which entered Saturday ranked fourth in the country yards per play—but this game offers a template for the manner in which TCU may need to win in the Big 12 this season.
Quite simply: the Horned Frogs are going to have to score … a lot. The good news? There’s reason to think they can.
TCU boasts a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Boykin; a talented running back in Green; and a skilled set of wide receivers, including Doctson and Kolby Listenbee. Anyone questioning the Horned Frogs’ offensive chops need only look back to last season, when—after a major philosophical overhaul and coordinator change—they ranked sixth in the nation in yards per play and 17th in Football Outsiders’ S&P + Ratings.
TCU has the horses to hang in virtually every game it will play, down to the season finale against No. 5 Baylor. But the losses it has suffered on defense have narrowed and will continue narrow its margin for error. In a season pocked by debilitating injuries to playoff contenders, no team has more hurdles to overcome than the Horned Frogs.