Lincoln Riley recognizes the unique challenge he faces this week when Oklahoma visits TCU and the Horned Frogs’ defensive renaissance man, Gary Patterson.
“It is fun. It is,” Riley said this week. “I mean, we’ve had some great battles over the years, and I’ve said it many times: there’s nobody in the country defensively that I have more respect for. I think he just does a tremendous job.”
Patterson is now in his 20th season as TCU’s head coach. In those 20 seasons, the Horned Frogs have finished among the top 25 defensive teams in the nation 13 times — including four years ranked No. 1 in total defense and another ranked No. 2.
“It’s never easy against those guys, for sure,” Riley said, “but it is a fun challenge for both our coaches and our players.”
TCU comes into Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff at Amon G. Carter Stadium with a 1-2 record, but also just two plays from being 3-0. The Sooners, likewise, head to Fort Worth at just 2-2, but are two plays from being 4-0.
Regardless of the records, it's another matchup of one of college football's best young offensive minds versus one of the game's traditional defensive geniuses.
Patterson picked up the basis for his 4-2-5 system during his early days coaching at Utah State under Dick Bumpas and at Division II Pittsburg State and New Mexico under Dennis Franchione. Franchione brought Patterson with him to Fort Worth in 1998, and when Franchione left for Alabama before the 2000 bowl game, Patterson was promoted to head coach.
TCU has had one of college football’s fiercest defenses, and one of its most confounding, almost every year since.
The Horned Frogs led the nation in total defense in 2008, 2009 and 2010 before joining the Big 12 in 2012. Since becoming a Big 12 member, TCU has finished in the top 25 five times. Last year the Frogs ranked 27th nationally. So far this year, they’re 26th.
“It’s impressive,” Riley said on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “I think he’s got a lot of things in place. They’ve got a type of player that they identify and go recruit and develop. He knows exactly what he’s looking for within his system. Everybody knows exactly what he’s looking for.
“I think the continuity of obviously him being there and several members of that staff, for a long time, is apparent. I think he’s done a good job, in my opinion, in sticking to his core principles. But he’s certainly has adapted too.”
Patterson has thrived from recruiting safeties and moving them to linebacker, or linebackers and moving them to defensive end, or defensive end and moving them to defensive tackle. They may look traditionally undersized, but he gets them to play fast and play hard, and the results speak for themselves.
Patterson also is renowned for his willingness to mix up looks across the defense from play to play, from drive to drive, or from opponent to opponent. Man-to-man coverage and zone coverage are almost interchangeable and, to a quarterback, can sometimes look indistinguishable. Blitzers can appear from anywhere. And blockers often have no idea what the guy across from them will do from one play to the next.
“They have a great scheme,” said OU center Creed Humphrey. “Their coaches do a great job of implementing their schemes. Their players are really talented and really focused. They’re really sharp in what they do. You don’t see a lot of mental lapses with them. Always exciting to play against them.”
Humphrey said it’s imperative that young quarterbacks — in this case, redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler — stay within themselves and trust their film study.
“It’s really just trusting what he sees and things like that,” Humphrey said. “He’ll do a good job. He takes preparation very seriously. I think he’ll be prepared for it, for sure.”
“They’ve got a great defense, a lot of good players on that side of the ball,” Rattler said. “No matter what their scheme is, we’re just going to do what hopefully works against them. Just gotta kind of watch the film, go off what they do and go out there and execute. That’s the goal.
“I’m sure coach Patterson has a bunch of things ready for us. We’ve just gotta be ready for whatever.”
The evolution of football over the last 20 years, particularly the permeation of the spread offense, has created some drastic changes from when Patterson played at Kansas State and when he first started coaching in 1982.
That’s what Riley perhaps appreciates most about matching wits with Patterson — he’s not the same coach he always has been, but yet he pretty much is.
“There’s some things that he’s doing defensively that I don’t think he would have ever thought about doing 10 years ago,” Riley said. “So he’s been kind of right on the line in my opinion of where you want to be. You have your core of base package, fundamentals, philosophy that you believe in, but not so rigid that you don’t adapt as the game does evolve. I think he’s found a great balance.”
Patterson told Sports Illustrated in 2018 that, as the NFL has migrated more toward the college game on offense, NFL teams have begun to knock on his door a little more frequently to learn how he’s been successful at defending the spread, the tempo, the run-pass options and everything else.
“Like all of us, they’re looking for information,” Patterson said then. “The new age up there is the RPOs, the read-option when it came up, they hadn’t seen a lot of that.”
He said as scouts and coaches come through Fort Worth evaluating TCU’s NFL prospects, they’ve also wanted to meet with him, “trying to find out what our mindset was, why we were doing certain things.”
At Big 12 Media Days in 2019, Patterson told Sirius XM that every year he tries to come up with a new wrinkle for each personnel group. He said playing the same nine teams in the Big 12 “year after year after year, you better come up with something.
“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is let’s say there is a 60-play game. I’m trying to find 30 plays where I have a better play call than you do, and now we limit the game down to 30 plays.”
“If you can do that — because that’s what offenses do — I believe that you’ve got to play defense like offense. You’ve got to play plays.”
Patterson said the TCU defense is multiple, but he’s simplified things for the players — “compartmentalized,” he called it — because the secondary doesn’t need to know what the defensive line is doing, and vice versa. Everyone’s job is simplified.
“Once the light goes on and they see the trees and not the forest and I get guys that I can maneuver around that understand that concept, it gives us a little bit more advantage to be more multiple in a ballgame,” he said.
“Unless you just really are better than everybody else, if you think you can come out in this league and line up base defense, I think you should get in a different line of work.”
Riley’s respect for Patterson and his scheme isn’t lip service. In their nine meetings since joining the Big 12, TCU has held Oklahoma under its season scoring average seven times, and has held the Sooners below their per-game yardage total eight times. A few of those were only marginally better, so it’s not as if TCU has dominated.
And in Riley’s six meetings with Patterson (four as head coach, including the 2017 Big 12 Championship Game), Riley’s offense is averaging just 4.55 points and 42.52 yards per game below the Sooners’ season averages.
“One thing that Lincoln does,” Patterson said Monday on the Big 12 coaches teleconference, “is he’s one of the more creative people in the business, and that’s one of the things that gives people problems.”
Of course, there is one head-to-head comparison that trumps them all: OU is 8-1 against TCU in Big 12 play, and Riley is 4-0 as head coach and 6-0 overall. Three of those, however, were one-score games, as were the three before Riley arrived.
“The guy’s a good coach,” Riley said. “You can tell the players are well-coached. You can tell they know where to be and what to do. That’s a reflection of him and his staff.”
To get the latest OU posts as they happen, join the SI Sooners Community by clicking “Follow” at the top right corner of the page (mobile users can click the notifications bell icon), and follow SI Sooners on Twitter @All_Sooners.