Game of the Week: TCU heads to BYU with BCS berth on line

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We've been down this road before.

Just last season, BYU and TCU faced off with a trip to a big-money bowl on the line. Bronco Mendenhall and the No. 9 Cougars headed to Fort Worth eyeing the BCS, but four Jerry Hughes sacks and a 32-7 drubbing dashed those dreams.

This time, the roles are reversed. Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs head to Provo ranked eighth in the initial BCS standings, while the No. 16 Cougars are resigned to filling the spoiler role.

Something else has changed, too. This time, Mendenhall's not worried about BYU wilting under the spotlight. "[They] handled whatever attention that was surrounding that game much better [than we did]," Mendenhall said. "But we've had a big game like this already this year in Oklahoma, and I think our team has matured and handled that well."

1. TCU looks to make its case for a BCS berth. While Patterson deflected questions over whether his TCU squad deserves to be ranked ahead of Boise State, Mendenhall didn't.

"Our conference is stronger than the WAC," Mendenhall said. "I don't think there's any argument about that."

While the Frogs face two ranked teams in remaining conference play (BYU and No. 19 Utah), the Broncos only play one more team with a winning record. If the Frogs win out, that strength of schedule should jump them ahead of Boise in the standings. But as Patterson noted, that talk remains premature. "We're playing BYU," he said. "If we don't win this ballgame, [the schedule] doesn't make any difference anyway."

Patterson has never shied away from motivational techniques. He takes special steps to prepare for BYU in particular, putting Cougars helmets on the tackling dummies at practice.

"You know, we do that for about every opponent," he said. "But last year was BYU. And to be honest with you, this year was, too."

2. BYU needs its running backs to deliver. Hall may be the star of the Cougars offense, but as we saw a year ago that won't matter unless BYU can keep the Frogs out of his face.

Last year, TCU sacked Hall six times and picked him off twice. In order to keep him on his feet, BYU needs tailbacks Harvey Unga and Manase Tonga to supply rushing yards and pass protection.

Unga, the MWC's leading rusher with 95.8 yards per game, has scored at least a touchdown in each of the past five games. That kind of yardage will be hard to come by against TCU's fourth-ranked defense, which has given up just 81 yards per game and three scores on the ground and which held BYU to 23 rushing yards last year.

Unga's yardage will open up the passing game and enable Hall to find dangerous tight end Dennis Pitta, but Tonga's blocking is just as key. Tonga, who was ineligible last season, will be Hall's last line of defense against an athletic TCU front. If he can't perform, the Frogs will build on their 20-sack total.

3. Don't sleep on Andy Dalton. Patterson preaches a simple formula: don't make mistakes on offense and let the defense win games. This season has played true to the script, as TCU has rushed on 70 percent of its offensive plays for 225 yards per game.

But despite limited opportunities, Dalton is having a career year throwing the ball. The junior is completing 65 percent of his passes and despite just 142 attempts is on pace to finish with career highs in touchdown passes and passer rating.

The Cougars have struggled mightily with pass defense, giving up 238.5 yards per game (89th nationally). Against San Diego State last week, they allowed a 30-plus-yard pass for the third week in a row. Considering the amount of man-power BYU will devote to stopping the Frogs' 11th-ranked running game, Dalton could continue to cause problems for a lackluster secondary.

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"TCU edges BYU in a close one. TCU is good enough to win even the Big 12 this year; but BYU is tough at home. 24-21 Horny Toads."-- @bscarter

TCU 20, BYU 17. The Cougars have dominated in Lavell Edwards Stadium in MWC play, winning 17 straight games. But there are two reasons that streak's about to end. First, while BYU's inexperienced line has been surprisingly solid, it struggled against the best defensive front it's seen, allowing four sacks against Oklahoma, and TCU's front is just as fast as the Sooners'. What's more, it won't matter how explosive Hall and Co. are if the Frogs keep them off the field.