Tough early stretch could prove to be a catalyst for TCU

Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs are off to a 5-0 start but will play their next two games on the road (at Kansas State and at Iowa State). AP/Tony Gutierrez

TCU has taken punch after punch to start the season.

From injuries to suspensions to requests for personal leave, Gary Patterson’s program has been in flux through the first five games.

The Horned Frogs have lost seven defensive starters during their first five games with linebacker Sammy Douglas, safety Kenny Iloka, defensive end James McFarland and cornerback Ranthony Texada injured and out for the season. Additionally, linebacker Mike Freeze requested personal leave and is no longer in the program. The result has been 14 different defenders making their first career start in a TCU uniform.

The only thing as consistent as the uncertainty amongst TCU’s defensive personnel has been the Horned Frogs adding another tally to their win column.

“They’ve had a lot of resiliency; I’ve been proud of them,” said Patterson, whose team improved to 5-0 after a 50-7 thrashing of Texas last Saturday. “With everything that’s happened to them, they just keep fighting.”

As the nation’s No. 2-ranked team heads to Kansas State on Saturday, the Horned Frogs are starting to get some of its veteran defenders back. Defensive tackle Davion Pierson returned against Texas Tech, defensive end Mike Tuaua returned against Texas after being suspended for three games and defensive end Terrell Lathan could return this week.

While Patterson’s squad still has several talented defensive starters sidelined, the return of the veterans has already paid off.

“They were two of our leaders,” Patterson said of Pierson and Tuaua. “Having them back, you could tell there was a lot more of a calmness about the group in practice on defense and on game day because they’ve been there before. The leadership has really helped.”

As if last year’s 12-1 record was not enough, TCU’s journey has re-affirmed Patterson’s decision to change offenses before the 2014 season. Led by Heisman Trophy contender Trevone Boykin, the Horned Frogs offense has lead the way while the defense learns and grows. TCU’s offense is averaging 3.38 points per drive (third in the Big 12), 7.46 yards per play (third in the Big 12) and has converted 52.7 percent of its third down attempts (second in the Big 12).

Yet it’s hard to expect to outscore everyone each Saturday.

At some point the defense will be called upon to carry the torch with a key defensive stop or game-changing turnover during Big 12 play. Against Texas, the TCU defense we’ve come to know and respect stepped onto the turf at Amon G. Carter Stadium, holding Texas to 3.96 yards per play while not allowing a point until the final six minutes of the game.

If TCU ends up securing a spot in the College Football Playoff, it may look back upon the trying times at the beginning of the season as a catalyst for the final seven games. The offense was terrific, the defense did enough to win, and the overall mental toughness of the entire roster was solidified.

After TCU’s 55-52 win at Texas Tech on Sept. 26, Patterson spoke of the importance of that win and the three games that followed it before TCU’s bye on Oct. 24. TCU won at Tech, defeated Texas at home and will visit Kansas State and Iowa State in the next two weeks, as the Horned Frogs open Big 12 play with three of four games on the road.

“This four-game swing is probably the most important of the season,” Patterson said. “We have enough ability to win any of them, and we have ability to lose any of them.”

The first five games gave inexperienced defenders on the roster valuable game reps, allowing them to become key contributors even as some of the veterans return. Youngsters like linebacker Travin Howard (36 tackles) and linebacker Montrel Wilson (team-high 37 tackles) have emerged as playmakers while others like cornerback Nick Orr are proving to be more trustworthy with each passing Saturday.

“They have experience, they’ve played and now they know,” Patterson said of the inexperienced Horned Frogs who have been forced into action. “They’ve played more snaps, so obviously they understand a little bit more what’s going on. Young guys are always deep into it. It always takes them a while to get out of all the fog. I think we’re better now than we were.”

And still undefeated.