Growing pains taught QB how to lead

FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU coach Gary Patterson started to see a change in quarterback Andy Dalton's attitude at the end of last season.

Dalton, then a sophomore, was no longer the quiet kid content to let others take charge.

"Young leaders ask in the huddle; older leaders demand," Patterson said. "That's where Andy's changed. He's demanding now."

Dalton's numbers aren't as gaudy as those of some quarterbacks being mentioned for Heisman consideration, which may be a reason he doesn't get as much national attention. But he has a keen understanding of TCU's offense and how he can impact games with his arm and his feet. And he's proved to be an accurate passer who doesn't make mistakes, two critical components to winning on the road and in big games.

"He's a guy that leads by example, and he does all the little things you need to win games," defensive end Jerry Hughes said. "He's a winner."

Earlier this season, dealing with a loud crowd and hard rain, he threw the winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter at Clemson. Dalton went into BYU and quieted a packed stadium with two early touchdown drives en route to a 38-7 win. Now, Dalton takes his undefeated team into Saturday's showdown with No. 14 Utah.

"The game has slowed down for me. I didn't know what that meant a few years ago, but now I do," Dalton said. "When you go into meetings as a freshman, you're still thinking about what the offense is doing. Now, I'm thinking, 'This is what the defense is doing and if this guy does this, then that will probably happen.' You just see things quicker and know what to do."

That mature approach has been years in the making. Dalton was redshirted in 2006 after leading Katy to a 14-1 record and an appearance in the Class 5A state championship game.

Dalton was handed TCU's starting job in 2007 and showed flashes of potential and plenty of mistakes. He threw for more than 2,450 yards and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. But he had one more interception (11) than touchdown, and the Frogs went 8-5.

He was up and down that freshman season. Consider:

  • In Dalton's second game, he faced the No. 7 Longhorns in Austin. TCU led 10-0 at halftime, but four turnovers including a Dalton interception sent the Frogs to a 34-13 defeat.

  • The next week, Dalton led TCU on a late fourth-quarter drive against Air Force with the score tied. But he threw an interception with 42 seconds left that prevented the Frogs from attempting a game-winning field goal. Air Force won by three in overtime.

  • In early October, with 8:20 remaining against Wyoming, Dalton orchestrated two scoring drives to cut a 24-6 deficit to three points. With 1:25 left, Dalton led his team from its own 20-yard line to the Wyoming 31. But TCU missed the tying field goal as time expired.

  • Dalton played his worst game of the season at home against Utah in October. He had four interceptions -- including one returned 55 yards for a touchdown -- and was just 20-for-45 passing in a 27-20 loss.

  • Dalton learned some very valuable lessons about the difficulties of road games and playing top opponents. The experiences helped better prepare him for 2008.

    "He was much better than that first big game played at Texas in that kind of environment," Patterson said. "You want to see improvement, and we saw that with Andy."

    Dalton led TCU to an 11-2 record last season, losing just one conference game. He didn't throw for quite as many yards (2,242) as his freshman season, but he added the run dimension to his game.

    TCU used Dalton on zone-option plays, trusting him to read the defense and decide whether to keep the ball or hand it off. He rushed for 432 yards and forced opponents to account for him on the ground and in the air.

    That balanced attack was evident in his final game of last season, a 17-16 win over previously undefeated Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Dalton was the game's MVP, completing 22 of 35 passes for 197 yards and adding 74 rushing yards on 16 carries. On the sidelines, he made sure his teammates believed that they'd do whatever they had to do to win the game.

    That has carried over into this season.

    "I think I'm a big motivator on the field," Dalton said. "I try to be. I've really focused on that this year. When things are going our way, I want to keep everybody up and let them know that we'll be fine. I'm not necessarily the guy that's going to get in your face and scream at you or anything like that. I'll say what I need to, but I like my actions to show what I'm about."

    Those actions have impressed opposing coaches, who must spend quality time each week preparing for a quarterback who has become one of the best in the Mountain West Conference.

    "I think, like the emergence of any leader, it goes from a level of uncertainty and excitement and pure passion to knowledge, maturity, poise and execution and seeing things from a broader perspective," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "He has more command of the offense and the team in general. It shows he has a clear understanding of the situations he's in. He manages the game very effectively through the air and on the ground.

    "TCU is very fortunate to have him, and he's a very good player."

    Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail richard.durrett@espn3.com.