Mature Dalton keys Frogs' rise

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Andy Dalton didn't want to look at his stats from last season, but they were hard to avoid.

As TCU's starting quarterback, Dalton wanted to be a legitimate passing threat, but through the first seven games of last season, he had no passing touchdowns. During TCU's biggest game of the season, against Utah, he threw no touchdowns and two interceptions.

"To see last year and go through my first seven games and not have a touchdown pass, that's frustrating a little bit," Dalton said. "After that, it picked up. But we knew this offense was capable of doing a lot of things."

While Dalton had been tabbed as more of a running quarterback because his stats were more consistent running the ball, he said that all through high school, he had been a passer, and he wanted to get back to being that player. TCU wasn't going to change its run-first philosophy, but being balanced was something the Horned Frogs knew they'd need if they wanted a shot at an undefeated season and a BCS bowl.

So in the spring and through the summer, the offense got together and strengthened the passing game. Dalton started to get a better rapport with his receivers and running backs, and they started to see results.

"We wanted to throw the ball, but our goal was to throw it more efficiently, not throw it more; we're not going to throw the ball 60 times a game," TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente said.

But Fuente also had to make sure Dalton was looking at the big picture. Because TCU was a run-centric team, Fuente needed to make sure Dalton understood that the only statistic that mattered at the end of the day was the win.

"Andy and I talked before the season, and I said, 'Andy, if you spend one second thinking about a stat, you're wrong. If it crosses your mind for one play in a game, then you're wrong. There's only one stat that matters, and that's whether we win or lose the game, and it's your job to handle it,'" Fuente said. "I understand where he's coming from, but we tried to address it early. Not that it was a problem, but that success will come with team success. And he understands that. He didn't need anybody to tell him that."

As the wins started coming, Dalton's play and leadership improved. He became more consistent, protected the ball better and started using multiple receivers instead of relying on Jimmy Young, who had 988 yards in 2008. The next closest receiver, Ryan Christian, had 321.

This season, six players have double-digit receptions, and all of those players have at least 200 yards receiving. Jeremy Kerley leads the Frogs with 467 yards but is one of three players with 400 receiving yards, including Young.

Dalton has thrown 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Last season, he threw 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He ranks fourth in the country in passing efficiency.

"I felt like I matured a lot," Dalton said. "I see things a whole lot better, and that just comes with experience. I know what I can and can't do. I know when I can try to make a play and when not to. I think that just comes with time."

Dalton also rectified his production in big games. He came up with two big touchdown passes in a close win against Clemson and made several key plays in an icy game against Air Force. He threw four total touchdowns against ranked BYU and Utah teams, and just one interception. He's thrown (2,484) and rushed (522) for more yards this season than he has at any other point in his career.

"The thing about Andy is that Andy is a perfectionist, and that is something that's really played to his development," Fuente said. "He does not like it when he's not right and will go to great lengths to make sure he is right. I think as a coach you see it in practice, you see it in his preparation every week. The questions that you get from Andy aren't the questions that you get from some other guys. His development and his knowledge base is quite a bit higher."

Fuente said the reason Dalton was able to make so many strides this season was the play of the running game, which accounted for 3,078 yards. The threat of the running game allowed Dalton that early comfort of easing into a rhythm with his receivers, and once he found it, he never looked back.

Coach Gary Patterson added that it's the experiences that have made Dalton the quarterback he is today. The ups and downs, the hard losses and injuries, and even the lackluster efforts -- Dalton had to go through all those things to appreciate the joy of a perfect season. The culmination of drive, desire and determination all fueled by stats he wasn't supposed to care about.

"All the things he's gone through, playing at Oklahoma, playing at Texas when he was a redshirt freshman and playing in that Utah game [2008]. I think the Utah game made a big difference in all of us," Patterson said. "It's a toughness thing, and how close the fine line is between winning and losing. We learned that as players, coaches, everybody. And that's been the difference this year."

Graham Watson covers non-BCS college football for ESPN.com.