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Oklahoma Sooners Football: TCU, Gary Patterson and the price of success

How Saturday’s game is just the latest step in TCU’s race to the top — and how OU can stop it.

TCU v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

On October 28, TCU stepped onto the field in Ames, Iowa, ranked number four in the nation and ready to assert itself as the dominant force in the Big 12 conference.

Despite preseason predictions that viewed the Horned Frogs, at best, as a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 program, 17th-year head coach Gary Patterson was working his magic once again, fielding the conference’s best defense by far and getting more consistency from quarterback Kenny Hill in his second season under center.

Sure, these Iowa State Cyclones had downed the Oklahoma Sooners just weeks earlier — on the road, no less — but the OU defense was porous compared to TCU’s, and Patterson had no real reason to fear the kind of shoot-em-up game that downed OU.

And he was right about that, at least.

TCU’s problem that day wasn’t its ever-staunch defense. The Frogs allowed zero second-half points and held the Cyclones offense to 255 yards, 52 less than TCU managed. It was Hill, rather, with his two interceptions and 7.4 QB rating, along with an abundance of penalties, that finally sunk Patterson’s squad in a devastating 14-7 loss. Bad Kenny had reappeared at the worst possible moment for TCU, knocking some wind out of the team’s Playoff aspirations.

But the team rebounded last weekend with a solid 24-7 win over mercurial Texas in Fort Worth, setting up a showdown with Oklahoma to see which of the Cyclones’ top-five victims is superior. Iowa State is unlikely to win out and Oklahoma State has now lost to both teams — meaning the OU-TCU winner has an inside track to the Big 12 title game, where the two squads may well face off once again.

Hill’s Iowa State performance was just the latest setback in Patterson’s quest to take TCU from Texas’s forgotten program to national champion, but make no mistake — Patterson intends to overcome it. The Horned Frogs spent years playing great ball in conferences too poor to merit title-game consideration. Years later, TCU’s small-time profile may have kept it out of the 2014 Playoff. TCU might be surprising the pundits this season, but it’s not surprising those who have watched the program since Patterson took over in 2000. He’s looking to finish what he started, and to take his team all the way to the top.

TCU v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

When Bob Stoops retired this summer, it ended his underrated rivalry with Patterson that stretched back to TCU’s shock defeat of Oklahoma in September of 2005. Stoops beat the Horned Frogs most of the time, just as he beat most teams most of the time, but it was rarely easy — OU fans will recall Steven Parker’s last-second heroics to seal the 2015 victory, or the back-and-forth 2016 game that narrowly kept OU from plunging to a 1-3 record.

Aside from possibly Bill Snyder, whose reputation rests more on longevity and overachievement than actual excellence, Stoops was undoubtedly the face of Big 12’s coaching fraternity when he stepped aside. His absence left a vacuum that some speculated would be filled by Snyder’s experience and savvy or Mike Gundy’s mullet, but 2017 has reminded the conference why Patterson may well be its best coach.

The rise of TCU, and Patterson with it, is well-documented but bears repeating. Patterson followed Dennis Franchione from New Mexico, where he served as his defensive coordinator, to TCU in 1998 to turn around the miserable Horned Frogs. It kind of worked, and Franchione was hired away to Alabama — which went great — while Patterson stayed on and stepped up to head coach in December 2000.

But the Frogs still had a long way to go. They played, for one thing, in the WAC, having been left for dead when the Southwest Conference broke up years before.

Apparently Baylor merited a Big 12 invite, but not the Frogs. Thanks, Ann Richards!

In 2001 TCU joined Conference USA, a step in the right direction, and Patterson won the conference in 2002. In 2005 the Frogs upgraded again to the Mountain West and won the conference title in their first season.

But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that Patterson truly started turning heads. TCU beat Oklahoma in 2005 and Texas Tech in 2006, but when the Frogs rattled off three straight Mountain West titles from 2009 to 2011 they started getting invites to play with the BCS big boys, on the big stage, at the end of the season.

First the Frogs endured a narrow 17-10 loss to Boise State in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, disappointingly finding another non-Power Five team waiting for them in a BCS bowl after an undefeated season. They went undefeated yet again in 2010, this time squaring off with Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl — and knocking off the Badgers 21-19 on New Year’s Day.

Months later they accepted an invitation to join the Big 12.

The move gave Stoops and Patterson, two defensive coordinators lost in the Offense Only Conference, a chance to square off annually. The coaches were similar in some ways — the visor, the dad bod, the drive and success — but different in crucial respects. Temperamentally, for example, Patterson is far more Mike than Bob.

In 2011, Texas Monthly ran an entertaining Patterson feature called “Gary Patterson Is Still Yelling at His Players,” an examination of Patterson’s unhinged on-field persona. “I’ll never forget the first time he got after me,” says receiver Bart Johnson in the piece. Johnson describes “spit flying everywhere” and Patterson “turning sort of purple, about the same color as our uniforms.”

“I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Johnson says.

It’s an unflattering picture, to be sure, but Patterson’s rage is born of the perfectionism that makes his TCU teams so tough. Patterson spent the first decade-plus of his TCU career winning ballgames with the picked-over carcass of the Texas recruiting scene, so he knows how to work with a razor-thin margin of error. Apparently kids don’t mind being screamed at when they win, and Patterson’s teams win.

Until last year, that is — with Treyvone Boykin and Josh Doctson’s departures along with a depleted defense, TCU struggled to a 6-7 record that had some predicting the demise of the program.

Not so, at least not yet.

This year TCU has thrived with a loaded defensive front seven that fields the nation’s best run defense, a true test for Trey Sermon, Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams. TCU’s defense ranks No. 6 overall, a crazy number in this Big 12 conference, and has shut down offenses that ran rampant over Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up 35 points to Kansas State, but the Wildcats managed only 6 against the Frogs.

Even in a loss, Iowa State’s 14-point output against TCU was much lower than its 38-point romp in Norman.

But how will TCU fare against what is, statistically, the best offense in the nation?

“They don’t score as well on offense if they don’t have the football,” said Patterson to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week, displaying his Football Genius to the world. “We won’t get in a sprint with them. You have to control the ball.”

Coachspeak aside, limiting OU’s possessions has proven effective in the past. Teams like Oklahoma State are reliant on the passing game and big play — they try to beat OU at its own high-scoring game, and usually fail. But teams that can eat clock against the Sooners, and generate a turnover or two, stand a great chance against this OU squad. Baker Mayfield will always be the best player on the field, but unfortunately he won’t be much help for the likes of Jordan Thomas (if he plays). And receivers like Desmon White, KaVontae Turpin, John Diarse and former OU commit Jalen Reagor will be happy to exploit the secondary’s weaknesses if Hill can find them.

With the title game as an additional hurdle, both TCU’s and Oklahoma’s Playoff hopes are basically hanging by a thread. But the winner of this contest has a clear-as-day path to that game, with lighter schedules for the rest of November. Mayfield has a history of lighting up highly-touted defenses. Saturday will be his most important opportunity yet.

Stephen F. Austin v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This season has been, of course, a year of firsts for Lincoln Riley, but the first Riley-Patterson matchup will be exciting nonetheless. The two coaches are an entertaining study in contrasts — the high-octane Air Raid playcaller versus the defensive guru; the laid-back Texan against the fiery Kansas kid.

The wunderkind whose blue-blood program was handed to him on a silver platter at age 33, versus the guy who spent 12 years working his way from the WAC to the Big 12.

Oklahoma has always been, and may always be, the more talented of the two programs that will take the field on Saturday. But Patterson’s TCU teams have never been afraid of them, and they’ve pushed the Sooners to the brink in several of their Big 12 matchups.

Oklahoma has most things going for it this weekend. It probably has the higher ceiling this season, and definitely fields the better player. But there’s a reason so many are picking the Frogs. It’s time for OU’s defense to step up and show out.

Regardless of Satuday’s outcome, it’s hard to bet against Patterson and the Frogs to sustain their success and maybe, one of these years, take the next step to the Playoff. In a way, it’s the logical culmination of a decades-long project to prove how far loyalty and attention to detail can take a program.

The Frogs may have their moment, but Oklahoma aims to delay it for at least one more year.