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How much better can the TCU defense get?

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According to the coaches and the players, the answer is still “a lot”.

TCU v Purdue
Winter(s) is coming. And he’s bringing his friends.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Why is TCU ranked and Oklahoma State is not?

That was the question posed to me Sunday afternoon by a friend of mine who attended Oklahoma State University, and I have to say, it gave me pause. The Cowboys have, after all, scored 148 points in three games, defeated a Power 5 opponent on the road, and have looked downright dominant on the offensive side of the ball.

They look, by most accounts, to be a more than competent football team.

And yet, when the polls came after following an entertaining weekend of games, it was TCU sliding into the #25 spot while the Pokes remained in the receiving votes category for yet another week.

If fans of programs like OSU, Baylor, and Kansas State are frustrated that the Frogs slid ahead of them in week three, I get it. TCU looked pretty meh in beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the opener, and had a week two bye. But what they did to Purdue Saturday night in West Lafayette proved that this is a team to watch this season, one that looks to be one Gary Patterson’s best on the defensive side of the ball.

The Horned Frogs were gifted a distinct advantage when starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar was ruled out of the game with a concussion, and while Gary Patterson was complimentary when asked how much of a difference Sindelar would have made, sayin g “Oh yeah, he’s a good player. I mean - always, you’re going with a freshman or a senior, there’s always going to be a difference,” - I tend to agree more with Carlos Mendez’s assessment:

Sticky indeed.

Now, part of the reason that they were able to play so tight is that there was zero threat from the Boilers’ run game - zero yards through three quarters and just 23 total (for a 0.9 ypc average - YIKES). And it didn’t hurt that the game-breaking Purdue offense never really got going through the air, either, under the redshirt freshman QB - who completed two big passes on the night (one for 54 yards and another for 38), but had just 85 yards otherwise on 11 completions.

There was really nowhere to get yards, period.

Give credit to the defensive front - Ross Blacklock demanded a double team on every snap, and Corey Bethley managed to fill the gaps nearly single-handedly, allowing for the edge rushers to spend some serious quality time in the backfield. Six tackles for loss and three sacks certainly speak to that. It makes things easier for everybody, according to senior cornerback Jeff Gladney. “They make my job so easy. Hey, we’re nice when we can do that all across the board, [When] we’ve got it locked up, we’re trouble.”

And the linebackers and safeties were flying around - Tre Moehrig’s interception stole the show, but Garret Wallow was everywhere, leading the team with 10 tackles including a trio behind the line of scrimmage and a seven yard sack. Freshman Dee Winters was big too, compiling a pair of tackles for loss and a sack. It seems that it was no accident that they were a little more comfortable in week three, after the bye week allowed the coach to change things up a bit . “I felt like they settled down over these two weeks and learned some things. We were able to move the linebackers around - we moved Wallow to our Mike instead of our Sam, which really helped us. And we played our freshman corner to the field all the time so [communicating was easier] and we played Gladney always into the boundary. So, that helped us also. Outside of that, we got a better pass rush.” He also simplified things a bit for his young safety. “I’ve been saying that he’s a good player. He’s the fastest, physicalist guy - and he’s just a sophomore. Every week, he gets better, and I tried not to screw him up tonight. I called a couple blitzes but I didn’t bring very many. I just tried not to screw it up.”

The secondary heard all week about the challenge they faced in playing a talent to the level of Rondale Moore, and it certainly had them fired up to make a statement. After the game, Gladney said as much, while quantifying the statement in relation to what he sees each week in conference play. “A little bit of extra juice, but we face great receivers in the Big 12 every year. So it’s just one extra game.” Moehrig said the game plan was to stop him, and they did. “He’s a great player, coming into this game, we already knew that, we already knew they were going to try to get the ball to him, but yeah we did what we did.”

If last Saturday night’s performance was, as Gladney said, simply “[coming] out, executing our game plan. We had two weeks to scheme them up and we just executed,” and a matter of “doing our own job, our individual job,” as Moehrig said, what can the Frogs’ do against an offense that might not have two better players than Rondale Moore and tight end Bryce Hopkins, but is likely better across the board?

The answer is probably more.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot more but there’s still a lot more to come, a lot more to grow.”

“I’ve just got to make my plays when I get them, they don’t come over there that much.”

“We can be great, we can be real great. We’ve got a word for it -- suffocate. That’s what we do. That’s what the defense prides itself on.”

Or, as Patterson said, “I think we’ve still got a chance to be a lot better than what we were tonight.”

We will see how much better they can be Saturday, when the high-powered Ponies try and steal one from their rival across the Metroplex.