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TCU defense proves it’s ready to shine again in 2017

One thing became clear Saturday against Arkansas — TCU’s defense is Big 12-ready.

The Horned Frog defense went up against a big, burly SEC offensive line, one that featured three 300-pounders and perhaps the best center in the college game, Frank Ragnow. Since last season ended, TCU head coach Gary Patterson has asked his entire football team to get tougher, especially up front. It was necessary, he believed, if these Horned Frogs wanted to play for more than just a mid-tier bowl game.

He reminded us of such after Saturday’s 28-7 win over Arkansas.

“I told you guys in the offseason that we had to get back to getting physical,” Patterson said of the offense, and he might as well have been talking about the defense, too.

 
Mission accomplished. The Horned Frogs held the Razorbacks to seven points, 267 total yards of offense and at times made the Hogs one-dimensional with one of the best run-stopping performances by a Frogs defense in recent memory, holding the Razorbacks to under 60 rushing yards in the first half.

Even TCU quarterback Kenny Hill was impressed.

“They played unbelievable,” Hill said. “Just unbelievable.”

The Frogs held Jackson State to 65 yards in total defense last week. Impressive, yes. But, of course, that was against an FCS opponent at home. This was a whole other deal. The Frogs were playing an SEC opponent on the road, in front of a full house on a warm, sunny day in Fayetteville.

These are the teams that Big 12 defenses are supposed to struggle against. TCU, despite its run of success defensively under Patterson (five times TCU has been ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, the second-most behind Alabama since the NCAA started keeping those statistics in 1937), could be included in that supposition. TCU plays that 4-2-5 defense that Patterson helped usher into the game, built on speed, quickness and linebackers that, in some cases, play like defensive backs. Heck, Travin Howard, the team’s top linebacker, comes in at a scant 213 pounds.

How does an undersized TCU defense shove around a beefy SEC offensive front? Turns out, not as hard as you might think. In fact, the tone-setter came on the game’s third play. TCU’s left end, Ben Banogu — just 245 pounds himself — took on Arkansas’ right tackle, Johnny Gibson, a 333-pound right tackle. Banogu gave up nearly 100 pounds. But he saw something on film, something in Gibson’s pass protection that told him, under the right circumstances, he could get to Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen.

And he did, executing a strip-sack of Allen on 3rd-and-7 from the Arkansas 13, which led to a Razorbacks punt.

“I told my teammates that if I get the chance I think can get to the football,” Banogu said. “I didn’t think it would be that early in the game.”

That three-and-out set the tone for the game for TCU. Every time the offense put the defense in a precarious situation, the defense bailed them out. Hill throws an interception? The defense holds the Hogs out of the end zone and Arkansas kicker Cole Hedlund missed a 23-yard field goal to start the second quarter. A bad snap to Hill leads to another turnover? The Razorbacks drive the length of the field, only to have the Horned Frogs hold them out of the end zone and have Hedlund rattle his short field goal off an upright to start the fourth quarter.

TCU ended up with three sacks and had Allen on the run for a good portion of the afternoon. Holding the Hogs to an inconsistent 129 yards rushing meant Arkansas’ play-action game didn’t work as well as usual.

It wasn’t Arkansas’ day, but TCU had a lot to do with it. TCU’s offense possessed the ball nearly 34 minutes, keeping TCU’s defense rested. The Horned Frogs held the Razorbacks defense to 4-of-14 on third down and 0-of-2 in the red zone. Much of that was a product of TCU’s exemplary run defense.

“When you stop the run your pass rush is what gets you off the field,” Banogu said. “We did a great job of stopping the run and we did a great job of stopping their game plan.”

The Horned Frogs kept players fresh by rotating defensive players quite a bit. Patterson said the Frogs used eight or nine defensive linemen, and even did without Ty Summers in the fourth quarter after he suffered a minor injury. The waves of fresh players negated the “rest” Arkansas’ offense received due to TCU’s ability to dominate time of possession.

Running the football was probably the best thing the Frogs did offensively on Saturday. Kyle Hicks returned to the field, but Patterson said the senior — who missed last week’s opener with an injury — ran tentatively. Hicks did finish with 44 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. But he had plenty of help. Darius Anderson rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown. Hill pitched in 41. Sewo Olonilua had just 14 yards but scored twice, as the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder’s bull rush of a 13-yard touchdown run with 2:04 left put a punctuation mark on the victory.

 
The passing game was inconsistent, with Hill throwing for just 166 yards. But if the Frogs can run the ball like they did on Saturday, the passing game should eventually follow. But Hill said he didn’t want to force the defense to play that kind of a game again, where the passing game doesn’t pull its weight.

However Saturday was a statement by TCU. The Horned Frogs are now a .500 team against SEC teams under Patterson. The Horned Frogs were the more physical team at the line of scrimmage. The Horned Frogs sent a message to the rest of their conference foes that they’re ready to contend. And Patterson sent a message to his team that they’d better not sleep on SMU next Saturday.

Patterson has been down this road before.

Back in 2005, when the Horned Frogs were in the Mountain West conference and fighting for scraps at the big boy table, they went into Norman, Oklahoma, and stunned the Sooners. It was the program’s biggest win since the Southwest Conference broke up. After that win, Patterson said, everyone wanted to come to his Sunday practice. A week later, the Frogs lost the Iron Skillet game to the Mustangs.

That was TCU’s only loss that year.

The statement, the physicality, the shiny new national ranking — none of it matters if the Frogs don’t focus on what’s next, Patterson said. That’s what he told his team after the game.

As for this shiny spotlight on the Horned Frogs and the Big 12 after a 2-0 start? Well, Patterson isn’t buying the whole Big 12-SEC debate. You can have it if you want, he said. But Saturday was about TCU and Arkansas, and about the Horned Frogs imposing their will on the Razorbacks. Pure and simple.

“You guys are surprised by this, that’s why you’re asking me those questions,” Patterson said. “I’m not surprised by it. I’ve been telling you, but you haven’t been listening.”

Well, we are now coach. Everyone is listening now.

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