FORT WORTH, Texas -- The ESPN College GameDay visit to the TCU-West Virginia game on Saturday – the crew’s first visit here since 2009 – will shine a national spotlight on TCU’s athletic department, university and also the city.
But it will also highlight one of the constants in college football for nearly two decades: the well-respected, schematic, defensive mind of coach Gary Patterson.
Five times during his 17-year tenure, TCU has led the nation in total defense. And this season’s resurgence – rising to No. 8 in the top 25 after being projected to lurk in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 – is largely due to this veteran defensive unit playing more like a Patterson-esque defense.
“I get too much credit,” Patterson said Tuesday. “I hear the word guru and all this kind of stuff. Let me tell you why people are good at what they do: Because you have good players and you have a lot of hard work that goes in. Period.”
The Horned Frogs (4-0) are tied for third nationally with three defensive touchdowns this season. They rank first or second in the league in rushing defense, sacks, total defense and scoring defense. More noteworthy, they schemed up a way to harass Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and intercept three passes in the surprising Sept. 23 win in Stillwater.
Now in a fitting marquee matchup, we’ll see how Patterson devises a plan to slow down a West Virginia team that trounced TCU by 24 points last season. But these 23rd-ranked Mountaineers (3-1) are different.
Florida transfer Will Grier is quarterbacking, ranking sixth nationally in passing touchdowns. Justin Crawford leads the Big 12 in rushing yards. And coach Dana Holgorsen has turned over play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
With the bye week to prepare, Patterson didn’t merely dissect every West Virginia game this season, or Grier’s six games at Florida in 2015. He also examined Spavital’s offensive tendencies dating back to his coordinator days at California (2016) and even at Texas A&M (2013-2015).
Patterson said he got to bed about 2:05 a.m. in the morning Monday night because, “We’re looking for a way to slow them down.”
“It’s wild,” TCU safety Niko Small said. “Sometimes you sit back and be like, ‘This man is a genius.’ He calls it common sense. But we’re like, ‘Wow, where are you getting this from?’ To see him put things from paper to field, it’s amazing … He can take regular things and make them extraordinary.”
The way Patterson sees it, he’s coached nine different types of defenses in 35 years. And with each style, he’s needed to also wear the hat of a marketer, trying to convince players that that particular style is the best ever played.
Patterson referenced an old quote by another defensive savant, Bill Belichick, who described part of his philosophy as trying to make an offense “play left-handed,” meaning playing without their strengths.
That’s not easy to teach with inexperienced college players, Patterson conceded. This season, though, eight of his 11 defensive starters are juniors or seniors. Having that experience in the secondary in particular, he said, allows him to maneuver players like chess pieces.
Small has been in the system three years. So at this point, he said, there are times he and teammates will watch other defenses on television and see players make ill-advised plays and think, “Coach P would be mad if he saw us do that.” But he acknowledged that learning Patterson’s defense is a daunting undertaking for any player new to the system.
Small likened it to advancing straight from geometry to calculus because “there’s a lot of moving parts to the defense. You have to play with your mind more. It’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical in this defense.”
Patterson said it isn’t all that complicated. He teaches a base defense and then a specific game plan. In a game, if the opposing offense runs 60 plays in a game, he said, he’d want his defense to be superior on at least 30 of them.
That will be the challenge Saturday. Offensive-minded Holgorsen and his new play caller will be pitted against Patterson’s opportunistic defense. Consider it advanced chess.
On Tuesday, someone asked Patterson if Holgorsen had consulted him for advice before choosing to surrender his play-calling duties in the offseason.
“He wouldn’t ask me about offense,” Patterson said. “He might ask me about defense.”