With a shaky 6-3 lead after a desultory first half Friday night, TCU fans and coach Gary Patterson were probably hotter than an iron skillet on a hot stove.
If traveling east along I-30 to Ford Stadium to face longtime rival SMU before next week’s home game with Oklahoma was a trap game, the spring were taut and ready to snap. The Mustangs were just a big offensive play from gaining the momentum that fuels upset.
The Frogs’ 33-3 victory occurred thanks to a second half that was a stark contrast from the first 30 minutes. After three-and-a-half games of struggling to play like a team that can win the Big 12 title, TCU started to display the characteristics of an improved team.
After gaining 215 yards in the first half, the Frogs’ offense rolled to 230 yards in the third quarter to extend the lead to 20-3. Quarterback Kenny Hill, after killing a second-quarter drive with his fourth interception of the season, hit on 20 of his next 26 attempts as TCU finished with 589 yards in total offense. Hill, who entered the game fourth in the FBS in total offense at just over 400 yards per game, finished with 452 yards passing.
In the first half, wide receivers dropped three passes that should have been simple catches for solid gains. The defensive line jumped offsides three times. Hill, who has been plagued by ill-timed interceptions, threw away a scoring chance with an interception near the goal line.
On that play, SMU safety Darrion Millines – one of the Mustangs’ top players in the secondary – was ejected after the instant replay official determined that his hit on TCU receiver John Diarse was targeting.
Diarse, a transfer from LSU, got his revenge for the targeting hit on the first play of the second half. He caught a slant pass from Hill at about the 35-yard line and there was no safety help for SMU. Diarse went the distance for a 75-yard touchdown and a 13-3 lead.
“We always talk about if you get hit, it’s about how you get back up and how you finish,” said Diarse, who finished with six catches for a career-high 139 yards. “That was my whole mindset for the rest of the game, finish, finish, finish, make up for it.”
(Diarse, to his credit, was all alone when he crossed the goal line with the ball firmly in his hands and then presented it to side judge Jim Murphy, who accepted after lowering his arms from the touchdown signal.)
“Immediately it energizes everybody,” Hill, who was 31-of-45, said of the 75-yard scoring play by Diarse. “On the sideline, it was kind of dead. Everybody was in it, but it was kinda dead and we hit that play and everybody just sparked up.”
The offense, despite having to settle for four field goals, shows signs of becoming a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
- Hill’s 452 yards passing was the best of his TCU career.
- Running back Kyle Hicks continues to display versatility. He had a team-best 89 yards rushing and also caught five passes for 53 yards. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield or line up as the slot receiver helps TCU play at a fast tempo.
- Hill completed passes to 11 different receivers. In addition to Diarse, Desmon White had a career-high six receptions for 49 yards. Jaelan Austin’s 2-yard touchdown catch on a fade route extended the lead to 20-3. Freshman Dylan Thomas had his first two career receptions and redshirt freshman TreVontae Hights had his first career reception, a 42-yard grab in the fourth quarter.
- White, filling in for the injured KaVontae Turpin, returned three punts for 74 yards including a career-best 31-yarder.
Patterson said this week that the team’s defense has been improving, and that was evident against SMU. While the Mustangs’ offense has been struggling with redshirt freshman Ben Hicks, the Frogs played their best game of the season.
The Mustangs’ opening possession resulted in a field goal to end a 10-play, 69-yard drive that featured a blurry pace. It appeared that the Frogs might be in for a long night of desperately trying — and sometimes failing — to keep SMU’s offense contained. Instead, after that opening drive, TCU limited the Mustangs to 259 yards on 59 plays.
The Frogs ended a stretch going back to last season of 181 opposing passes without an interception. Sophomore safety Niko Small and junior safety Nick Orr each had picks in the fourth quarter.
“Defensively, finally we rose to the occasion,” Patterson said. “We played better against the run. We’ve still got to defend third down better (SMU was 8-of-18 on third down). I thought they communicated better. Did a lot of things. We played where we needed to.
“And we finally got a pick. I didn’t know if that was going to happen. We kept dropping ‘em.”
Before Friday night, TCU’s defense had posted just one shutout quarter – last Saturday at home against Iowa State. Now, the Frogs have posted zeroes in four of the past eight quarters. That’s good timing with Oklahoma and its high-powered offense coming to Fort Worth.
The Iron Skillet rivalry trophy stays with TCU for the fifth consecutive year. With that piece of hardware secured, the Frogs now move to the more important business of the Big 12 schedule.