'Game time is way different': How TCU handled opening 2020 in conference play

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FORT WORTH -- When TCU took the field against Iowa State on Saturday, the biggest advantage the Cyclones had wasn’t talent or scheme. It was experience. 

Since TCU lost its lone nonconference game against SMU to complications from COVID-19, the Horned Frogs became one of two Big 12 teams to open the season right in conference play. The other – Baylor – opened against Kansas, not conference championship hopeful Iowa State.

Compared to the usual three-game runway that leads into a grueling conference slate, the difference was obvious.

“It was definitely different going straight into Big 12 play,” running back Emari Demercado said. “You don’t have your games to get all your kinks worked out. We were thrown right into the fire and had to figure it out on the fly.” 

Those kinks were obvious. After the scripted plays ran out, the offensive line struggled to communicate and let ISU get seven sacks, made even worse by the fact that the Cyclones only play three down linemen. TCU was called for holding or false starts seven times. Missed tackles and defensive miscommunications led to rushing scores of 32, 49 and 75 yards for Iowa State, a shocking performance for a defense as consistently elite as TCU. 

“Obviously we would have been better on both sides of the ball because you know what you have,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said of how things would have been different with a nonconference matchup. “Today we didn’t have it and we had to play better. We also had more time to prepare. If we don’t change some of the things we do, the result is not going to be any better.

“If we don’t have it, I’m the guy who’s supposed to get them ready.” 

Of course, it didn’t help that incumbent starting quarterback Max Duggan missed most of fall camp recovering from a heart condition. It took until the second half for the sophomore from Cedar Bluffs, Iowa, to enter the game. 

Once Duggan came in, the offense flowed better. The sophomore attacked down the field and ultimately posted 241 yards and three touchdowns in just one half. But still, with such little practice and players missing time during camp, new play-caller Doug Meacham’s office was still a work in progress. 

“You run them in practice,” Demercado said. “But game time is way different.” 

Granted, Iowa State’s season-opening matchup against Louisiana was a disaster. The Cyclones lost 31-14 and allowed UL to score 24 straight points. However, the loss still gave ISU’s staff a chance to re-evaluate the roster. 

Said Iowa State coach Matt Campbell of the improvement between the first two games: “I thought that was huge for us.” 

The slow start wasn’t just a phenomenon seen at Amon Carter Stadium. Texas A&M was favored by 30 points against Vanderbilt, but the Aggies barely squeaked by 17-12. In its first game against an FBS opponent, Oklahoma choked against K-State. 

Even defending national champion LSU lost its 17-game winning streak, falling to Mike Leach’s Mississippi State and Stanford QB transfer K.J. Costello. Cobwebs and contact tracing seem to be the great equalizer in college football in 2020. 

That said, TCU has plenty of positives to take away – though everyone was clear that silver linings are pointless. The new offense showed tempo and spacing at times in a way that it did not before. The scheme helped mitigate some of the glaring offensive line issues, though the unit must improve dramatically if TCU has any aspirations. 

“I knew we were going to have a good gameplan,” Patterson said. “We had a couple weeks to get ready and so the tempo got them a little bit. We got into quads, they didn’t cover it right. That’s what you want to do is go fast and not let them get into things.” 

Defensively, Terrell Cooper’s return will shore up some of the interior issues that allowed Iowa State to run free. 

Iowa State had the advantage of improving from games one to two before the Frogs were able to take the field. However, TCU now gets that same opportunity between Monday and Saturday. The vaunted Texas Longhorns await in Austin. If TCU is going to catch up, now is the time. 

“This is definitely something new to us,” linebacker Garret Wallow said. “We’re at a time where you need to adapt to your circumstances. We just have to move forward from here and get better tomorrow.”

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