With TCU football set to kick off their season Saturday against Iowa State, things look quite different than expected for the Frogs going into their 2020 season.
TCU is starting their season almost a month later than usual. The Frogs had played three games (UAPD, Purdue, SMU) by this time a year ago.
Now, head coach Gary Patterson and his team will dive into uncharted waters–starting the season against a conference opponent at the end of September.
“It’s been an interesting process,” Patterson said. “In almost 40 years, I’m not sure if I’ve ever had to go through anything like this.”
The Frogs’ season opener against SMU was postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases among the team and staff. Despite this, Patterson said his team has remained locked in and “ready to go.”
“We’re all itching to play,” wide receiver Taye Barber said. “We haven’t been able to play so I know we’re all ready to get back on the field.”
Iowa State already has a game under their belt. The Cyclones opened the season with a surprising loss to unranked Louisiana, 31-14.
Despite the Cyclone loss, Patterson sees the fact that they have already played a game as an advantage heading into conference play.
“They’re [Iowa State] a good football team,” Patterson said. “They’ve already played a game, but they’ve had two weeks to fix what they thought they had wrong and get better and used to it.”
Read More: Game Day in Fort Worth
A new quarterback
TCU will not be starting Max Duggan at quarterback on Saturday.
Duggan started the final 10 games for the Frogs in 2019 and was the expected starter heading into this season.
In August, the sophomore was ruled out indefinitely due to a heart condition revealed by a COVID-19 test, putting Georgia transfer Matthew Downing up to bat at quarterback.
Patterson announced Monday that Duggan was cleared to play and back to practicing, but he said Downing would still be the starter for Saturday’s game.
Downing completed eight passes for 88 yards in a backup role at Georgia in 2018. Patterson said he has been showing improvement with the first-team offense and is “fired up” to play on Saturday.
“He has that confidence,” Barber said of Downing. “No matter who is back there [at quarterback], it’s not going to make a difference. We all prepare the same. We’re all teammates. We’ve got each other’s backs.”
Duggan is also expected to see time against the Cyclones.
Regardless of who is under center for TCU, they should have good protection and plenty of weapons around them. Patterson said the offensive line that is returning just two starters (Coy McMillon and Austin Meyers) has made strides over the course of fall camp.
TCU’s depth chart, released Wednesday, revealed that sophomore Estaban Avila had beaten out McMillon for the starting center job.
As far as offensive weapons go, the Frogs’ running back core is perhaps their most up-and-coming position group. Though it is young, the group is filled with explosive talent.
“We’ve got five good running backs,” Barber said. “Anybody can get in the game and run hard and give us what we want. We’ll just have to see come Saturday, because we have five of them.”
The group includes junior Emari Demercado (75 career carries for 289 yards), redshirt freshmen Darwin Barlow and Daimarqua Foster, and freshmen Zach Evans and Kendre Miller.
The Frogs’ versatile ground game should test a Cyclones run defense that gave up just 118 rushing yards to the Ragin’ Cajuns in their season opener.
“They try to allow you not to have big plays,” Patterson said. “They really, in the front that they play, they really play the run very well.”
At wide receiver, Barber and Pro Wells lead the pack for TCU after the loss of now-Philadelphia Eagle Jalen Reagor.
Barber, who was the team’s leading receiver over the final seven games in 2019, also had high praise about what Nebraska transfer JD Spielman’s presence has brought to practice.
“He [Spielman] ups everybody’s game with what he does at practice,” Barber said. “He’s a great football player. I’m just so glad he’s at TCU. We can do so many things on the offensive side with him on our team.”
Wells caught five touchdowns in 2019 playing tight end. With his move to wideout, Artayvious Lynn will start at tight end for the Frogs.
All of these pieces will be crucial in improving a TCU offense that struggled in 2019, especially in the redzone.
“We need to score more points,” Patterson said. “We need to be more up tempo and do the things we need to do, because we have some guys that can really run.”
TCU scored just 22 points per game in Big 12 losses last season.
Defense looks to veteran leadership
On defense, the Frogs will have to stop Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy if they want to win. Despite a poor game in Iowa State’s season opener (145 yards, interception), he remains one of the Big 12’s most dangerous passers. He threw for 3982 and 27 touchdowns in 2019, including 247 yards and two scores against TCU.
To limit Purdy, the Frogs will need strong play and leadership from veterans Garrett Wallow and Tre Moehrig, both of whom made the Preseason All-Big 12 team.
Both schools will test for COVID-19 on Friday, with the results holding the weight of whether the game can be played.
If it is, 12,000 fans will be allowed into Amon G. Carter Stadium, as TCU begins the task of playing football in a pandemic.
“It’s definitely a situation where we’ve said ‘We’re all we need,'” Patterson said. “You have to bring your own energy. [You’re] not going to have as many people in the stands, so you have to love to play the game.”
The Frogs and the Cyclones kick off in Fort Worth at 12:30 p.m.