MORGANTOWN - Gary Patterson knew exactly what he was getting into when his TCU football team began play in the Big 12.He just didn't know this would be who he was getting into it with.Oh, sure, he figured he would be short-handed and young. It started when TCU's campus was the target of a wide-ranging drug bust in February that involved four of Patterson's football players. It continued through more normal football attrition factors like injuries.It came to a head early this month when the team's starting quarterback, Casey Pachall, was arrested on suspicion of DUI and subsequently withdrew from school.
But what it has all added up to is the sobering realization that competing in the Big 12 after years of dominating lesser competition in the WAC, Conference USA and the Mountain West is just a different animal - one made all the more difficult by the circumstances of the past eight months."Having played most of these [Big 12 teams as non-conference opponents], we knew the competition level and we knew the margin for error would be a lot smaller from week to week than what we've played in the past,'' Patterson said. "And I think our kids are learning that."The biggest thing is you'd like to play with older players in their first year in the Big 12 than with younger players. But I've been happy with them. We just have to get better at what we do.''On Saturday, Patterson brings the Horned Frogs to Morgantown for a game with West Virginia, the other Big 12 newbie discovering that life isn't always rosy in the league.In some ways the teams' fortunes are quite similar. West Virginia was 5-0 and ranked No. 5 before suffering lopsided back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State. TCU was 4-0 and ranked No. 15 before Pachall disappeared. Since then the Horned Frogs are 1-3.But while West Virginia hasn't even been competitive in its two losses, TCU has been right there. Patterson's team stayed right with Oklahoma State last Saturday before losing 36-14. The week before it was a three-overtime loss to Texas Tech.While frustrating, it's no time to push the panic button."Our guys haven't acted much different. They understood the competition going into the season and it hasn't been any different,'' Patterson said. "Usually as it does when you're closer in competition, it's going to be six to eight plays that are going to be the difference in the ballgame, and that's held up pretty true so far.''Still, TCU isn't used to this. The Horned Frogs under Patterson have finished in the Top 10 three of the last four years. At 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big 12, that's not going to happen this time around.No, tied nationally for the most true freshmen (16) and total freshmen (28) who have played this season, TCU's goals are more modest. Like getting the one more win for bowl eligibility.Patterson isn't using the absence of Pachall or the injuries or anything else as a crutch.
"For us to get where we want to go, we've got to grow this football team up one way or the other because that's what good programs do,'' Patterson said. "We've just got to keep moving forward, because once I decide I'm going to make that excuse then they're going to make that excuse."We went through a little bit of this back in 2004 and we bounced back in 2005. So we're trying to win one more ballgame so that we can get the extra practices and get to a bowl game. And if you can get six then you're going to try to get seven and then eight.''In the Big 12, though, that's no easy task. TCU's last four games a year ago were against Wyoming, Boise State, Colorado State and UNLV. This year the last four are against West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma.Patterson will be delving into that schedule with freshmen and backups littered throughout the lineup. It's not ideal, but it is what it is."Obviously it's a little bit frustrating because you would like to have played with a little bit stronger team, an older team going into a strong conference,'' Patterson said. "But I've learned that with the football gods, everything happens for a reason. And so we're going to keep pushing at it and try to find a win on the road against the Mountaineers.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.