Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer 416d

TCU wants you to keep ignoring them, but here's why you won't be able to

Coach Gary Patterson popped open a soda, then with a half-smile listed all the reasons why TCU should remain underdogs going forward. West Virginia can score. Texas looked good at USC. Oklahoma is Oklahoma.

Unfortunate to his argument, these Horned Frogs can no longer be overlooked.

Not after they dismantled Oklahoma State 44-31 Saturday to state their unexpected arrival into the Big 12 title and College Football Playoff conversations.

“We wanted to be relevant,” said Patterson, whose team toiled in obscurity all offseason after going 6-7 last year. “You want to win enough ballgames that people take notice.

“But it was also an advantage for us that no one was giving us a chance.”

As much as Patterson wishes for it to be so, TCU won’t hold that advantage anymore.

But that’s all right for these Horned Frogs.

Because as they showed in Stillwater, from the newfound poise of quarterback Kenny Hill, to a resurgent running game, to a hard-nosed secondary even Patterson couldn’t refrain from bragging about, these Horned Frogs own plenty of other notable advantages -- ones that have them primed to be a force in the Big 12.

“People can say what they want,” defensive end Ben Banogu said. “We know what we are.”

As Banogu suggested, the Horned Frogs have already discovered an identity on both sides of the ball, which will serve them well in the race to the Big 12 championship game in Arlington, Texas.

Offensively, that calling card has been third downs.

TCU is converting 63 percent of its third downs, which ranks No. 1 in the country by a considerable margin. Saturday, it was also the difference, as TCU converted 11 of its 19 third downs.

Not only did that help keep Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph off the field, it gradually wore down Oklahoma State’s defense, as TCU doubled up the Pokes in time of possession on the way to building a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter.

“Time of possession is usually a non-factor for us, but this game it was big,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

Hill was the biggest reason for it.

Last season, he struggled to find any consistency in his first year as the starter after transferring over from Texas A&M. Big plays were often soon followed by catastrophic ones. Hill would play great for one half, only to disappear in the next.

This season, he has been a model of consistency.

Saturday, Hill had one poor play when he sailed a pass off his back foot, which resulted in an interception over the middle of the field. Otherwise, he was terrific. And he completed 8 of 11 passes for 108 yards on third down, resulting in seven backbreaking conversions.

“Sometimes you get caught up in yards and touchdowns,” Patterson said. “But if you want to win championships, you have to get out of that phase and get into 'what do I have to do to win?' Kenny is learning that. I’m been very proud of the way he’s handled himself maturity-wise.”

The artist formerly known as "Trill" clearly has bought in, too.

“It’s all about routine plays, trusting the game plan, taking what the defense gives me,” said Hill, whose paltry 228 yards passing Saturday didn’t do justice to the impact he had on the game. “[Last year], I forced stuff. Tried to do too much. I would go too high and too low. That’s what the real problem was. But it’s about routine plays now, getting the right checks and helping this offense roll.”

To help Hill, the Horned Frogs have the running game rolling once again, behind one the most underrated offensive lines in college football.

With starter Kyle Hicks injured, sophomore Darius Anderson filled in at Stillwater and still gashed the Pokes for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, including a 42-yard score on third-and-4 late in the fourth quarter that put the game away.

"Hill has jelled in their system, and they ran the ball effectively," Gundy said.

Yet, as effective as the offense was, the TCU defense was even better.

Oklahoma State had been averaging 54 points per game -- without Rudolph having to play a fourth quarter this season. Saturday, the Pokes had just 17 points entering the fourth quarter -- and only one big play, an 86-yard touchdown pass to James Washington in the first quarter.

All day, while changing up the coverages to keep Rudolph off balance, the TCU secondary repeatedly made competitive one-on-one plays against Oklahoma State’s vaunted receiving corps. And even when they didn’t make the play, the Horned Frogs were right there to make the tackle.

“We made them drive it, made them drive it, made them drive it,” Patterson said. “Then, anything can happen.”

That anything came in the fourth quarter when Oklahoma State was attempting a furious rally. The Cowboys tried a double pass from the TCU 23-yard line. Instead, senior safety Nick Orr read the play perfectly and intercepted receiver Jalen McCleskey's toss at the TCU 5-yard line.

Patterson’s best teams have always featured tenacious defensive backfields. Saturday proved that’s what the Horned Frogs have again.

“Anytime you give me an older secondary that I can move around like chess [pieces],” Patterson said, “then I’m going to give people problems.”

The Horned Frogs will give others problems, too.

Don't tell Patterson that, though. He doesn't want to hear it. Nor does he want players to, either.

“We didn’t listen to anybody when they didn’t give us a chance,” Patterson said. “Well, we’re not going to listen to anybody now that they’re going to tell us how great we are.”

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