If there is one area of the TCU defense that has struggled more than the rest, it has been against the pass.
There were glaring problems in the season opener against Baylor, in which the Bears had five touchdown passes of 25 yards or more. A lot of those came against one-on-one coverage, as the Horned Frogs seemed helpless to stop balls that were simply being thrown over their heads.
Since then, TCU has not faced as big a test through the air. But that changes Saturday against SMU in the Battle for the Iron Skillet. The Mustangs are No. 15 in the nation in passing under June Jones, the run 'n' shoot master.
They have not really lost a beat with J.J. McDermott at quarterback, either. McDermott relieved an ineffective Kyle Padron in the season opener against Texas A&M and has thrown for 1,133 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Coach Gary Patterson knows what to expect out of this offense. So does his defense. He says his players are doing better against the pass.
"We gave up one long pass against Monroe; last week didn't give one up," he said. "We just have to keep getting better."
Indeed, of the nine passing touchdowns TCU has given up this season, eight have been of 20-plus yards. Consider TCU allowed just five passing touchdowns of 20-plus yards in all of 2011. There are new faces starting in the secondary, so they have needed time to get adjusted.
Also, Patterson said last week veteran cornerback Greg McCoy was not playing to the level he played at in the Rose Bowl, having given up three touchdown passes already this season. He wanted his team to get into sync, and play with confidence.
How does does a win over FCS Portland State do that? That remains to be seen. SMU gave TCU a challenge in the first half last season, taking a 14-10 lead into halftime. Zach Line had a monster game with 139 yards and one touchdown and an average of 8.2 yards a run.
Line is back, and already has 11 touchdown runs this season -- second in the nation behind Bernard Pierce of Temple. Though the Mustangs love to throw, Line has been a huge presence in the run game the last two seasons. He ranks No. 14 in the nation in rushing.
But what could hurt SMU is the potential loss of top receiver Cole Beasley, who has an injured right knee. Jones hasn't said whether Beasley will play. If he can't go, that would be a big blow for an SMU offense that is doing a better job of getting big plays in the pass game.
Beasley leads the team with 31 receptions for 376 yards. He and Darius Johnson have been the top two targets, combining for 58 of the team's 95 receptions.
On throwing the ball deep, Jones said, "I think we’re better than we were last year at this point. We’re making more throws up top and down the field. We still missed a few in the first three games, but last week we made a couple good throws so we’ll just hope that we keep getting better each week."
Given what Baylor did to TCU, you can bet SMU will try to follow the same game plan.