When word began to spread that BYU wanted to go independent, there was no one more outspoken about the move than TCU coach Gary Patterson.
In a memorable discussion during the dog days of training camp, Patterson wondered out loud whether this would be the best move for BYU, saying ominously:
“You better be careful what you wish for. It's not my job to worry about what Utah does, what BYU does, but I can tell you this: If you think being an independent is an easier way to get to a national championship, you're kidding yourself.”
The two teams meet Saturday for the final time as Mountain West Conference rivals in what figures to be an intense game. It stands to reason No. 4 TCU (6-0) will not let BYU (2-4) off lightly.
When asked this week whether he had changed his mind about the comments he made about BYU, Patterson seemed to soften a bit, praising coach Bronco Mendenhall and what the Cougars added to the conference.
“All I said is you’ve got to be careful what you wish for,” Patterson said. “It’s been a great rivalry. It’s great football. … I just know how the landscape in this profession is, and I just worry for their sake. I hope it all works out for them.”
The games between the two schools have been memorable in the five previous times they have met as Mountain West members. In 2005, TCU rallied for a 51-50 overtime victory in Provo, the largest come-from-behind win in Patterson’s 10 years as head coach. The Horned Frogs trailed by 18 points with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter before making the comeback.
Then in 2006, BYU went to TCU and upset the No. 17 Horned Frogs 31-17. In 2007, TCU gave favorite BYU a fight, nearly pulling off the upset before falling short 27-22. Only the last two years have resulted in big TCU wins.
Patterson said there was no chance the two would schedule each other once BYU goes independent next season. BYU safety Andrew Rich said he was sorry to see the rivalry end.
“The last couple of years it’s heated up because of the quality team they are,” Rich said. “The conference championship has gone through them and Utah. Anytime you’re trying to contend for a conference championship and you have a team like TCU, it’s going to be an emotional game.”
BYU is coming off an emotional win over San Diego State, ending a four-game losing streak. The Cougars had their way on the ground, rushing for 271 yards to take pressure off true freshman quarterback Jake Heaps. Meanwhile, the defense showed its feisty side, holding the Aztecs to 53 yards on the ground. The new mentality comes straight from Mendenhall, who has taken over as defensive coordinator since firing Jamie Hill.
Mendenhall said the last week was tough, but the most fun he has had in the six years since he became head coach, and was seriously thinking about making the move permanent.
"Probably from the minute I gave up coaching the defense a number of years ago, and the play calling just a year ago, I have struggled to find my place, particularly in how to help our team most, not only on a daily basis, but on a game day," Mendenhall said. "And I finally just reached a point where I thought I could be more effective in helping our program and helping these young men to be involved."
Rich said it was having Mendenhall more involved that made the difference.
“Coach has always been a guy with great influence and him being able to work more hands-on helped a lot of us,” Rich said. “Each guy made the individual decision to give everything they had. It was one of the toughest weeks of practice I’ve had since I’ve been here, but it was more than necessary for the team with the growth and progress we want to make.”
The offense still ranks No. 91 in the country and is going to find tough going against the No. 1 ranked TCU defense, a group that has posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1955.
Patterson says the shutouts are beside the point. All he cares about is getting a win.
Something says a win over BYU on Saturday might mean just a little bit more.