TCU's Gary Patterson and Utah's Kyle Whittingham have coached in big games, so they are not going to have that deer-in-the-headlights look Saturday in Salt Lake City.
But it will be intriguing to watch the chess match between two of the most underrated coaches in the country when No. 3 TCU and No. 5 Utah play on Saturday with the national spotlight firmly on their programs.
That the two are defensive gurus is no secret. They both played linebacker in college: Whittingham at BYU, Patterson at Kansas State. Patterson also played strong safety. They were defensive coordinators at their respective schools before they became head coaches, and have instilled hard work, discipline, and unselfishness to their teams.
Their starting points were vastly different, though.
Whittingham followed in the footsteps of Urban Meyer, who helped put the Utes on the map with their undefeated 2004 season and trip to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Those Utes were the first non-AQ team to make it into a BCS game.
The pressure to succeed was there from the beginning. Patterson had nowhere to go but up when he became head coach in 2001. But Whittingham had to maintain an unprecedented level of success. That is something very few coaches can do. Not only did he lead an undefeated season of his own in 2008, capped with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, he has helped lead his team out of the non-AQ wilderness and into the Pac-12.
Along the way, Whittingham has transformed the identity of this team to a defensive one after the spread came to symbolize Utah under Meyer.
Earlier this year, Utah had a MWC-record six players drafted to the NFL. The six drafted equaled Utah’s total from the 2007-09 drafts. Five of those six were defensive players. While the offense did not lose as much as the defense, the stories this season have focused on the revamped defense.
Of course, the success Utah has had has not come as a shock to Patterson. “I knew what kind of football team they had coming back. Any time they have a returning quarterback and solid backs along with a strong offensive line coming back, two good corners, you’re going to have a chance to be successful.”
Whereas Utah has come out of nowhere because not many expected the defensive transformation to happen so quickly, TCU had the pressure on from the start. With 16 returning starters, the Horned Frogs were the preseason No. 6 team in the AP poll. Utah was in the “receiving votes” category.
Patterson had to replace his two best players in Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington along with his two starting cornerbacks. What he likes to say about his defense right now is this: “We lost some real high-profile guys last year and for us to play together we were going to have to hunt together, and we’ve done that.”
TCU is aiming for its third straight season leading the nation in total defense. Since the NCAA began tracking statistics in 1937, TCU is tied with Alabama and Auburn for the most No. 1 rankings in total defense at four. All four of those top marks (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009) are under Patterson.
The litany of defensive statistics goes on and on in the TCU game notes. In addition to being No. 1 in total defense, TCU leads the nation in scoring defense, pass defense, fewest first downs allowed per game and opponent third-down conversion percentage. TCU is the only team in the nation to hold each opponent under 200 yards passing.
TCU runs a unique 4-2-5 scheme, but it is the players that are the key. Utah offensive coordinator Dave Schramm noted it is Patterson’s vision that has come through on the defense, because he is able to recruit athletes to fit that scheme.
“Gary and their staff have done a great job recruiting to that system,” Schramm said. “They do a great job of evaluating talent and bringing them in and making them something they weren’t in high school.”
Many have described Patterson as a “grinder” and his team has taken on that persona. You could say the same for a Utah team that came into the season with several question marks on defense after losing seven starters. But what has emerged is an unselfish unit that has the best chemistry Whittingham says he has seen in his 16 years at Utah.
The defense has been aggressive. The linebackers have stepped up big. The defensive line rotates in 11 players. Just like TCU, Utah is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, opponent first downs, opponent third-down conversions and opponent fourth-down conversions.
Both coaches have won big games. But which coach will make the right calls to lead his team to victory?