Unimpressive opener leaves No. 2 TCU with a few things to work on

MINNEAPOLIS -- This time a year ago, TCU was still flying quietly under the radar.

Hardly anybody noticed the Horned Frogs’ opening win over Samford in 2014. In fact, it wasn’t until six weeks into the season -- after a 37-33 win over Oklahoma -- that they even cracked the polls. And even then, they just barely made it in at No. 25.

Of course, we know what happened from there, as TCU nearly reached the College Football Playoff and looked like the most deserving non-playoff team at the end. That history is worth keeping in mind when evaluating Gary Patterson’s team right now. Perhaps the Horned Frogs didn’t play entirely up to expectations in their 23-17 opening victory last Thursday at Minnesota. Then again, expectations are so much higher than they were last September.

“We’re the No. 2 team in the nation and everybody is gunning for us,” TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin said. “We need to swing our best punch back.”

TCU wasn’t exactly at its best in the narrow win over the unranked Gophers, and surprisingly, the offense was largely to blame. The 23 points were seven fewer than the team’s lowest output in 2014 (also against Minnesota, whose defense deserves some credit). Despite returning nine starters on that side of the ball, the Frogs' offense lacked the devastating crispness it so often displayed a year ago.

Even Boykin, who finished with 338 total yards and two touchdowns, wasn’t sharp. He missed two wide-open throws, to Shaun Nixon and Emanuel Porter, that should have gone for touchdowns, and he threw an interception right to Minnesota’s Eric Murray.

“The bottom line is there’s no style points,” Patterson said of Boykin. “You’ve got to throw it to ‘em. Lob it, I don’t care. [They] were so open, I might be able to throw it. You’ve got to make those plays in big ballgames.”

Still, there’s little reason to panic. TCU receivers were getting open much of the night, and if Boykin connects on a couple of those passes, the final score probably looks a lot better. Star receiver Josh Doctson had eight catches for 74 yards despite being banged up throughout training camp. Patterson said Doctson “will be a work in progress” as he tries to get healthier, and Doctson is sure to be more effective when and if he does.

Patterson mostly seemed happy to escape the Twin Cities with a victory of any kind. This was one of the biggest nonconference games in recent years for Minnesota, and it produced the largest crowd in TCF Bank Stadium history. Playing a good team on the road in such an environment has nothing in common with opening at home against an FCS team like Samford.

And the usual sloppiness of Week 1 surfaced, with nine TCU penalties. That included a wildly uncharacteristic five false start calls against the Horned Frogs.

“Our No. 1 thing as an offense is no false starts,” Doctson said. “It’s the first game of the year, so you know there’s going to be a lot of kinks, a lot of missed assignments. “

The good news, Patterson said, is TCU now gets two straight home games -- against Stephen F. Austin and SMU -- to work out those kinks, get healthy on both sides of the ball and hopefully welcome back injured defensive end James McFarland. Then conference play kicks in, and the mistakes must shrink.

“Penalties in our offense are big because we don’t take a lot of time off,” Patterson said. “If you’re going to start going from 2nd-and-2 to 2nd-and-12, then you’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble in the league that we play in. Too many people have too many big-play people, and it’s coming back down the field the other way.”

One thing’s certain: The Horned Frogs won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season. They’ll need to build on their Week 1 performance to live up to their raised profile and avoid more scares like the Minnesota game.

“This is what we expected,” TCU defensive end Josh Carraway said. “This is what comes with it.”