KICKOFF: Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
SITE: Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, Okla.
SERIES: TCU is 9-12-2 against Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs raced to a 14-0 lead before surrendering three turnovers and the last 36 points. Among primary skill contributors for the Cowboys, the only returnee this season is WR Josh Stewart, who had six receptions for 120 yards last year. Stewart leads the OSU receivers this year.
AP RANKINGS: TCU unranked, Oklahoma State No. 21
KEYS TO THE GAME
Slow starts can be a disaster in the Big 12.
TCU has not yet been able to get untracked early, scoring just 37 first-half points during a 3-3 start, which includes a 1-2 mark in conference play.
With a road trip to Oklahoma State looming on Oct. 19, the Horned Frogs are well aware of the fire they are playing with when they cannot create a spark of their own.
"We have to start faster," said TCU coach Gary Patterson, "and we need to play and we can't turn the ball over."
TCU overcame five turnovers to pull out a 27-17 victory against Kansas on Oct. 12, using a strong defense to limit the Jayhawks to 198 total yards.
Of course, Kansas fields the worst offense in the Big 12, which makes it possible to survive a poor start. Doing so against more explosive league rivals is much more difficult, a problem the Horned Frogs experienced when they were blanked in the first half at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
Some of the problems rest with Trevone Boykin, a sophomore quarterback who was thrust into the starting role for a second straight season after Casey Pachall suffered a broken arm. Boykin has the overall skills to become a dangerous contributor, but thus far he has lacked confidence in his throwing abilities and often been inaccurate. At other times, receivers have dropped balls.
"You've got guys open, you've got to hit him," Patterson lamented. "(Kansas) put six in the box to try to take away the run, and we've got to be able to beat some people with things in the throwing game."
Most opportunities the Horned Frogs have been presented have not been converted. They average just 189.8 yards per game passing and rank last in the pass-happy Big 12. TCU also ranks near the bottom of the conference stats in total offense (331.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (27.8 ppg). An opportunistic defense, which has snagged a league-best 10 interceptions, often provides short fields.
Yet as problems build trying to mount offense, some trepidation tends to set in. TCU, remember, failed to record a first down in the first half of the Oklahoma loss, going three and out on its first seven possessions.
"Some of it is we need to quit pressing. Instead of trying to get eight yards if you're only going to get five, get down so we don't turn the ball over," Patterson said. "There's a bunch of good people in that (offense) that are trying to have great years. They need to get a little bit more confidence back for us to build on and to get back to playing the way we can play."
The first opportunity comes at Oklahoma State, which has not yet produced eye-popping numbers offensively while starting 4-1, including a 1-1 mark in the Big 12. The Cowboys also elevated a backup, J.W. Walsh, into the starting quarterback slot. Walsh, like Boykin, can be dangerous on his feet, but inconsistent passing the football.
One intriguing development will be turnovers. TCU is tied for first in the Big 12 with 15 takeaways, while Oklahoma State is tied for first in the Big 12 with five giveaways. The Cowboys' plus-seven margin leads the league.
An unusual Big 12 scheduling quirk forces TCU to travel to Oklahoma State for a second straight season. The Horned Frogs fell 36-14 in last year's matchup, yet Patterson is most concerned about the Cowboys coming off a bye week.
"You have to get used to it," said Patterson, "but I do believe anybody who has more time is going to have more advantage."
A productive ground game is key to the Cowboys moving as efficiently as possible.
That was taken away in a surprising Sept. 28 loss at West Virginia. Oklahoma State managed just 111 yards rushing on 40 carries. Most alarming was the output of Jeremy Smith. The starting running back gained a mere 1 yard on 15 attempts.
Conceding that his performance was an "embarrassment," Smith vowed to re-establish himself as a tough-nosed runner. Why, early in his career, Smith was the short-yardage back who would spell Kendall Hunter or Joseph Randle in goal-line situations. Smith responded by scoring touchdowns in 10 consecutive games bridging the 2010 and 2011 seasons.