FORT WORTH, TEXAS - Cameron Botticelli was killing time, playing video games in the Gophers locker room recently, when the thought came to him.
Here he was with fellow defensive lineman Theiren Cockran — two buddies, fueling their competitive fire, each controlling his own team. Botticelli’s mind flashed forward to Saturday’s game at Texas Christian and the coaching showdown between Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson.
“These are two friends kind of doing that with real football teams,” Botticelli said.
Of course, these stakes are a bit higher.
After going 4-0 in nonconference play the past two years against softer opponents, the Gophers (2-0) will need to pull off a big upset to get there this year. They will arrive at 45,000-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium as 16-point underdogs.
This is the Gophers’ highest-profile nonconference game since the 2011 opener at USC, which was Kill’s debut at Minnesota, and a contest nobody expected it to win. The Gophers lost 19-17. They scheduled this game with TCU last year, responding to the Big Ten’s push to bolster strength-of-schedule ratings for College Football Playoff positioning. Next year, the Gophers open their season at home against TCU.
TCU went 4-8 last year, but those who saw the four losses by a combined 11 points — against Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia — predict this will be a bounce-back season for the Horned Frogs.
“Coach Patterson feels like they are going to be really, really good because they are healthy, and they weren’t that way last year,” Kill said.
In his 15th season at TCU, Patterson has reconstructed his team to match the wide-open offenses in the Big 12. His teams went 77-13 in seven years in the Mountain West Conference and defeated Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
TCU has led the nation in total defense six times under Patterson. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys used to make annual pilgrimages to TCU practices. He said about 90 percent of his defensive philosophy traces to Patterson.
“Defensively, they’ve just played spectacular,” Patterson said of the Gophers. “The first half of two ballgames, really … for six quarters, they held two opponents scoreless.”
The coaching staffs stopped sharing information once the schools agreed to this home-and-home series. But here’s a wrinkle: Patterson still gives defensive calls from the sideline with hand signals — and Claeys knows those signals by heart. Unless Patterson changes things up, the Gophers will know exactly what’s coming, and in his mind, they’re already tough enough.
TCU has nine starters back on defense. It would have been 10 if end Devonte Fields, the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, hadn’t been separated from the program following an alleged assault of his ex-girlfriend.
With Fields, “[Patterson] felt like he had the best front four in a long time,” Kill said. “Well, the other three didn’t go anywhere.”
TCU’s defense has remained potent, but Patterson knew he needed to open up the offense after last season. He hired two co-offensive coordinators, including Sonny Cumbie, who was the interim offensive coordinator at Texas Tech for its 2012 bowl game against the Gophers. Now, TCU runs the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
“It’s the same exact speed [as Texas Tech’s],” Gophers senior safety Cedric Thompson said. “I remember that game sophomore year, and it was blazing.”
But the Gophers handled Texas Tech pretty well before blowing a late lead in a 34-31 loss.
The Horned Frogs ran 96 plays in their season-opening, 48-14 win over Samford, then had a bye week.
Claeys said TCU’s Trevone Boykin is “as good a quarterback as we’re going to play. … They’re going to put four wide receivers out there. Most of them are former track guys who ran awfully well in the state of Texas. This will be as fast a team as we play all year long.”
It should be fun for Kill and Patterson to match wits on opposing sidelines for the first time in their long careers. Both coached under Dennis Franchione at Pittsburg State in Kansas in the 1980s, and Patterson tried hiring Kill as TCU’s offensive coordinator in 2001.
“We’re both very highly competitive,” Kill said. “We’ll work our tail end off and get after each other, and our teams will get after each other.”