- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Gary Patterson doesn't stiff-arm change, though you wouldn't blame him if he did.
With spring practice under way, Patterson, the seventh-year TCU coach, is formulating a motto for 2007. Despite an abundance of catchy lyrics in his iPod, which as of December contained 9,200 songs, Patterson has yet to find a phrase that best suits his team.
"Ever year," he maintains, "the motto's different. You lose a couple players. A lot of things change."
Given the way TCU finished the 2006 season, Patterson could easily print "If it ain't broke" across T-shirts and signs, much to the dismay of TCU's English department. After back-to-back losses, the Horned Frogs adopted the motto, "Beat the odds," and surged down the stretch. They won their final eight games by an average of 24.4 points, allowed an average of 10.8 points and trailed for a total of 17 minutes, 8 seconds during the run.
TCU opened the bowl season by thrashing Northern Illinois 37-7 to notch its second consecutive 11-win season and its third in the last four years. Qualcomm Stadium quaked as warp-speed defenders abused NIU's Garrett Wolfe, the nation's leading rusher, who finished with 28 yards on 20 carries. The Horned Frogs racked up five sacks, and quarterback Jeff Ballard cemented himself as the school's winningest quarterback with four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing).
As jubilant players walked to the locker room, the first hand they shook belonged to TCU alum LaDainian Tomlinson, who two days earlier had broken the NFL single-season scoring record on the same field.
There was only one bad thing about the night of Dec. 19.
It had to end.
"I wish we could have kept playing," defensive end Tommy Blake said. "Coach Patterson had us prepared for anything at that moment."
Patterson hopes the momentum is sustained through the winter, spring and summer as a veteran team enters 2007 with uncompromising expectations.
TCU returns nine starters from a defense that ranked second nationally in total yards allowed (234.9 ypg) and rushing (60.8 ypg), third in scoring (12.3 ppg) and seventh in pass efficiency (102.3 rating). The Frogs lose Ballard and tailback Lonta Hobbs, but Patterson is encouraged by the spring performances of quarterbacks Marcus Jackson and Andy Dalton.
"You just try and get it back," Patterson said. "You try and play with the same passion."
Patterson knows carryover is possible.
As he watched Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, he thought back to the 2005 season, when the highly touted Broncos dropped their first two games before rallying to win nine of their next 10. TCU entered last season tagged as the BCS buster, only to stumble against BYU and Utah.
"There's a great chance Boise State set that whole year  up by what they did the year before," Patterson said. "What did they have, 23 seniors? They'd been there before; they weren't going to be intimidated.
"Our group here has been a little bit like that. We know we're close."
TCU's next step is developing depth, not only at positions that had turnover (wide receiver, safety, nose tackle, quarterback) but everywhere. Patterson isn't worried about Blake and Chase Ortiz, arguably the nation's top defensive end pair (27.5 tackles for loss in 2006), but he's searching for capable reserves.
Blake's description of TCU's defensive identity -- "We run, we run, we run" -- underscores the importance of quick rotations. As a result, he and Ortiz have spent spring ball "teaching the young'uns."
"The quicker they learn the things it took us a few years to learn, the better they'll be in the future," Ortiz said. "A lot of our defensive ends played different positions in high school. Me and Tommy both did the same thing, so we know what it feels like not knowing anything at first."
Ortiz and Blake know just about everything now, and their synergy has fueled TCU's defense. The two ends communicate throughout games, pointing out tendencies and areas to attack.
Off the field, their conversations drift to one topic: fishing. Both grew up on the Texas coast near the Gulf of Mexico -- Blake in Aransas Pass, Ortiz about 215 miles northeast in League City -- and spent much of their free time with rod and reel.
They normally fish for trout, flounder and redfish in the Gulf, but during spring break Ortiz landed several bass at a nearby lake and made sure Blake heard about it.
The two ends have yet to fish together, but both vow it will happen soon.
"We talk about it every five minutes," Blake said. "We're always fishing."
For now, they will continue to hook quarterbacks. In 2005, Ortiz led the Mountain West in sacks (nine), with Blake finishing second (seven).
Blake duplicated his total last year, picking up two sacks in the Poinsettia Bowl win over NIU to earn defensive MVP honors. The NFL draft advisory board projected Blake as a first- or second-round pick, but he chose to return for his senior season.
"It was kind of hard, just because it was right there on the table for you," Blake said. "I just decided it's not my time right now."
With Blake back, this could be TCU's time if several areas of uncertainty are resolved.
The loss of leading receiver Quentily Harmon (52 receptions) makes wide receiver the "biggest question mark," Patterson said. TCU's incoming recruiting class includes six safeties, fortifying depth for a group that lost Marvin White. The Frogs also must replace nose tackle Jarrarcea Williams.
Ballard departs with the best winning percentage (.905, 19-2) and completion percentage (61.1) in school history, but Patterson is confident in both Jackson, who played in nine games last season, and Dalton, who redshirted last fall but has shown "no hesitation whatsoever" this spring.
"To go undefeated or only lose one, you've got to have great depth," Patterson said. "Your weakest point has to be OK because if it's not OK, people will get you."
The Frogs open the season at home against Baylor before taking I-35 south to Austin, where they face Texas on Sept. 8. Though the schools haven't played since the Southwest Conference dissolved, TCU players are itching to play the state's elite team.
"Some people got offered [scholarships] and some people didn't and thought they should have got offered, so you know how that goes," said Blake, who talked with Texas during recruiting but preferred the cozier setting at TCU. "I'm excited about it."
Two weeks later brings a date with SMU, the only team to beat TCU in 2005.
"It's like their Super Bowl," Patterson said of the Mustangs. "We need to learn from what happened last year against BYU and Utah, and the year before against SMU.
"Every game counts one."
Sounds like a good motto.
"We've come so close," Patterson said. "We've just got to find a way to get that last ballgame."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
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