FORT WORTH, Texas -- You want to know Gary Patterson's grand secret to playing lockdown defense?
Lean in close.
... Just play less of it.
"The best way to win championships," Patterson said, "is to shorten the game."
That's hard to do in the Big 12, where Patterson and TCU have called home since 2012. But the model remains a constant.
Facing Big 12 offenses means lining up against fast-paced attacks on a sprint toward triple-digit snaps on any given Saturday. Like any defensive coach, Patterson wants to keep them out of the end zone, but the best way to do that is to limit the number of times his defense has to try to stop offenses in a conference with four of the 17 highest-scoring teams in the country.
The reasons are many, but it's worked. Patterson's trophy case includes six conference titles in three leagues since taking over for Dennis Franchione at TCU at the end of the 2000 season. He's held firm as one of the game's premier coaches for his persistent 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The game plan changes from week to week, but for most of the past two decades, TCU's schemes have hardly changed.
"They've recruited to a true plan on who they want to be and what they want to do," said Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. His team handed the Horned Frogs their only loss of the season but scored only 14 points in doing so. "His ability to consistently find ways to get the extra hat in the running game and in the pass game, constantly changing up coverages, it's really impressive. Obviously, he puts his stamp on it. His ability to feel the game inside and out and do the best he can to take away any tendencies you have, they do as good a job as anybody in the country doing that."
This year, Patterson is pursuing a seventh conference title and second in the Big 12. Beating No. 5 Oklahoma on Saturday would all but assure the No. 6 Horned Frogs get a chance to play for the Big 12 championship on Dec. 2.
"They'll be as strong a defensive challenge as we've faced all year," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. "Easily."
The Sooners will be TCU's fourth opponent this season that ranks in the top 10 nationally in yards per game. Spread offenses chew up yardage and tire out defenses, but Patterson has consistently found ways to slow them down.
That's been true this year, and despite a difficult schedule, the Frogs' defense ranks sixth nationally in yards per play. He returned seven starters from last year's defense, and nothing makes life easier for Patterson to do what he wants to do than experience. In a year like 2016, when the Horned Frogs were in rebuilding mode, Patterson strayed from making any changes to the game plan after Wednesday. He knew it would only confuse his young group. Before last month's road win at Kansas State, Patterson tweaked the game plan and relayed the changes to his defense on Friday. It's the kind of trust that only comes with a depth chart stacked with upperclassmen.
"You can't just tell somebody do this and do that and expect them to be a great player if they've never touched the field before," junior safety and second-year starter Niko Small said.
Take last week's 24-7 win over Texas that was essentially choking out the Longhorns' offense in a 60-minute sleeper hold. The Longhorns broke out a jet sweep early in the game, and Patterson smelled a new play coming off the same package later in the game. He told his defense the next time the Longhorns sent a receiver sprinting in motion for the play, they'd be setting up a wheel route and sending a tight end up the field on a vertical route. He was right, and his defense was ready when it came.
"Some years, it seems like you're kind of a half step behind," Patterson said. "This group this year, it always seems like we're a half step ahead. We have better players up front that make you look smart. Last year, I wasn't very smart. Now, this year people think I'm a little smarter."
Shortening the game is about a lot more than just facing fewer plays against some of the nation's best offenses. Patterson never said it's the best way to win games. He has championships on his mind, and often, the team atop the standings at year's end is simply the healthiest.
"Every play that your team plays is a chance for guys to get hurt," Patterson said. "The less you play, the better chance you have of getting to the next week."
Some of that philosophy is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but when it's a stated goal, it's closely tied to your success. Last year, TCU defended 77.3 plays per game, the 113th fewest nationally. This year, the Horned Frogs have defended just 64.5 plays per game, the 19th fewest. Only six teams have been better at stopping opponents on third downs. TCU has denied conversions on 73.5 percent of the third-down attempts it's faced this year.
"That really helps you stay healthy," Patterson said.
So even though Patterson won a Big 12 title in 2014 by playing conference games with final scores like 61-58, 82-27, 37-33, 34-30 and 31-30, there's no doubt he's more comfortable with the standard his defense has set this year.
Those 26-6, 24-7, 28-7 type of games? That's Patterson's sweet spot, and this group of Horned Frogs is in great position to compete for a second Big 12 title.
Only two of TCU's nine opponents have scored more than 24 points, and the Horned Frogs have given up a total of 27 points in their past four games. They have two shutouts and have held three more teams to single digits. They're the antithesis of the criticism of Big 12 defenses, and Patterson has succeeded this year in forcing his defense to defend as few snaps as possible. Only two opponents have run more than 70 plays against TCU this year. Four opponents have fun fewer than 60.
Chop off 10 plays a game over the course of a season and your defense faces 120 fewer plays than it could have. That's shortening the season by almost two games. It's not hard to see why it's a metric for success Patterson strives to reach.
When a team limits plays, it can save plenty for the second half, too. Staying on the field for fewer plays means it's easier to confuse offenses with varied blitzes and coverages.
"It's hard when you've run 45-50 plays in the first half and you've run out of game plan," Patterson said. "You've showed them everything you're going to do and they can make adjustments."
In today's college football, with spread offenses more popular than ever and variety throughout the sport, it's harder than ever to measure the quality of a defense.
For Patterson, sometimes it's just as simple as being on the field as little as possible.