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TCU run game cooks SMU in second half to maintain Iron Skillet, 34-17

Horned Frogs pull away behind Emani Bailey’s 108 rushing yards in the second half alone.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Iron Skillet is fading before our very eyes. Back in August, it was revealed that the longstanding rivalry between the two Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex programs would be placed on hiatus after 2025.

On a sizzling Saturday atmosphere with temperatures perfectly associated with the rivalry’s namesake, TCU hosted the first iteration of the Iron Skillet since we’ve learned of the series’ nearing demise. For the second consecutive meeting, that coveted frying pan wound up in the hands of TCU, which staved off SMU in 34-17 fashion.

“It was a little sloppy at times, particularly in the fourth quarter,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We really could have pulled away and separated ourselves a little bit. It was hot, but I thought we grinded through it. I thought our players played with a lot of enthusiasm, which is good to see.”

SMU had been renowned for signature offenses in past years, finishing top 15 in scoring every season since 2019 while failing to rank above 75th in points allowed per game since 2013. Yet in a recurring theme which was observed Week 2 in the 28-11 loss to Oklahoma, the Mustangs’ defense kept them competitive for most of the contest while the offense struggled to finish drives — starting from the opening drive where they kicked a field goal from the 6-yard line.

“In the first half, we did a good job of having long drives so it was back and forth,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said. “That’s the deal, offensively, we’re not playing bad, but we’re not playing good. We’re moving the football on just about anybody we play — two teams that will contend to win the Big 12 and have really good defenses — but you can’t win scoring 17 points and you can’t win if you’re only playing between the 20 and 25-yard lines.”

It wasn’t the finest day for an SMU offense fresh off a landslide 69-0 victory over an FCS opponent. While the run game thrived to a moderate extent thanks to Camar Wheaton’s 73 yards, more inconsistencies were prevalent in the aerial department. Quarterback Preston Stone completed just 16-of-35 attempts, but he still moved the offense downfield with 258 passing yards in the defeat. The Mustangs invaded TCU territory on a regular basis, but a pair of failed fourth down conversions inside the Horned Frogs’ 40-yard line derailed possessions while the game was still within reach.

“When you’re playing big-time games, rivalry games, when you’re going up against a good team and the guys around you are playing well, the defense is getting stops — it’s the quarterback who has to step up and make plays and get the team going,” Stone said. “I don’t feel like I did that today.”

SMU QB Preston Stone finished with 258 passing yards on 16 attempts in his first time facing TCU as a starter.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

TCU entered the contest with the nation’s 19th ranked rushing attack, but SMU stonewalled the Horned Frogs to a mere 26 yards on 18 attempts in the first half, causing the Mustangs to only trail 14-10 at the break.

“We did a really good job in the first half stopping the run,” Lashlee said. “In the second half, they got a lot more running the football. And that hurt, that’s why they were able to stay on the field longer. They were able to win the line of scrimmage in the second half better than they did in the first half. I don’t know if they worse us down or just executed us better — I’ll have to see.”

As Lashlee referenced, TCU’s frustrations in the run game transformed into a strength after halftime, generating 122 rushing yards in the third quarter on 7.6 per carry. Running back Emani Bailey entered the week as the nation’s sixth leading rusher and he added to an impressive season résumé with 126 rushing yards — posting 108 yards in the second half alone.

“You could start to see our physicality in the third quarter and both lines of scrimmage start to take over the game, which is what we’ve talked about that all week,” Dykes said. “You just keep leaning on the guys and I was proud of them for doing that. I thought that was obviously a difference in the ballgame.”

After winning the third quarter 13-0, the Horned Frogs’ secondary left their mark all over the latter portion of the game. SMU was turnover free until the final play of the third, when star cornerback Josh Newton intercepted a pass in TCU territory and toted it 53 yards down to the SMU 10. While TCU failed to register points with the luxurious field position, the defense responded magnificently with a second interception. This time, free safety Bud Clark snatched a ball in the end zone to conclude the Mustangs’ fifth consecutive scoreless possession.

After allowing six touchdowns to Colorado in the opener, TCU’s defense — which returns the majority of starters from its 2022 College Football Playoff run — has witnessed an immediate turnaround, only allowing two touchdowns in the past 12 quarters — both to SMU on Saturday.

“Staying loyal to each other,” Newton said on the defense’s in-season improvement. “Especially when we’re down or when the game is close, just don’t flinch, don’t blink. We made a lot of adjustments in practice. It’s been foot on the gas. Coach Dykes has been doing a great job about that, you know, just pushing us, pushing us, pushing us and we know if we practice the way we practice, we are going to get the result we want. The reason we’ve been coming out on top the last few weeks is because of the way we practice.”

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Texas Christian
TCU defensive backs Josh Newton and Bud Clark both registered an interception in the Frogs’ 34-17 rivalry win.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Horned Frogs improved to 3-1, while SMU concluded non-conference play at 2-2 — with a pair of hard-fought road losses to Big 12 competition in Oklahoma and TCU. But after playing strong defensive spurts against quality, up-tempo offenses, Lashlee holds faith in what his team can accomplish as its final conference slate as an AAC member approaches.

“It gives you confidence, but we expected to compete in these games,” Lashlee said of the defensive performances in non-conference play. “We’ve got to find a way to pick ourselves up and we’ve got a home conference opener next week and we really need to get to 1-0 before the bye week. I love this team. I believe in this team. This team will stay together. I think we still have a chance to do something special.”

The end of the Iron Skillet

Regarding the twilight of the rivalry, different opinions were stated from either side. When asked about the end of the rivalry, Dykes — who served as SMU’s head coach from 2018-21 — uttered a one-word response in a nonchalant, unexcited tone, “Hooray.”

But for the Dallas native Stone, different emotions were expressed about the magnitude of the Iron Skillet, and how it’s more than an ordinary game for SMU.

“It’s no secret how much weight this game holds to us, the players and the coaches,” Stone said. “We treat every game the same with our preparation and our intentionality, but there’s really no team you want to beat more than TCU. It’s a really disappointing feeling.”

Stone expanded on the crosstown rivalry, expressing the importance of starting in a matchup he’s dreamed of since childhood.

“I’ve been watching this game since I was basically in diapers. I’ve been watching this game forever,” Stone said of the SMU-TCU rivalry. “This is a game I’ve had marked down for a while and was incredibly excited to play in... It’s definitely always been a dream of mine to play in this game and I’m grateful I had the opportunity.”