Football

Inside the Gameplan: Turkey Day Test with TCU

Texas vs TCU (Will Gallagher/IT)
Texas vs TCU (Will Gallagher/IT)

Although Texas has secured a positive outcome for this season by guaranteeing a .500 record in regular season play, bowl practices, and a bowl game while improving along the way, you get the sense that this team wants more. Beating a playoff contender at home, particularly one that has tried to lay equal claim as THE tough, defensive unit in the state, would be an enormous win for Strong’s rebuild regardless of the surrounding context.

You want the Texas brand to mean something to in-state recruits? Show up the other in-state schools with dominant performances. Texas is currently 1-1 in that mission for the 2014 season.

There’s also the matter of the mythical championship title belt, which has been in the Big 12 in recent years and currently belongs to the Frogs. If Texas can finish the season at 7-5, they can knock TCU out of the Big 12 title race and playoff consideration, and position themselves to play A&M and finish their season’s work of putting the “T” back in Texas. That’s another mythical belt at stake here, a demonstrated mastery of the region’s teams.

There are a few misnomers about this TCU team floating around the Longhorn interwebs and this match-up in general that insiders would be wise to ignore. The truth is that the main challenge of this match-up is going to be for Texas to score enough against the TCU defense.

Now, the Frogs’ offense is not an inconsiderable challenge. They have the ability to blend the modern Air Raid, some run game, and a playmaking dual-threat QB into a nasty concoction. However, their defense is much better than you’d think from a cursory look at what they’ve surrendered in terms of points per game.

It’s the same Gary Patterson 4-2-5 system that has given opponents fits in the past with a similar cast of playmakers running it. What’s been largely forgotten is that their offense now plays with a great deal more pace than in the past and the defense is playing a lot more garbage snaps than in previous seasons when they seemed to play everyone close. While they may be giving up more points overall, this is still a very strong unit, ranked 15th nationally by S&P.

The offense is quite a bit different from Frog O’s of years past or even some other units Texas has faced, so we’ll start there:

Stopping the Frogs

Trevone Boykin has really taken to the Air Raid system and is having a dynamite season. With 3021 passing yards (7.8 ypa) and 548 rushing yards (4.5 ypc), he’s the most productive offensive player in the Big 12 this season.

The key is in that his mobility and strong arm are easily unleashed by the wide open formations and option routes that allow him to have a clear picture of the field so he can quickly and easily bring his athleticism and throwing ability to bear.

Because Boykin is such a great athlete and can throw the ball to every part of the field, the TCU running game is very difficult to stop. The OL is very solid and RBs, BJ Catalon and Aaron Green, are very worthy runners, but the main challenge their opponents have had is just getting numbers in the box without exposing themselves to Boykin taking deep shots to WRs like big Josh Doctson or track star Colby Listenbee.

The Frogs’ entire offense feeds off the success of the individual components and Boykin can execute enough pieces of it to punish opponents for their various counters.

In terms of specific tactics, they run the ubiquitous zone read play and they’ve also made hay this season running speed option into unsound defensive fronts all year, particularly in short-yardage or goal-line situations. They’ll run some zone and power as well and can put in 6-foot-4, 288-pound “mega-back” Cliff Murphy to run some lead schemes as well.

Their passing game is a little more tricky, with some modern Air Raid wrinkles in there in which they’ll run multiple option routes with vertical seams or give a particular receiver an option route and then attack a specific match-up problem for the defense. Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie are very good at game planning to attack particular defenders or schemes from their opponents and successfully leveraged Mike Stoops’ incompetence into a quiet game for Eric Striker in their big win against Oklahoma.

Of course one of the biggest challenges is just Boykin’s ability to scramble or buy time when you have their routes covered up and their protection beat.

Those are the problems in trying to stop the Frogs, but there are favorable angles to this contest for Texas. First of all, Boykin is not reading defenses at a level comparable to Davis Webb or other QBs in similar systems, he’s usually got a pretty clear idea of where the ball is going before the snap and makes heavy usage of hitch and comeback routes when other options have been erased.

If you can muddy the waters for Boykin and sit defenders in the flats underneath his favorite release valves, mistakes and inaccuracy can result. The two best defensive performances against him came from Baylor and West Virginia, who both endeavored to take away his easy reads by crowding the receivers and putting heavy pressure on him with big, man-blitzes.

Boykin was 12-of-30 against the Mountaineers for 166 yards, 5.5 yards per throw, a touchdown, and an interception. He ran the ball nine times for 49 yards and another TD.

Against Baylor, Boykin was 21-of-47 for 287 yards, 6.1 yards per pass, a TD pass, zero picks, and 18 carries for 45 yards.

Clearly a defense that can crowd the passing windows or trust their DBs to hold up on big blitzes can keep Boykin managed. Texas should be fine here for two reasons. First of all, Texas is the best team in the nation at rushing three and dropping eight into coverage. That defense is going to completely erase all of Boykin’s easy reads and throws and take him to a dark place mentally.

Texas’ team speed should be enough to prevent scrambles from doing too much damage if a 3-man rush flushes him out of the pocket. Meanwhile, Texas can match-up reasonably well with an opponents’ three best receivers before they have to assign a receiver to Dylan Haines, who is a step down from Diggs or Thomas but still not a player that can be easily exploited with a fourth best WR.

TCU will probably try to catch Diggs with some of their packaged plays or runs with emerging slot receiver Deante Gray if he plays at nickel or big Josh Doctson if he’s lined up outside at WR. There’s more than a few places out there suggesting Diggs’ eye discipline is a potential weak spot in the Texas D. If Quandre has a big game against the Frogs, it may very well come in the form of a major rebuke of TCU for trying to test him.

Overall, Texas is well equipped and designed to handle these types of offenses, even with a stud like Boykin at the helm, and should be able to keep the game in reach for the offense.

Scoring on the Frogs

Gary Patterson’s MO is this: they are going to outnumber and smother whatever it is you do best, starting with the run game. The fact that they base out of a permanent nickel defense with their 4-2-5 scheme obscures the fact that their system is primarily designed to bring eight and nine defenders to stop the run in a big hurry. Of course if you drop back to pass, they’ll have a very quick back seven for the QB to navigate.

Their three safeties are strong safety Sam Carter (6-foot-1, 215), free safety Derrick Kindred (5-foot-10, 210), and weak safety Chris Hackett (6-foot-2, 195) who all have size and are active in the run game.

They also boast a very strong linebacker corps headlined by certain 1st team All-Big 12 Mike linebacker Paul Dawson, who is a real weapon on their man-blitz concepts which will be a prominent feature to this football game.

The starting defensive tackles Davion Pierson and Chucky Hunter are the other strengths of this team and both play very low and are very laterally quick. It’s very difficult to open creases against this group either vertically with power or laterally with zone stretch schemes because they don’t stay blocked and they find their way to the hole.

Teams like Baylor and Oklahoma were successful against them because they attacked the structural flaw of the TCU defense and the personnel flaw in TCU’s defense.

The structural flaw is that TCU’s style of play is all about smothering you with numbers, which means very aggressive responses from their safeties. If you can attack them with play-action or POP concepts, you can turn that aggressiveness against them.

In both games, TCU’s opponents got speedy slot receivers lined up against Kindred in space and he couldn’t hang with them, resulting in quick-six throws. When a team shows run action, the strong safety gets sucked in, leading to the free safety being left to handle the slot receiver all by himself with yards and yards of grass to defend.

Honestly, this is the ideal game to feature Army Foreman rather than Jaxon Shipley due to the freshman’s superior speed.

The other flaw for TCU is the play of their corners. Ultimately, they have to have guys who can play the sideline without safety help or their system starts to unravel. Senior Kevin White is a very solid corner, but at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, he’s got a tough draw handling someone like big John Harris.

Opposite him is a 5-foot-10, 170-pound redshirt freshman named Ranthony Texada who’s already been burned a few times this season.

By playing trips formations with a TE, Texas can force TCU to account for both of these flaws at the same time. For instance, Texas can run Watson’s favorite Levels/curl flat concept or “bash” concepts to get Harris matched up with Kindred in the deep middle:

leveling-bashing TCU

 

In many ways this game will be a final exam on how much of Watson’s anti-Big 12 playbook Swoopes has mastered since much of the league uses quarters coverages modeled after TCU’s.

Another look for attacking the flaws in TCU’s D would be running play-action from trips sets:

switching up the Frogs

Their free safety Kindred sees the run action and steps towards the box but then has to change direction and find Marcus Johnson in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, you get Carter and Texada trying to track Army Foreman on the wheel route. On the backside, TCU is probably going to have to leave their weak safety on that side of the field rather than trusting White to handle Harris all by himself.

As for the run game, there are two ways Texas can go about punishing the Frogs’ front. One is to wait for the back-up DTs to get in the game, as they are markedly inferior to Pierson and Hunter and can be shoved around. The other is to use POP concepts in order to limit TCU’s ability to get pursuit to the football:

This is outside zone but with the backside TE running a quick route to the middle to hold the backside linebacker from running to the football.

Stretching and popping TCU

By isolating the Frog defenders with the threat of quick passes to the backside TE (or also a bubble to the receivers), Texas can get double teams on DL to control feisty defenders like Davion Pierson and prevent TCU from swarming the football with speed, which is how their entire system works.

Of course it goes without saying that any packaged plays that get Daje Johnson the ball in space would be highly useful for creating conflict and problems for the Frogs’ defenders.

Expect POP plays to resurface as a big part of the game plan for punishing TCU when they load up to stop Texas’ run game.

Finally there’s the TCU blitz package, which is very effective and will alternate between bringing one extra defender and mixing man and zone coverages behind it or bringing two extra defenders and playing straight man. It’s nasty to deal with and the only answer is for Texas to run the ball, avoid passing situations, and use extra blockers to buy Swoopes time when they have to throw. If this game becomes about whether or not Swoopes can beat the blitz, it will probably go terribly for Texas.

In summation

Texas has the players and the schemes to handle Big 12 opponents like TCU. The Frogs are essentially an amalgamation of all the league’s favorite tactics and best players. They run the Air Raid paired with some QB option elements for their mobile QB in emulation of all the Air Raid teams that gave Patterson fits. They run the original, aggressive 4-2-5 defense that has informed how Baylor and several other teams have structured their own units…although they may need to adapt it some in the near future.

So in essence, Texas has been preparing for this game all season and honing the processes and plays that will be necessary to take down the Frogs. If they pass that exam on Thanksgiving that will say a lot about how far this team has come over the course of the season and say a lot about what Texas fans can expect from Charlie Strong teams in the future.

Beat TCU, win the belt, and establish dominion over the Big 12’s strategies and we can all give thanks.

History major, football theorist.