Inside the Gameplan: Storming the Fort

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Last year the TCU game came as the Big 12 opener and a big test of whether Tom Herman’s Longhorns were ready to take another step in realizing the latent potential of the program. Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs had delivered a number of stinging defeats to Texas over the decade since they joined the Big 12 and making a case as the No. 1 contender against Oklahoma in 2018 meant overcoming the Frogs. TCU predictably had a good plan in place for the Texas run game but were overcome by young quarterback Shawn Robinson committing something like a half dozen turnovers while Sam Ehlinger threw for 255 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 31-16 victory.

Circumstances are very different this time around. The Frogs are reeling after losing on the road against Kansas State and are sitting at 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12 with only Kansas, Iowa State, and Kansas State in the rearview. Patterson may struggle to reach bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season. It’s probably a good guess that some time in TCU’s bye week which came before Kansas State was devoted to preparing for Texas. Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma has loomed as the white whale for Captain Patterson that he’s surely desperate to harpoon, but he always makes a point of trying to show up Texas at any and every opportunity.

The story of the 2019 Frogs is an inexperienced defense that hasn’t figured out how to execute Patterson’s detailed gameplans combined with an offense that can’t throw the ball to save its life. Other than this game taking place in Fort Worth, this could be a nice recipe for Texas to find a badly needed win while trying to solve the problem of a collapsing defense. Or it could be a chance to get through by the skin of their teeth due to self-imposed issues.

The 2019 Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson was left to start Max Duggan this season by simple necessity. You get the sense that Justin Rogers may never play a meaningful snap of football for TCU (true tragedy) and it doesn’t appear that either Penn transfer Michael Collins or Ohio State transfer Matthew Baldwin are healthy and available either. Beyond that, the Frogs have Duggan or K-State transfer Alex Delton, who can’t consistently hit the broad side of a barn and is quite possibly the worst passing quarterback on a Big 12 depth chart.

Two other key areas for the 2019 Frogs are on the defensive front, where they had to replace a pair of NFL DEs and NFL LB/DE Ty Summers. It seemed that they’d be in good shape here between the young talents within the program and a few key transfers but that hasn’t borne out. They’ve started three or four different linebackers next to Garrett Wallow (my preseason DPOY, who has twice as many tackles as any other Frog) and the replacements at DE haven’t come anywhere close to matching the production of Ben Banogu nor L.J. Collier.

Nevertheless, Texas should expect to find a TCU defense that has a plan for their favorite runs and passes and an offense that will attack demonstrated weak spots in the defense with some dangerous skill talent like Jalen Reagor. Against Texas in particular, TCU’s zone-read play will obviously be a major factor. Duggan housed a long run against the Wildcats last Saturday, albeit in large part due to some pathetic run defense by K-State. The Frogs have a very effective OL and zone run game if you have to overplay the QB.

In theory, there’s no reason that Texas should be ineffective against the zone-read, but they tend to find a way every other week to gift opponents easy yardage from the QB keeper, usually via assignment errors on the edge. Part of the problem is the fact that Texas tends to carry a dozen standard down calls into every game which change up the assignments for option schemes and leaves confused players vulnerable to busts. Particularly in regards to contain on the perimeter, which is a job that virtually every defender on the roster has found himself in at some point this season. Playing contain against the option or two-back run schemes isn’t intuitive, it’s a skill to be mastered in and of itself and not treated as a minor cog to be filled with whomever is on hand.

The gameplan on defense for Kansas was different than the gameplan every other week. The 2018 Longhorns started eight seniors and yet were much more consistent week to week in what they hung their hats on in terms of defensive calls. The plan against Kansas was to play true quarters, not the cloud kind that can become cover 2 based on route distribution, but the kind where the CB is in something close to man coverage on the outside receiver and the safety ends up in man coverage on the inside receiver on anything deeper than five yards or so. That was a risk given the quality of Texas’ DBs in coverage this season. The Jayhawks were able to pick on D’Shawn Jamison and both DeMarvion Overshown and Brandon Jones on multiple occasions while throwing for 310 yards and four touchdowns.

Here’s how the scheme works (theoretically) against something like the zone-read play TCU scored with against K-State:

Against K-State the Frogs were in nub trips and had all three wideouts block rather than giving Duggan a RPO read to toss the bubble screen. Against Texas, who will presumably play quarters rather than man (though who knows?), I imagine the Frogs will have the bubble route option if only to hold the attention of the middle linebacker. The best way to play this would be to ignore the bubble and trust the play of the nickel and strong safety to beat the non-receiving slot receiver’s block and make an open field tackle. That said, Texas’ starting nickel has been B.J. Foster, who can barely use both arms right now, and the other nickel and starting strong safety is Brandon Jones who just dinged up his shoulder (like every other safety on this roster) against the Jayhawks.

Can Texas count on their secondary to close and tackle on screens to free up the LBs to focus on stopping a two-headed rushing attack? Will they need to play man to take away easy screens without creating extra duties for the LBs who will already be the focus of the gameplan going up against the TCU run game?

TCU wants to win this game by running the football, picking up a few explosive gains from hitting on low risk, high reward passes to explosive players like Jalen Reagor, and playing good defense. The temptation will be to circle back to all of these blitzes that Orlando loves so much but most of Texas’ blitzes lead to pretty simple reads to then chuck a deep shot to some guys that can catch and run.

The best way to do this would be to get back to the 3-3-5 package that put Joe Ossai out at “semi-nickel” and then back him up with an inverted Tampa 2 shell that allows the safeties to focus on preventing big plays while Ossai, the linebackers, and the cornerbacks play the runs and screens TCU relies upon.

Texas’ zone blitz packages might suddenly find more purchase if they were alternated with coverages in which the quarterback can’t just chuck the ball down the sideline to his best matchup. I know the frustration with this season has been the lack of effective pressure that Texas has been able to put on opponents but the way to patch this vessel so it can get back to shore without sinking is to get Ossai on the edge where he can blow up blocks and protect the secondary so they can focus on big play prevention. For once, pressure should be an afterthought for this unit. Focus on figuring out how to play a base defense that can get stops and give the offense a chance to outscore the opponent. If they can’t stop a wildcat package with Alex Delton then it doesn’t matter if they can’t pressure Max Duggan to get the ball out within three seconds.

Taking on the TCU defense

I’ll never forget the confidence many of us had on Texas’ behalf going into Fort Worth back in 2015. With Jerrod Heard established at QB and Connor Williams and some other promising figures developing on the OL, Texas had a budding spread run game with a lot of promise and the Frogs were coming off a week in which they’d started a walk-on safety who couldn’t tackle and a 190-pound convert at middle linebacker named Travin Howard.

Early in the game, TCU safety Derrick Kindred knocked Daje Johnson unconscious on a screen pass and Patterson’s D did their plague of frogs routine while swarming the Texas offense in a 50-7 bloodbath. This year the Frogs looked lost against Kansas State, but to expect them to look lost and short on answers playing Texas at home is a pipe dream. Patterson will arrange his fronts and train whoever plays at LB with Garrett Wallow to sniff out and fly to the football against Texas’ base tight zone play and normal accompanying schemes.

Last year TCU did two things well in particular that gave Texas problems on offense. The first was a double 2i-technique front. This is how that often played out against Texas:

The Dude = Devin Duvernay, Hammer = Sam Ehlinger, Tower = Collin Johnson

By having defensive tackles in both A-gaps and across from the guards, it was hard for Texas to get their guards to the second level to clear out the linebackers. The center has a chance but it’s tricky because both defensive tackles for the Frogs are pretty good and you probably want to double at least one of them. What you can see on the diagram is the linebackers and safeties first handling the RPO or immediate threatened gap, then closing on where the RB is actually going after Ehlinger has already committed to the hand-off and the RB has had to commit to his trajectory.

In this instance, the middle linebacker is playing the B-gap first, which Keaontay Ingram often likes to cut back toward, and then if Ingram goes to the TE side the LB is scraping laterally to mirror him. If nothing else, TCU’s linebackers can scrape really well, that’s a trait you can count on from a team that mans the position with safety converts. If Ingram is able to catch that middle linebacker scraping over to the TE side too early and get back to the original B-gap then the weak safety is closing to replace him once he’s ensured that Ehlinger isn’t taking the skinny post option to Collin Johnson.

TCU’s fear is that someone will just blow their DL off the ball and create creases while generating body traffic so that their speedy linebackers can’t run free to the ball. They make that outcome less likely by mixing in a lot of stunts, particularly tackle-end games of the sort that have given Texas a lot of trouble this season. You can be sure that Patterson gleaned a lot from how Oklahoma attacked Texas’ empty formations with simple stunts and executing a “less is more” strategy up front. Using stunts and movement can create confusion and hesitation that makes it less likely teams will execute a fantastic double team on Ross Blacklock that shoves the Frog nose into one of their little young linebackers and thwarts the defensive design.

Texas’ offensive line needs to be very well prepared either to block any and every front or stunt TCU could throw at the tight zone scheme or else be ready to show effort and precision executing a well thought out rolodex of counters and misdirection plays.

The passing game is probably an easier place to attack the Frogs, but because the run game is so important to Texas they need to avoid spots where called run plays put them behind the chains where Patterson can safely dial up more line stunts. Tight zone is regularly a check call for Texas when they want to get out of a bad play and make sure they have a shot at getting a positive gain, so it needs to be at least that and not a scheme that invites TFLs. Facing blitzes is rough, facing four-man stunts from the Frogs while a defensive backfield filled with DBs and converted DBs executes tight, pattern-matching is worse.

Collin Johnson’s return looms large over this game, the Frogs tend to ask a lot of their cornerbacks playing deep on the sideline and their main guy Jeff Gladney is solidly built at 6-0, 183 but obviously not as big as Johnson. Texas made a particular note of building confidence in Brennan Eagles last week, hitting him on a few different pass concepts beyond the always boom or bust nature of deep shots on play-action. If the Frogs have to devote particular attention to doubling Collin Johnson, especially if Gladney is involved in that effort, that leaves the other corner (Julius Lewis, 5-10/180) to go up against the ZWR 1-on-1.

There’s some potential in this game for Texas to light up the Frogs for 40 points or so, even playing on the road against a rabid opponent eager to find a big win, if they can win regularly on standard downs. If that is combined with a defensive gameplan that doesn’t give Max Duggan easy outs on zone-read keepers or single-read deep shots then it could be Texas delivering the beatdown this time around. If Texas doesn’t handle TCU’s swarming fronts well and allows Duggan to build confidence then it’ll all hinge on whether Ehlinger can carry the load again with another 400+ yard day in the air and on the ground and perhaps whether Texas gets the ball last.

History major, football theorist.