The monumental task facing Tom Herman’s Longhorns in Fort Worth this Saturday night feels a lot more manageable on the heels of TCU’s 14-7 flub to Iowa State in Ames. But when you’ve been outscored [A number too large to be expressed without scientific notation] to [Something small and pitiful] over the past three meetings...the task still looks pretty damn tall.
Nowhere was the notion of Tom Herman, Coaching Equalizer, more welcome than when looking at the recent history of Texas’ TCU travails. Unfortunately for Herman in his opening stanza, this Horn Frog bunch is better than (at least) the prior two versions that gutted Charlie Strong and then danced on his grave.
On the plus side, there are some blueprints for the Longhorn defense (and maybe even the offense) to even the odds, get on the right side of .500 and thrust Texas squarely back into the midst of the Big XII Conference race.
But there sure isn’t much room for error.
Stopping TCU’s Offense
The broad-strokes plan for Todd Orlando figures to be pretty similar to what we’ve seen from his defense the past two weeks, and what Iowa State put on film to upend the Frogs last weekend - contain the run with a three-man line and light, fast dudes all over the field, and then bring the pain on third down.
TCU offers a much tougher test to that philosophy than the Bears did, and they’re probably at an equivalent threat level with Okie Lite from a pure running talent standpoint. We’ll give up some push in the run game here and there, but if D-line stalwarts like Ford and Omenihu along with recent additions like Breckyn Hager keep breathing fire we should get plenty of Poonatration to contain their base zone run game.
One wrinkle that TCU features that wasn’t on the table for OSU or Baylor is the Guard-Tackle Counter game. The last time Texas saw that was in the Cotton Bowl, and while we blew some up we also got some shoved right up our backsides. Neither Darius Anderson nor Kyle Hicks brings the speed/power blend of OU’s Trey Sermon, but they’re both at their most dangerous when they can get a straight shot up the field and then put a foot in the ground and rocket into the secondary. This play cannot, cannot, CANNOT hit up the gut, even if we’ve got DeShon Elliott roaming 8-10 yards deep in cleanup mode. If I’m Gary Patterson, my get-ahead-of-the-chains plan is to run Counter at Breckyn Hager any time he’s in the game to see if he’s got the requisite recognition and discipline to wrong-shoulder the first block and spill the play outside. There’s no question that he’s got the physicality and want-to if he recognizes it, but this could be the first game in his new DL role that really tests assignment and recognition. If TCU tries to take a page out of the K-State playbook and run QB Counter with Kenny Hill (or REALLY take a page out of the K-State playbook and run it with freshman Shawn Robinson for a series or two) it’ll be all hands on deck to keep it from popping.
If we are spilling that play successfully, we should be in good shape. Holton Hill and Kris Boyd have been making their presence felt in run support against tougher blocking than TCU’s waterbug collection, and Malik and Gary Johnson were born to chase down strung-out runs. All those attributes will also help shut down any Speed Option attempts.
If Texas does get TCU’s O behind the chains, third-down wizard Todd Orlando has ensorcelled stronger minds than Trill Hill’s. In an ideal world, Texas will be able to keep Kris Boyd primarily matched up on TCU’s lone 6 foot-plus dude in John Diarse rather than subject him to jitterbug double moves from guys like Jalen Reagor or Kennedy Snell. If Texas is able to contain the ground game while still keeping two of Elliott, Brandon Jones or John Bonney deep, though, TCU’s big-shot potential becomes a lot less scary. The Longhorns’ recent mix of eight-man coverages interspersed with selective overload blitzes is custom made to baffle Hill, and Texas will have its shot at INTs and strip sacks as a result.
Bagging one of each brought victory for the Cyclones, and that wouldn’t be a bad formula to duplicate as giving up more than seventeen net points could see the defense’s efforts go for naught.
Attacking TCU’s Defense
Here’s where things get tricky.
The relative Defensive S&P+ rankings for the Frogs and Horns (TCU #8, Texas #32) feel waaaay too far off, but it ain’t because TCU is ranked too high. Gary Patterson has enough juniors and seniors in the backfield to reliably execute his bevy of split-field coverage concepts, and coupled with the traditional stronger-than-you’d-expect bunch of fast guys upfront (excepting 325-lb NT Ross Blacklock) it means there’s little easy money to be found anywhere against the boys in purple and white.
But don’t give up hope just yet.
One thing that stood out in watching TCU’s matchups against the Cowboys and Cyclones was the inordinate degree of success that both offenses appeared to have when they aligned two (or even three) receiving threats to the boundary.
TCU’s standard three-safety look tends to play the Free Safety deep over the passing strength side, the Weak Safety deep over the non-strength side and the Strong Safety like a deeper nickel-type aligned over the #2 or #3 receiver to the strength side. My kind-of-a-theory is that the Frogs are more adept at running their various coverage combos to the field side (where they’re helped out by longer throwing distances to boot) and that attacking the boundary can play into a (small, kinda) weakness for TCU while emphasizing Texas’ strengths.
Nobody has made much hay running on the Frogs this year, but both Iowa State and OSU were able to pop a few solid runs up the middle with the strong safety split over to the boundary side. TCU used a couple of guys in that alignment and both had their struggles with reacting quickly and physically to the ground game after dealing with a boundary slot coming at them up the seam. That alignment also has the fringe benefit of opening a ton of escape room to the field side should Buechele (or maybe Ehlinger at some point, QB could be a circus this week) need to get out of the pocket. Make no mistake - we’ll probably see Kyle Porter on half the offensive snaps this week with Toneil Carter out, so the run game won’t exactly be a strength. But the ability to pop for SOME extra yards when we get six hats on six box defenders could make a big difference.
After Cade Brewer played just about every snap against Baylor, I’m going on the assumption that we’re 11 Personnel Or Bust from here on in. I’m of the opinion that we’re doing ourselves a disservice not getting Johnson, Humphrey, Hemphill-Mapps and (mainly) Burt on the field together for at least half our snaps, but at this stage it is what it is. That’s not to disparage Brewer’s ahead-of-schedule work as a 230-pound blocker whose best days are definitely ahead of him, but if we’re not at least featuring him on quick-pop play action it’s hard to feel like we’re getting our money’s worth out of 11 personnel. The good news is that it’s easy to line up a pair of 6’4” guys on the boundary in Johnson and Lil’Jordan while shifting Brewer around behind the LOS and keeping the Frogs as honest as possible with John Burt’s deep speed out to the field.
Texas can’t really emulate the “run James Washington past everyone and throw a ball 60 yards in the air” maneuver, but otherwise the other focal point of OSU and Iowa State’s air attacks - Throw It To The Singled-Up Big Dude - is easiest to accomplish with twins to the boundary. That look resulted in both of Iowa State’s scores last Saturday as Alan Lazard and Hakeem Butler did their Twin Towers thing, and it also set up 6’3” Cowboy wideout Marcell Ateman for some sideline shots en route to a 100-yard day. Texas doesn’t have to be static in that alignment - Beck & Company can get what they need motioning a wideout towards the boundary late or even releasing Brewer up the seam with some consistency (something they should lean on with Kyle Porter’s pass-blocking prowess back in the lineup).
Two (or three) to the boundary also sets up some nice route combinations and plays well with the Longhorns’ new-found RPO game. RPOs and straight play action saw the #2 receiver get loose behind the linebackers for Oklahoma State, and the Curl/Flat RPO that Texas hit to Burt, LoJoe and Humphrey works just fine to that side (while also setting up a tasty Curl/Wheel combo that Jalen McClesky nearly cashed in for the Pokes).
When Texas does run twins to the field side...we should still look to work singled-up boundary shots as often as they’re available while ensuring that the Weak Safety isn’t robbing to crash the party. RPOs (both our Curl/Flat and Bubble versions), slants and quick one on one shots to the field should be the order of the day versus counting on Buechele to get through lengthy progressions against well-schooled DB’s and what’s likely to be a tough pass rush.
Aside from all that, I’d say:
- Mix in some of the Counter runs we saw re-emerge against Baylor - those could click nicely with Porter and Carter in the backfield.
- Have a plan on play action, target guys who’ll be influenced by it and be aggressive with running it early when TCU’s guys are more prone to bite - if we get down two scores or try it after twelve unsuccessful runs, it won’t do a damn thing
- A little HeardCat with Porter in the backfield, Humphrey motioning in and twin jump-ball threats outside wouldn’t be the worst thing - just don’t run everyone in a futile Zone Stretch every time
On special teams (where TCU ranks a terrifying FIRST in the nation in overall efficiency):
- Don’t try to play the hang-the-kickoff-and-pin-them-deep gambit after it surrendered two 30+ yard returns to LORBAY - if Rowland can get it out the back, have him put it out the back without fail
- Consider asking The Punter to trade a little distance for hang time if he’s able - TCU’s returners probably won’t fair catch 60-yard punts a la Okie State, and the fact that we rank #118 (kick returns), #84 (kickoffs) and #65 (punt returns) on special teams measures not directly buoyed by Dickson’s leg doesn’t fill me with confidence that we’ll ably rally in the open field if we’re strung out by a really long one. A 47 yard net on anything launched inside our own 40 works just fine - lean on Poona and Malik and we’ll go again
- Have an honest conversation with ourselves about what Rowland can and cannot do and whether he can be trusted to get the requisite height on ANY field goal to prevent a modicum of push from yielding the dreaded “double thump” sound and the even more dreaded “TCU Fight Song” sound. There are no easy answers when you don’t have a reliable short-yardage approach, but know what you trust Rowland to do and plan third (and fourth) down accordingly inside the TCU 40 yard line.
This one has knock-down, drag-out potential. Of course, so did our last three matchups but hopefully this one is knock-down drag-out in the “They Live alley fight” sense:
And not the “Achilles v. Hector” sense:
Will it all work out?