For both Oregon and TCU, 2016 proved to be a fairly disappointing season and neither team could have been that excited to be playing in the Alamo Bowl the day after New Year's Day, but you would have never guessed that either was experiencing an emotional letdown from the way these teams went after each other in a triple overtime thriller.
One of the more interesting aspects of this game was that it featured a program in Oregon that is known for the way they keep pushing forward the spread revolution with their option-heavy offense and a foe in TCU known for revolutionizing modern nickel defense to stop the spread with Gary Patterson's flexible 4-2-5 defense.
Unfortunately for fans of "styles make fights" bowl games, Oregon was heading into this game at nearly full strength with the nation's 6th ranked offense in S&P while TCU had been riddled by injuries and the graduation of much of their top ranked 2014 defense and came into the game ranked 59th in S&P defense.
What's more, TCU was missing All-B12 QB Trevone Boykin and top receiver Josh Doctson. They seemed out-matched by Oregon heading into the game and the 31-0 lead the Ducks took into halftime testified to this basic truth. But then things started happening.
Vernon Adams went down with injury, leaving the less mobile Jeff Lockie to try and protect the lead against a Frog defense that kept coming. The Ducks also lost their starting center Matt Hegarty, leading to a plethora of bad snaps that always seemed to come at the perfect time to thwart key Oregon drives.
Between those calamities and the Oregon defense eventually collapsing in their attempts to hold off TCU's own potent, Air Raid spread attack, you have the recipe for the dramatic "come from WAAAY behind" Frog victory. However, interspersed in the chaos and craziness of this game were some interesting tactical battles between Helfrich and Patterson that reveal how spread-option and defensive teams are adjusting to each other.
Mobile QBs: the double-edged sword
More and more spread schools are opting to go with dual-threat QBs because they add two major elements to the offense that make them exceptionally difficult to prepare for. First there's the off schedule madness when these guys get loose out of the pocket and put defenders in conflict about whether to immediately close on the QB and take away his running lanes or to stay home and prevent him from finding open receivers.
Without a very disciplined and effective DL to contain the QB, or a conservative approach featuring max coverage and an athletic spy, this problem is tremendously difficult to solve. TCU got burned early and often against Vernon Adams even when playing the "max coverage with an athletic spy" approach:
Here you see TCU drop their star pass-rusher Josh Carraway into a spy role but Adams slips out of contain, Carraway can't arrive quickly enough to harry the throw, and Adams beats the coverage with a comeback route on the sideline for a first down. There are no easy answers to this kind of problem.
The other major benefit of the dual-threat QB is in the run game, as when the QB is a runner it becomes very difficult for the defense to effectively bracket troublesome receivers and still get enough numbers into the box to handle the run game. This can be most stark from true spread formations featuring four or five receivers and no tight ends or blocking backs but the math works out the same in every formation.
Oregon was doing plenty of damage this way to TCU until that fateful moment when one of their four-wide zone read plays went awry:
The bind that Oregon is creating for TCU on this play is pretty intense as the threat of the bubble screen to either side of the formation holds TCU's strong safety (designated the nickel for most teams) and weak safety. The Frogs are mixing in some cover 1 here with a single deep safety to keep their linebackers in the box but they are in a bind against the zone read if Adams can make the DE wrong.
The Frog DE on this play, big senior Terrell Lathan, actually made a bit of a mistake here as his priority needed to be containing the play inside since the outside player (the strong safety) was tied up defending the bubble screen. Lathan instead stepped inside to take away the cutback lane for the RB, although he did so with square shoulders, and then had to try and beat Adams outside late to keep him contained.
He succeeded, surprisingly, though it involved Adams juking him out of his socks and cutting upfield in a dangerous fashion. The problem for Oregon was that the run support from the free safety was coming from Football Study Hall's unsung hero of 2015, Derrick Kindred.
Kindred had a knack for delivering nasty blows all year and on this play succeeded in knocking Vernon Adams out of the game, opening the door for TCU's shocking comeback.
This is the big problem for schools trying to find dual-threat QBs that can run and throw well enough to put all of these constraints on a defense, they often come in packages like Adams' 5'11" 195 pound frame. Even bigger QBs can be at risk to concussions on big impact plays like this one, but a smaller guy will always have more issues staying healthy. Next year Oregon will probably rely on another FCS transfer, Dakota Prukop, who's taller but not really much bigger 6'2" 200.
So this battle proved to be a draw as the off-schedule abilities of Adams nearly buried TCU early while the risk of running a smaller, faster QB reared it's head when the Frog free safety met him in the alley and took him out.
TCU's flexible and disguised coverage
Part of what makes TCU's approach on defense so compelling for teams across the country is how it allows them to be so multiple in their secondary and effectively mix and match a wide variety of different coverages in order to get extra help on the field where they most need it.
It's particularly strong for allowing the Frogs to get extra defenders in the box to stop the run and that was an essential task against Oregon's spread-option attack that combines a few outside zone/sweep plays with burners like Adams or Charles Nelson as well as power backs like Royce Freeman.
TCU's goal for this game to was be able to regularly involve their strong safety Denzel Johnson against the running game so they could have enough hats around the box to stop or at least contain the Oregon rushing attack. However, because Adams is a strong passer and the Oregon WR corps is loaded with talented receivers, they had to be careful to do it in a way that wouldn't get them shredded in the passing game.
The Frogs played a variety of different coverages on the back end to try and balance those assignments but they had two particular schemes that they leaned on and both made the most of their weak safety Nick Orr, a 5'10" 180 pound DB who started the season as a boundary cornerback before moving inside.
Orr brought a lot of athleticism and range to the table which allowed the Frogs to play these two coverages based on the situation to try and keep Oregon under wraps, the first is a variety of the standard cover 4 that much of the nation plays:
In this version of cover 4 you get a blend of aggressive play to stop the run thanks to the weak safety playing run force on the boundary but you play things more conservative to the field with the strong safety shadowing the slot receiver and the free safety playing deep over the pass while ready to fill the alley against the run.
Because of Orr's range, TCU could line up in a two-deep shell and rely on his speed coming downhill without having to sneak him into the box before the snap and tip off the offense that he'd be a factor in the running game.
The other coverage they'd blend in was designed to get Johnson involved in the box but it was very deceptive in that it suggested that the Frogs' weakness would be to the field while they'd be playing cover 2 bracket to the boundary:
This coverage would drop Johnson into the box before the snap and bring down Kindred to play off man coverage on the slot receiver. Meanwhile on the boundary it looks like cover 6 with a press corner and bracket safety, but Orr would keep an eye towards helping Kindred on inside routes from the slot while staying in position to help the boundary corner as well. It was basically Patterson splitting the difference between cover 4 and cover 1 in order to try and limit the exposure of major weaknesses.
It takes good eyes, loose hips, and real range to check off a grocery list that long but Orr was able to do it for much of the game with the real damage from Oregon's passing game coming from Adams' scrambles and a single incident where Kindred was beat deep when he didn't have help from Orr.
Oregon still lit up TCU early despite these clever designs because the Frog DTs were beat early and often at the point of attack and inside-backer Travin Howard had some struggles making the right fills behind them, but these increasingly complex and blended coverages from Patterson on the back end are going to help TCU continue to adapt and stay ahead of the curve against the other potent spread attacks they face in the Big 12 when their fronts are rebuilt back to full strength again in the future.
The lessons from this one on defense will likely prove to be increasing complexity of coverages as defenses look to hide where they are strong and weak so that option attacks struggle to recognize and exploit them even when utilizing spread formations.
For offenses, you can't look past how helpless TCU was against Vernon Adams before his injury nor wonder whether the athletic but still large dual-threat QB will become the most valued player in future years.