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TCU doubles down on speed

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NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways Oklahoma State is the most Big twelvish Big 12 team, perfectly encapsulating many of the key features associated with the league’s style of play. They have a balanced spread system on offense that develops complementary skill sets amongst the players to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. On defense their strategy concedes that they can’t stop their fellow Big 12 teams from racking up yards between the 20s but instead hope to win by using disguised coverages and multiple packages to force turnovers and clamp down in the red zone.

If you are balanced on offense, can score on big plays in the passing game, and are effective at preventing opposing offenses from translating gobs of yards into gobs of points then you’re going to win a lot of games in the Big 12. With their most high-powered offense since Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon walked the campus, Oklahoma State was a favorite to build on their regular 10-win seasons and win the Big 12 in 2017. Then TCU upset the apple cart with a 44-31 victory in Stillwater to set the stage for a very interesting 2017 Big 12 season.

The Horned Frogs gave up 499 yards but forced four turnovers that limited OSU’s ability to translate that production directly into points. Meanwhile the Frogs ran for 238 yards and threw for 228 more, out Big 12-ing the Cowboys on their own field. TCU achieved much of what OSU and the rest of the Big 12 is aiming for but their underlying philosophy is speed, speed, and more speed.

Speed on offense

The Frogs are pretty big along the offensive line. Their bookend tackles Joseph Noteboom and Matt Pryor go 6-5, 320 and 6-7, 350 respectively while the interior features more typically-sized fellows. TCU will also regularly employ TE Cole Hunt, a 6-7, 250 pounder, as an ancillary blocker in-line at TE or off the ball as an H-back to help boost their run game.

The name of the game is speed though, getting the ball to small, speedy players in space and feasting on the results. It starts with running back Darius Anderson, who’s taken the lion share of the carries this season in lieu of starter Kyle Hicks’ injury, and stands at 5-11, 205. That’s not particularly small for a Big 12 RB but his game is defined by darting quickness rather than power.

The question isn’t whether you can bring him down, but whether you can fill creases well enough against TCU’s combination of pace and double teams to prevent him from finding grass. Once he’s in space, Anderson runs like he’s being controlled by a TCU assistant with a joystick up in the booth.

TCU currently has five different receivers with at least 100 receiving yards and the top two are tied at 151 yards apiece, so this is a very balanced offensive attack. Of those five receivers, only John Diarse is even as tall as six feet (he’s 6-1), while the other four average out to 5-9, 171 pounds. The sixth leading receiver Kenedy “mach” Snell (91 yards) who stands at 5-8, 170. They all excel at darting into the creases that their offense creates all too easily across the field.

Oklahoma State safety Ramon Richards is all over this play but Kavontae Turpin is too quick to the spot and then too fast and low to the ground to bring down with a high arm tackle.

It’s an entire skill ensemble of water bugs, running screens and quick routes off TCU’s zone running game and utterly exhausting opposing defenses trying to catch them. In many ways it’s a modern, balanced take on Mike Leach’s classic mantra of “throw it short to people who can score.”

Their ability to run the ball and generate easy explosive gains throwing quick routes to burners appears to be effective enough to allow them to keep pace in the high scoring Big 12.

Doubling down on defensive speed

Gary Patterson built his reputation and his program off going small with the 4-2-5 defense. At first it was considered ridiculous, then a gimmick, then standard practice across the nation. But spread offenses in the Big 12, particularly what Art Briles was doing at Baylor in the early 2010s, are designed to abuse nickel defenses of the sort that Patterson got famous utilizing.

The 2014 season in which TCU’s 12-1 record was spoiled due to a 61-58 defeat to Baylor in which Patterson’s otherwise stalwart defense surrendered 782 yards of offense clearly left a big mark on Gary and the program. The extreme stress that Baylor successfully put on TCU’s defense with their combination of power runs, spread sets, and regular deep shots was too much for the Frogs to keep under wraps.

So from there Gary Patterson started to double down on what had worked in the past, and he sought to get even more speed on the field.

The 2017 TCU Horned Frogs have a pair of starting linebackers that go 225 and 213 pounds respectively in Montrel Wilson and Travin Howard. 2016’s best linebacker, Ty Summers, was moved to defensive end in the fall and now plays at 6-2, 242 pounds opposite 6-4, 245 pound end Ben Banogu. Their three safeties are 5-10, 194 (free safety Niko Small), 5-10, 187 (weak safety Nick Orr), and 6-1, 196 (strong safety Ridwan Issahaku). Neither of the cornerbacks are big guys either.

There was a lot of talk from Gary Patterson this offseason about getting bigger up front along the DL, perhaps to balance their usage of so many smaller athletes in the defensive backfield, but the starting defensive tackles go 6-2, 275 (Chris Bradley) and 6-4, 326 (Ross Blacklock). The nose tackle Blacklock is perhaps the only player on the entire defense who’s bigger than the national average for his position amongst power five schools. This is a small unit...but they’re fast.

Oklahoma State scored 31 points because they have exceptional personnel, but they struggled to overstress the Frogs’ and force them to play in more space than they could adequately defend.

Here’s a normal first down call in which the Cowboys paired a normal zone run with outside pass options for Rudolph to hit if the defense cheated numbers into the box.

There are only five defenders in the box here for TCU with a sixth coming late in the form of the strong side linebacker and another in the form of the weak safety. Until they read run though each are sitting on the quick slant to the slot or the skinny post to James Washington that Rudolph has shown he can hit consistently.

Because those two defenders (Travin Howard and Nick Orr) are both fast, they can arrive and help if a run gets loose but unless the five defenders in the box are playing well TCU is going to get gashed in this call.

However, the Frog DL is putting their unique blend of speed and power to work on a stunt to help them defend the run without numbers. The 3-technique tackle Chris Bradley works hard upfield through the B-gap while DE Ben Banogu stunts inside of him into the A-gap.

The center is unable to come help because big nose tackle Ross Blacklock is sticking his big mitts in his chest and the right tackle starts the play concerned with setting the edge against Banogu so he’s not ready to pick up Bradley shooting through the gap or to chase Banogu inside. The result is that TCU successfully sets the edge from the B-gap and gets a two-on-one against the right guard that results in a tackle for loss.

The Frogs are denying the quick pass options by alignment and then relying on speed and scheme to create advantages that allow them to stop the run up front.

On the occasions when the Frogs were able to force passing downs they were ready for the Cowboys with a package designed to minimize the challenges of keeping all of OSU’s athletic receivers under wraps while highlighting Mason Rudolph’s limitations.

By dropping eight into coverage (converted LB Ty Summers puts his old training to use dropping into the flat) and bracketing the OSU receiving threats it put Rudolph in the difficult position of either making progressions and beating coverage or else scrambling for time or yardage. The OSU signal-caller is lights out throwing to spots on RPOs and play-action but he’s less effective going through progressions and resetting his feet and his play is as terrifying to his own team as the opponent when he’s trying to create outside of the pocket.

TCU made the most of their ability to play at depth and close on the ball throughout the game, even on this early TD bomb to James Washington.

This is basically the “good on good” of the spread/anti-spread tactics. OSU is running play-action off the threat of a weak zone run with an H-back creating a new gap to command the attention of the secondary. The defense has their boundary safety and strong safety in position to be extra men against the run but they are playing at depth and checking against the threat of a pass before committing to run behind the linebackers.

Then the offense runs the dreaded dig/post route combination outside from stacked receivers. The free safety has to try and split the difference between the dig and the post and stay in position to help over the top on the former and inside on the latter.

They just get beat here by a combination of Rudolph’s arm strength and James Washington’s incredible speed as the Cowboys out throw the coverage. OSU struggled to find similar success elsewhere in the game and had to throw a lot of comebacks and flat routes to move down the field. Without regular explosive plays over the top, OSU went from being an offense that can score 40-60 points to being a team that struggled to finish drives and break 30.

It’s essential to the TCU defensive system that they be able to allow the front six and either end of the secondary to play in isolation to create diverse play calls and engender aggressive play. To get away with it though they needed guys in the secondary that can hold up against deep routes without getting burned for 800 yards and 60 points against spread teams that can throw deep.

That has meant going even smaller and faster on defense for Gary Patterson. If they can keep it up and allow their own team speed to be the defining factor in Big 12 play this season, perhaps they’ll be the real contender to Oklahoma that we all thought Oklahoma State would be.