Dissecting The Frogs: A deep dive into four key plays from the Tarleton State game

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TCU got Quentin Johnston involved on the game’s first play Sept. 10 against Tarleton State (The Associated Press/LM Otero).


By David Beaudin
Frogs Today staff writer


The TCU bye week does not prevent us from rolling out the long-form version of Dissecting The Frogs after the Horned Frogs took care of business against Tarleton State. You can check out the video version of this four-play breakdown here

While college football saw many traditional powers not “taking care of business,” the Frogs took care of theirs, as we laid out their mentality of “it’s all about us” heading into their FCS matchup. 

For this game, all four plays were taken from the first quarter, as there were not too many meaningful plays of note past that point. 

However, there was one thing that was notable right from the beginning.  The Frogs wanted to get senior star wide receiver Quentin Johnston the football early and then get him out of the game. Getting Johnston the ball was a priority after only four touches at Colorado, so they opened the first possession against the Texans by finding a creative and effective, yet easy, way to get him the football.

Let’s take a look.

Play 1

Quarter: First 

Down and distance: First-and-10

Possession: TCU 

Game Clock: 14:52 

The Texans’ defense came out in a two-high safety arrangement on the first play of the first drive. As we have discussed previously on Dissecting The Frogs, generally you will see one of three basic coverages with two safeties lined up deep pre-snap. It is either Cover 2 (each safety has a deep half), two-man coverage (same two deep safeties, with man-to-man underneath), or possibly quarters coverage (four defensive backs responsible for one-fourth deep each) if the cornerbacks lined up deeper or bailed on the snap. 

In this case, Tarleton State gives the illusion of one of these “two-high” coverages, only to move on the snap to a “single-high” coverage (“man-free” on this particular play). 

Horned Frogs quarterback Max Duggan takes the shotgun snap and starts the play with a “cheap” play fake to running back Kendre Miller. More on the importance and impact of this play fake to come.

Duggan then reset for depth with a three-step drop, for a total of a five-step drop-back pass (being in the shotgun counts for two of those steps to begin with). He then delivers a strike to Johnston after he runs a deeper slant route off of a slight “diamond release.”  

This release is when the wide receiver works the cornerback with an outside initial move, typically a few steps up the field, about 30 degrees towards the sideline. In this case, Johnston doesn’t need that much on the release and is able to stem outside before violently snapping inside and up the field, while simultaneously knocking down the hand of the Texans defender. All of this gets the cornerback to open his hips just enough to get inside of him and prevent him from riding the hip of Johnston. 

All of this results in a modest gain for just under 12 yards, but it sets the tone for the Frogs offense. The question remains to casual observers alike. How were the Frogs able to do exactly what they wanted on the first offensive play of the game?

After restless nights throughout the week, Dissecting The Frogs has some answers for you. In fact, we even colored coded it. 

Let’s start with the multitude of pre-snap keys that Duggan is going through in his mental checklist.

He knows where Johnston, circled in purple is lined up. 

Quarterbacks often start with the weak-side safety and quickly move to identifying both safeties. In this case, you can see the aforementioned “two-high safety” arrangement, but what’s different here is the alignment differences of each of the two.  

Generally you will find safeties lined up just outside the hashmark, where the old college hash marks used to be (6-feet-8 wider, changed in 1993).

On the opening play, the Tarleton State “strong safety,” or the safety to the wide side of the field, is lined up inside the hash mark. This is a solid indicator that he is working to rotate down the middle of the field, and he does (rotation in yellow). 

Duggan most likely moved his eyes to the “free safety,” or the safety to the weak side/boundary side of the field. This safety is lined up far outside the hash and is over the offensive “number two” or slot receiver, an indicator that he can play man-to-man coverage as he does on this play. The blue dotted line shows who he is responsible for in man coverage.  

From this point, Duggan can easily see the two cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage, with each corner’s eyes locked on the outside receivers. 

The next defensive player to identify is the strong overhang player, which in this play is Texans “nickel back” (no, not Jeff Wilson’s beloved late ’90s band from Canada), who has a black “figure eight” drawn around him and the slot receiver, Darius Davis. 

All of this amounts to confirming that Tarleton State is in “man-free,” which is man-to-man underneath and one free safety down the middle of the field. This is six defenders in coverage, and theoretically they have the ability to rush the five remaining defenders. 

We are going to cover those five potential rush players, but first let’s take a deeper look at the significance of the nickel defender, beyond just being a part of confirming man-free coverage.

Typically, the slot receiver to the field lines up on or just outside the hash mark. On this play, Davis takes a “plus split,” or simply just widens his alignment. This directly influences the Texans’ nickel defender and forces him to “declare.”  What exactly is his alignment declaring?

If the nickel defender splits the difference between the offensive tackle and the slot receiver (commonly referred to as an “apex” linebacker), this is more of a zone alignment or he has the potential to blitz from that alignment. As soon as you see this defender lined up directly over the slot receiver, you know there is no possibility to come on the blitz, clearing up the picture for the quarterback pre-snap. Thus, the wider alignment from the slot receiver helps the nickel declare his intentions and helps uncover the coverage. You can see all of the open space illustrated above in the gray oval.

From this point Duggan can take a look at the weak outside linebacker, circled above in yellow. Not only does this help determine the fourth rusher and confirm coverage, but also determines where to set protection. Because of the pre-snap recognition, Duggan and his offensive line were able to set the protection to the correct direction, as shown below. In addition, you can see the close proximity (the white line with arrows) of the weak safety over the weak outside linebacker, tipping off the outside linebacker as a fourth rusher.

Keep in mind that all of this pre-snap identification is happening in roughly a five-second window, from the time the formation is set until the ball is snapped. If you have ever wondered why college football teams, particularly quarterbacks, watch hours of practice and game film, participate in countless walk-throughs, practices, drills; “chalk-talk” and oftentimes written quizzes on assignments or opponent tendencies, this five-second frenzy of information will give you a good idea of why all of that preparation is done.

Even with all of this work throughout a game week, coaches continually walk a tight rope with their quarterbacks of simply being prepared and cognitive of overload. Of course, even more split-second decisions are happening after TCU center Alan Ali snaps the ball. One of the biggest post-snap keys on this opener is the two Tarleton State inside linebackers.

The linebacker circled below shows the influence of the initial play fake. As you can see, this allows for a ton of space for Johnston to work.

The only other inside linebacker, lined up to the defensive left, does not rush immediately. As we pointed out leading up to Tarleton State on Facing The Frogs with Jamie Plunkett, the fifth potential rusher in this coverage for the Texans is on a “delayed blitz,” based on where the running back releases or if he releases for a pass at all.

The Texans showed on film from Week 1 that the linebacker who did not have to cover the running back or was responsible for the running back and he blocked, would blitz late. The beauty of Duggan doing all of his homework during the week, and acing the pre-snap test, is that he gets the football out fast and on time.  This negated any impact that the fifth rusher would have. Essentially, this delayed blitz was initiated as the ball was being released from Duggan’s hand.

One play. This first play from scrimmage was an immediate display that the Frogs did not take this game lightly and clearly prepared in a way that good teams do, regardless of the opponent.

Play 2

Quarter: First 

Down and distance: First-and-10

Possession: TCU 

Game Clock: 10:30

Another first-and-10 in the first quarter and another run-of-the-mill 16-yard conversion. This play was on the second TCU possession of the game, but there is a reason we decided to highlight this play —the speed or “jet” sweep with the soft touch pass that was initially made famous by West Virginia during the Dana Holgorsen era and featured in last week’s version of Dissecting The Frogs. 

The Frogs ran this speed sweep four times at Colorado to three different receivers. Prior to this play, offensive coordinator Garrett Riley dialed up that play once already.  However, on this call it was “the same, but different” with the same look as the speed sweep that they have shown, only to have Duggan on a naked bootleg off of that same backfield action.

What constitutes the “naked” portion of the bootleg is not having a pulling lineman leading the may, thus he ran outside the pocket “naked.”

As you can see below, the wide receiver at the bottom of the frame is Johnston, who cuts down his split — tightening to the line of scrimmage.  This is key for Johnston’s job on this play, which is to get across the field because he is responsible for being even with Duggan. Johnston really has to hustle to make this happen, but it is critical in making sure Duggan does not have to throw across his body if he wants to go to Johnston.

Johnston is the third read of as many choices on this play. Duggan goes to wide receiver Savion Williams, who is lined up on the outside up top, as shown above.  Williams does a great job running a 15-yard out route, driving back “downhill” toward the sideline, and not allowing the defensive back to cut off the throwing lane.

This play, while somewhat mundane in the grand scheme of things, shows Garrett’s willingness and plan to build “series” of plays. Typically, there are anywhere from three to five plays that all look similar in presentation, but are different in terms of execution and play styles.

For instance, off of this jet-sweep look, the Frogs clearly carried a naked off of this. In addition, you can probably assume they will have a play-action pass off of the same action, taking a shot down the field. There could be a screen to the back, a handoff to the running back after the motion, and even a potential double pass.

As Garrett builds his play menu, it is important to keep building variations off of the same exact look. Therefore, the presentation is exactly the same to the defense, yet creates additional problems and breaks offensive tendencies.

The fact that the Frogs were successful on this play fares well for them moving forward. In order to continue to build off of this series, you need to put successful repetitions on film for future opponents, forcing them to practice against those plays and then get surprised by a slight wrinkle.

The Horned Frogs checked the necessary boxes on this play and continued to keep things rolling on this drive and into the bye week.

Play 3

Quarter: First 

Down and distance: First-and-10

Possession: Texans

Game Clock: 7:49

Here is the aforementioned “man-free” coverage, but this time for the Horned Frogs. Similarly though, the Frogs elect not to bring the fourth rusher. Rather, they drop outside linebacker (or one of the three “inside” stack linebackers) Johnny Hodges to the “hook-curl” area of the defense.  This is where offensive hook routes to curl routes generally occur. We will visit coverage area zones on a later Dissecting The Frogs when we get into various zone coverages.

For now, let’s zone in on Hodges and the impact he has on this play.

Below you can see the figure eights drawn in black to signify the man-to-man coverage. Toward the top of the illustration, you can see Hodges’ drop drawn in white. You will also notice that safety Abe Camara gets cleared out of the zone that Hodges is dropping to, because of the vertical route from the receiver Camara is responsible for covering.

At this point, there are no immediate passing threats for Hodges, so he continues to sink, or “melt,” in coverage.  Typically, an average drop-back pass (other than three-step drops) doesn’t go no longer than 3.4 seconds. Therefore, the linebacker takes continual repetitions of having his eyes to the receivers and zone area for approximately 1.7 seconds and then transitions to the quarterback for the next 1.7 seconds.

Hodges does this well and continues to drop after watching Texans quarterback Beau Allen continue to move to his left and burn his eyes to his receiver to that same side.

Allen is then forced to throw over Hodges, which results in an errant throw that lands in the arms of TCU cornerback Josh Newton.

While Hodges aided in making this play successful for the defense, those of you who are Dissecting The Frogs viewers and readers know that this was just one small part of the defense’s execution.

The Frogs’ pressure coming from Allen’s right side forced him to flush to his left, his non-throwing-hand side, and Newton was able to use flawless technique.

It all started with defensive end Dylan Horton working a “push-pull” technique that works exactly how it sounds. Horton comes out of his stance and immediately shoots both arms, using his hands to grab the Texans’ offensive tackle’s pads and push him out at full extension, as shown here:

As soon as Horton created separation, he violently pulled the tackle through, taking an inside path to the Tarleton State quarterback. Here is a look at the point where Horton pulls and starts to clear the offensive tackle.

This big-time pass rush move from Horton initiates flushing Allen to his left. However, what further prods his need to escape is what is often referred to as “blitz engage” from Frogs linebacker Dee Winters.

More than likely, if the running back on this play would go out on a route, then Winters would have been in pass coverage. However, after the play fake, the Texans’ running back stayed in to help in pass protection.  This triggered Winters to also rush the quarterback as shown above.

Finally, we get to Newton lined up in man-to-man coverage on the outside, where he executed his technique flawlessly. Newton uses his “post hand,” or in this case his left arm, to “stab” the inside number of the wide receiver — all while flipping his hips simultaneously.  This gives the receiver a “one-way- o,” or only allows him one way to travel, which is toward the sideline.

When you combine this with Newton’s strength, he ends up taking the receiver completely out of bounds. In fact, the two of them tangle with the yard markers nearby.

Conventional wisdom would say that you are stronger with two hands than you are with one. Of course, this is true. However, when playing cornerback and covering in space, if you try to jam with two arms extended, the likelihood of lunging is much higher, and therefore the receiver would be able to easily run past his defender.

Many of those at the game thought it may have been a penalty on Newton to be the first person to touch the football after being out of bounds. That rule applies only to an eligible receiver. The only requirement Newton has to make a play on the football is to reestablish himself on the field of play, having both feet inbounds before making a play on the ball. Newton does this perfectly and creates the interception.

The TCU takeaway showed that the defense was also not taking its FCS opponent lightly and the Frogs had taken their pre-game preparation seriously.

Play 4

Quarter: First 

Down and distance: Two-point conversion

Possession: TCU

Game Clock: 6:14

This “swinging gate” formation used here in TCU’s 2-point conversion has been around in some form since the 1930s. It came back in style and more en vogue after Chip Kelly used it before virtually every point-after attempt during his run as Oregon coach from 2009-2012.

At the time, if Oregon did not like the numbers on defense or quickly realized that the opponent prepared properly, then the Ducks would simply shift into a kicking formation.

By rule, the long snapper cannot put his hands below his waist during the shift, as that would be flagged as an “illegal procedure.” Once the long snapper approaches the football, it is set for play. The offense/kicking team can then shift at that time, but the center cannot.

The interesting note for the way TCU lines up on this swinging gate is that Frogs long snapper Brent Matiscik is actually an eligible receiver. Right guard Steve Avila is lined up in the backfield and tight end Dominic Dinunzio, who is lined up at outside receiver, is off the ball. This means that Matiscik is not “covered” to his right side. This, combined with wearing “42,” an eligible number, allows him to legally go down field for a pass.

For this play, the Frogs run their speed/jet sweep to Davis out of the swinging-gate formation. It is blocked the same way as when they  are in their traditional offensive set.

This is one of many options for the Frogs. In addition, they can get to the same area of the field by simply sprinting out with quarterback Sam Jackson with a simple flood concept including Matiscik, or he can run it in. Of course, the swinging-gate play is on the table, which would be Matiscik “shoveling” the ball directly to Davis without any type of motion.

By rule, the ball does not need to be snapped between the legs. Rather, it must be one continuous motion. Therefore, the long snapper cannot pick the ball up and throw it to Davis.  It needs to come from the ground directly to Davis in one motion.

Let’s take a look at some of the options, that are color coded here:

As you can see, there are a variety of options, plus many more. The next logical question is why show something so unique during a game you gained early control over, against a team many deemed as inferior, in Week 2 of the season? 

This was an opportunity to work on the operation of this set. Additionally, the Frogs are able to get this play on film early. This is important because regardless of if they ever use this play again, future opponents have to take time out of their practice to work on this.  

Typically, practices are divided into five-minute segments and the most segments you’ll have is 24. If an opponent has to take one segment per day to work on this, that is five segments a week they are not giving time and attention to something else. 

Clearly, you can see that there are more benefits than just running the 2-point plays.  

Be sure to stay connected to FrogsToday.com and Dissecting The Frogs as we dive into crosstown rival SMU next week. 

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