By David Beaudin
Frogs Today staff writer
Two consecutive weeks for the Horned Frogs where they trailed by 11 points heading into halftime, and once again they came out in the second half well-adjusted and firing on all cylinders in a win.
On both occasions, TCU won each contest to remain undefeated on the season.
Each week, during the written version of Dissecting The Frogs, we have discussed cliches, momentum, grit and toughness. Clearly, all of these things are difficult to quantify, but you just “know it when you see it.”
This week, we can add another somewhat vague adjective to describe this year’s TCU team: resilient.
Admittedly, I cannot provide a bar graph or scatter plot on the Frogs’ resilience, however the comeback wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State certainly strengthened the argument for this as a qualifier.
This coaching staff, under coach Sonny Dykes’ leadership, has driven home the point of each game — heck, each play — having a life of its own. This mindset has served TCU well by keeping focus on the task at hand.
While this is the goal, or at least a basic objective, of just about every coach for just about every team, the execution in the hands of college-aged players is generally more difficult to master.
Part of this approach on game day is the demeanor of this TCU coaching staff in the locker room during the halftime break. By all accounts, everyone stays level-headed, adjustments are quickly taught in a likable and learnable fashion, and the Frogs have focused on the next play that needs to be made.
“Likable and learnable” teaching in a losing halftime locker room? That is what Dykes has brought to this TCU program in short order.
While this approach is rare in college football, it takes something unique like this to get a program back on track, both in these last two games and for this entire season up until this point.
It is my contention that clarity, focus and composure have all led to the level of resiliency on display for the Frogs thus far.
Once this level of calmness is established, the teaching can continue. This Frogs coaching staff is schooling these players on and off the field, but to maintain our reputation here at Dissecting The Frogs, lets dive into what this team has learned on the field, by breaking down a play from the offense in the first half and one play from the defense in the second half of the 38-28 victory over Kansas State.
Down and distance: Third-and-8
Game clock: 6:48
The Frogs come out in a “wide” bunch set to their right. While somewhat of an oxymoron, a bunch set is often “attached” to the core of the offensive formation, meaning all three players in the bunch are 1 yard away from one another, starting with the No. 3 receiver 1-by-1 (1 yard back and 1 yard away) from the offensive tackle.
To further contradict myself, this is not a “plus” wide formation that is aligned near the sideline or outside the numbers. This is set on the right hash, with the ball on the left hash.
Often, especially on passing downs such as this one, the bunch is set to try and create “rub” routes on man-to-man defenses. Kansas State plays the man coverage underneath on this play, with its free safety peddling deep as the lone player in zone.
In terms of the coverage solely for the trips-bunch, the Wildcats employed a traditional scheme for defending this formation. While there are certainly many variations of coverage against this set, what Kansas State does on this play is one of the first ways defenses dealt with bunch sets.
The Wildcats play the “point” of the bunch, or middle receiver of the three receivers in man-to-man coverage with press technique. In this case, he is pressed up against Frogs receiver Taye Barber.
From there, their cornerback and safety play “banjo” coverage on the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers. Meaning, they will lock on the outside receiver and the inside receiver of the bunch, but only after their routes are declared.
The Wildcats’ cornerback will take “first out” and their safety will take “first in,” all depending on where the two receivers end up on their routes.
The reason the cornerback and safety are not also in press technique goes back to the defense’s understanding that TCU’s bunch set means that there is a high likelihood that they will attempt some form of “pick” or rub routes. In order to prevent this, they get on different levels than the nickel safety, who is pressed up on the “point” of the bunch, in order not to get picked or shielded by TCU’s receivers.
The illustration below shows a “figure eight” to outline the man coverage and the two arrows showing the “first-in/first-out” between the cornerback and safety.
The circle on the above drawing shows the six possible rushers for Kansas State during this play and how closely they were aligned to one another. These six Wildcats players do end up rushing TCU quarterback Max Duggan. At first glance, these numbers simply don’t work.
Let’s dive into them.
The Wildcats are playing a version of man-free coverage, meaning five Wildcats are dedicated to playing man coverage on the Frogs’ five eligible receivers. We previously discussed the free safety paying exactly that — free. For those of you doing the math as you read along: If you take the six rushers, plus the five man players, plus the free safety (6 + 5 + 1 = 12), something isn’t right … or Kansas State is in the greatest defense of them all — the one with an extra player.
Kansas State does indeed have only 11 players on the field, but let’s take a look at the six potential rushers. The following is the pressure dialed up by Kansas State. The one player circled, Khalid Duke, is a linebacker for the Wildcats and responsible for Frogs running back Emari Demercado on this play to cover him in man coverage.
Duke’s responsibility here is to do something called “blitz engage.” Meaning, if Demercado stays in to block, which he does on this play, then Duke “engages” in a delayed blitz.
This is the reason you ultimately end up with six total rushers.
For the Horned Frogs, they did a tremendous job in executing their pass-protection assignments on this play, with the six players (five offensive lineman, one running back) in the protection.
Technique, on the other hand, was not at a level the Frogs would like for a couple players.
Frogs right tackle, Andrew Coker, “gates” his defensive end. This is used as an expression when a player “opens the gate” or the path to the quarterback. Coker would have better been served to pass set vertically, staying much more square to the line of scrimmage. Of course, the worry there is if the defensive end would take an inside move. If so, an offensive tackle is in position to “power step” with his inside leg and he can then cut off that counter move inside as well. Coker does get depth in his set, however, giving him a fighting chance and Duggan enough time to get rid of the football on time.
As for Demercado, he attacks the line of scrimmage just like any good running back coach would teach. However, when he arrives, Demercado bends at his waist, as opposed to sinking his hips and keeping his shoulders back. The coaching point here for running backs is to remain in a “proud-chested” demeanor, with their hands up and ready to “punch” or strike the defender.
The takeaway from all of this is that as long as an offense is assignment-correct in everything they do, they are going to give themselves a chance to be successful on any given play. Technique may not be perfect, but if certain guys go rogue on a play in offense, the likelihood of success is extremely low.
On this play, the Frogs are assignment-correct in pass protection against really tough Wildcats pressure. Again, while not flawless, the Frogs not only went to their correct defenders and handled passing off Wildcats twists, they battled at every spot just long enough for Duggan to deliver a strike to Barber and keep this drive alive.
Finally, it should be noted that Barber did a great job staying flat on his route while working across the field. Had he drifted at all, the Wildcats defender would have been able to step into the passing lane, and, at the very least, break up the pass.
Instead, Barber creates separation, albeit minimal, on the route to create just enough space for him to secure the football and the first down.
This drive eventually stalled and ended with a 42-yard field goal. However, the reason for highlighting this play and why in “dissecting” this team we felt it was noteworthy is because it was critical for the Frogs to have the threat of drop-back pass efficiency early in this game.
TCU knew that Kansas State was going to load the box and dare Duggan and this offense to throw in passing downs and even in some earlier downs. While this drive netted three points, as opposed to seven, it was key to keeping the Wildcats more honest defensively throughout the entirety of the game.
This one simple pass play, with all 11 Frogs battling, had an impact and influence on more key plays in the second half.
Duggan is no longer viewed as someone who is just an elite runner and someone who can throw on the run. This area of his game, staying in the pocket and delivering the football on time, is steadily improving. All of this has led to one of the most potent offenses in the country, guided by one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football.
Down and distance: First-and-10
Possession: Kansas State
Game clock: 4:00
With Wildcats quarterback Adrian Martinez going out in the first series for Kansas State and backup Will Howard being inserted in the game, things changed drastically for the Frogs’ defensive approach.
TCU had prepared for a “run-first” quarterback all week long and played against a “throw-first” quarterback for virtually the entire game.
Howard has lots of game experience, including a big-time redshirt freshman performance in Fort Worth three years ago, and is a pocket passer who found success in empty sets (five receivers, no running backs in the backfield) early in this contest.
The Frogs were dropping eight players into coverage consistently, and Howard was doing a superb job finding soft spots in zone coverage with all kinds of time in the pocket and distributing the football all over the field.
How TCU’s defense treated empty sets in the second half was one of its biggest halftime adjustments. There were many to choose from, as the Frogs shut out the Wildcats after the 8:18 mark in the second quarter.
There is none bigger than this because of the damage done to the Frogs’ defense in this set early on.
Defensive coordinator Joe Gillispie knew that TCU needed to get more pressure on Howard in order to create more errant throws.
The dilemma for Gillespie was that while TCU needed to create pressure, playing man coverage underneath causes another problem against an empty backfield. With the Wildcats spread out, the Frogs defenders are also spread out with their eyes locked on the man they are responsible for covering. When you couple this with Howard already showing the ability to take off and run for first downs, it was a scary proposition for the Frogs.
While Howard is no Martinez when it comes to tucking and running the football, he certainly proved to be capable of getting the yards that were available to him.
Taking all of this into account — the lack of first half pressure on Howard, how dangerous he had been throwing in empty, his capability to take off and run, needing to ramp up tighter coverage — the Frogs defensive staff came up with quite the compromise for the second half.
Previously, we discussed “man-free” coverage and the number distribution associated with it. On the last play that we dissected, it was the Wildcats playing this coverage.
This time, the Frogs go to man-to-man coverage underneath as shown above. They rush stack linebacker Johnny Hodges as the fourth rusher on this play. As we learned earlier, after committing six players to coverage (five in man, plus the free safety down the deep middle of the field), you have five players left to either rush, play the running back out to the side, blitz engage, or, in this case, spy the quarterback.
Jamoi Hodge has the “star” around him and is the designated player to spy Howard. He first shows himself “mugged up,” or up at the line of scrimmage showing blitz, before bailing to the middle of the field at linebacker depth.
This adjustment checked a lot of boxes for the Frogs. They needed to add pressure and did so with adding Hodges to the rush. They needed to have tighter coverage underneath and got that from man coverage. They needed to protect against the big play and were able to do that with a free safety down the middle of the field. Finally, they needed to ensure that Howard would not take off when he saw the backs of Frogs defenders in man coverage. Hodge’s spy on Howard prevented this from happening.
In fact, on this play Hodge does a fantastic job “pushing” to Howard the moment he breaks the pocket. It is important to note that a spy technique is not something that is passive, like playing cat and mouse in a game of shadowing. Rather, as soon as the spy linebacker feels that the quarterback has left the pocket, it is his job to close the gap between the two players.
Hodge does that beautifully here by also taking the proper angle from inside out and tracking the near hip of Howard.
This forces Howard to pull up quickly, and he tries to force a pass into a deep drag that was ill-advised.
At this point, we can get a good look at Frogs cornerback Tre Hodges-Tomlinson and his man technique.
Hodges-Tomlinson starts by back-peddling and then flipping his hips in outside leverage on his receiver. Typically in man coverage, the cornerback will be in inside leverage. However, with man-free you can funnel players to the middle of the field because of the extra deep defender.
He does a brilliant job maintaining his leverage, but also staying “on top of,” or deeper than his receiver. All the while, Hodges-Tomlinson does not allow too much space on his man, and the second Hodge forces the throw by Howard, Hodges-Tomlinson is there to drive on the football and come up with the interception.
Ultimately, this play sealed the victory for the Frogs, taking away any chance of a late Wildcats rally.
It also should not be lost that the other Frogs players in man coverage did a great job plastering to their men, particularly when Howard escaped the pocket. Kansas State’s receivers went into scramble mode and started to “dance around,” or adlib, on their routes, hoping to shake free from a Frogs defender.
Fortunately, TCU stayed disciplined in man coverage, allowing the rest of the defense to work in sync.
Much like we discussed on offense, “doing your job” defensively is equally important. Any individual breakdown in assignment has a negative ripple effect.
For the Frogs, though, when your entire team is working together in all three phases of the game and your coaching staff remains calm, cool and collected, good things happen.
Good things such as being 8-0 after beating West Virginia on Saturday.