Oh god, the TCU game. Just when we were starting to look like we had a clue defensively, we were absolutely blown out. The ship looked to be headed in the right direction after the black hole of sadness that was the Arkansas game. We were a couple of turnovers away from a win at Oklahoma State and a last second field goal away from taking a huge home win against West Virginia. A win against the surprisingly strong run game of Kansas had myself and several others feeling like we could at least get in a few licks defensively, as opposed to before Arkansas when we just looked lost at times. The TCU game changed a lot of that. It wasn't just a defensive failure though, our entire team imploded at once. Crack open a pint of Ben and Jerry's and throw "Mad World" by Gary Jules on repeat, and let's talk about what exactly happened at our darkest hour this past season.
The opening to the TCU game looked very good, in fact we played a very good first quarter offensively. A huge pass from Davis Webb to Kenny Williams kicked that off.
We're lined up in a two back set with Kenny Williams in the shotgun fullback position and DeAndre Washington in the shotgun halfback position. Normally we would run out of this formation, but based on the plays we see down the road, I would contend that our goals are to confuse the linebackers and free safety in TCU's stingy 4-2-5 look. The play action fake to DeAndre doesn't work all that well, to their credit, TCU's linebackers sniff out something sneaky and crash on DeAndre, who is running a slip-screen fake. However, they didn't account for the fact that Kenny Williams was coming out of the backfield too. We get the ball to Kenny in an open field with only the safety, who is flat-footed, in front of him and he does the rest. A murderous, albeit unnecessary, block from Devin Lauderdale punctuates the play. At this point, we look great. We're moving the ball on a typically tough defense, blocking well, catching them in bad coverages, and generally bulldozing them physically. We came to play in the first quarter offensively. This is another example of Kliff's coaching ability, this is more than likely a "scripted" play. Sometimes Offensive Coordinators will have a "script" of anywhere from 5-15 plays that the offense will run in order to see how the defense is playing them, what adjustments need to be made, and what is going to work well. The fact that this big play more than likely came from that script is a testament to the caliber of Kingsbury's ability to gameplan effectively. Unfortunately, our issues do not come from starting games well, but rather from finishing them.
TCU comes out firing on all cylinders as well, drawing a PI call from Keenon Ward, and punctuating their first drive with this bulldozing run.
This one hurts, as we see what we're in for from TCU on their first two plays. They're going to run the ball, and they're going to throw it deep and dare us to stop them without committing a penalty. TCU exposes a flaw in our defensive gameplan, the tendency to overcommit to a man in motion. Originally we have Micah Awe and VJ Fehoko over the middle to help us, but a TCU running back in motion takes Micah Awe out of the middle. The rest of the play is a simple draw. The TCU receivers fire off the line like they are running routes, demanding the attention of the corners and safeties. The offensive line allows the defensive line to climb the slightest bit upfield on either side, creating a massive hole that should have been filled by the linebacker to that side. The only problem is that he has effectively been taken out of the play by design already due to an overcommit to the motion man. VJ Fehoko pushes the edge of the tackle box, and the rest is history. It's simply a well-drawn up play. At this point in the game we aren't getting beat physically (yet), we're being beat schematically.
A huge DeAndre Washington run puts us right back in the game, driving us down to the TCU 11 where we face a critical 3rd Down scenario. If we score here, the shootout is still on. If we don't convert, we kick a field goal and give a TCU offense that scored in two plays and could've honestly scored in one a chance to take a 4-point advantage.
We're lined up in an "empty" set, 5 wide receivers on the field. It's pretty obvious that we're going to find a way to attack the corners of the end zones, and TCU knows this, because they have zero linebackers covering the middle and the only safety that is anywhere close to the middle of the field is around 5 yards away from it. Logically we need to audible at least someone to attack the middle of this formation, or take what they're giving us. Around 4 second into the gif you can see a nice square of around 10 yards that is just empty space. The linebackers around it have their backs to that space. If one of our wide receivers were to audible to a "slant" route, another route that we're very fond of, we would have a mostly wide open shot at the end zone. A slant would force the linebacker over the middle to make a full 180 degree turn in order to keep up with the receiver, and with the speed we have in the slot, it's not ridiculous to think that we could've gotten someone free immediately over the middle. Instead, Reginald Davis and Bradley Marquez are running crossing routes on the right side. By the time the ball is thrown, there's no way that Davis can get into that soft spot in the middle, and we're forced to go to Marquez, and to his credit, he's a little open. The defender simply has too much leverage on him, and the throw is forced a little bit too far outside of where Davis Webb wants to go with it. If he used two hands he might have caught it, but the bottom line is that he ran out of room due to the call we stayed in. TCU holds us to a field goal, and the Frogs are back on offense again.
On their next possession, TCU attacks the linebackers again through spreading the field.
This play may seem innocuous, maybe a couple of missed tackles here and there, but for all of our literal geniuses who write for and comment on VTM, we see this as a microcosm of the TCU offensive strategy. At the very beginning of the play, we see VJ Fehoko sprinting almost as far wide as the numbers. Why is a middle linebacker rolling out into the flat before the play starts? His positioning is that of a cornerback, not of a linebacker. This leaves Micah Awe over the middle by himself. The "Raider" hybrid position rolls down into the box to help over the middle, undoubtedly an adjustment made after the massive TCU run on their second play. Unfortunately, Sonny Cumbie is one step ahead of us again. The play action fake sucks Micah Awe in, and #20 for TCU fakes the wide receiver screen, drawing VJ Fehoko out. This leaves a TCU receiver uncovered right in the middle of the two linebackers being drawn separate ways. If Boykin doesn't fire a laser of a pass that's a tad bit high, this receiver wouldn't had to bounce this play outside. Both TCU and TTU have the same gameplan: pick on the linebackers in the short/medium pass game, then throw deep. This play is the biggest example of directly attacking one or two players in an inventive way, which is how the Texas Tech offense has functioned for many years. TCU would score shortly after on a huge Trevone Boykin pass.
After a penalty erased a Davis Webb interception and TCU putting on an absolute clinic on how to stop the read-option, we find ourselves in an imperative 4th down situation.
Rodney Hall, the fullback, comes in motion to shift the strong-I formation into a straight up I-formation. If I was on TCU's defensive line or a linebacker, I would already suspect that it's a pass based on Webb's foot positioning under center and the light stances of the tight end and tackle. The one foot so far back indicates that he's trying to get out of there faster than normal, and the tight end and tackle are in a neutral stance, not too far forward, not too far back. Not getting every bit of takeoff out of your stance as possible would indicate that you're not going to be immediately blocking someone. I don't know if that's the reason it seems like the Horned Frog's defense knows exactly what we're doing, but it surely factored in a little bit. The safety in the flat is not fooled by the play action, and picks up DeAndre Washington out of the backfield immediately. The defensive end stays at home, keeping his shoulder pads parallel with the line of scrimmage. If the defensive end was to crash too far inside, Webb could simply tuck the ball and take it in himself. This would prove to be huge, as at this point we still have no idea how to stop TCU's offensive onslaught.
TCU marches down the field again, only to be met with strong red zone resistance from the Red Raiders. Our defense changes it up a little bit on 3rd down, only bringing 3, and forces Boykin to throw underneath, where we make a play on the ball. TCU has been held to a field goal, and the game still seems in reach, despite having left 11 points on the board. Unfortunately, this is where we began to unravel.
On a 2nd and 7, TCU throws everything and the kitchen sink against Davis Webb. Normally Davis is very good against the blitz, which is what makes this play hurt so much more. The blitz annihilates the pocket, forcing Webb to throw off his back foot to Dylan Cantrell who is slanting towards the middle with Jakeem Grant. There is simply nowhere to go with the ball. TCU played picture perfect defense. Webb's throw is just a little bit off the mark, and Chris Hackett steps in front of the pass. Hackett makes a great play on the ball, but this could've been a completion without Webb having to throw almost instantly. This puts our defense back on the field after they just endured a drive after mere minutes of rest. They say football is a game of inches, and the inches that we've given have already cost us dearly in the opening minutes. We cannot expect to make these mistakes repeatedly and not be punished by a great team like TCU for it. We gave them an inch, and they've taken it and ran with it, as will become a theme for this game.
Despite all this, the game is still not out of control yet. Here we see Mike Smith's ability to adjust and potentially a preview of what Micah Awe is capable of doing for us this season.
This isn't an example of the motion audibles that would plague us all game, but it's the same read option play that has killed us in this quarter already. The extra fullback is countered by Keenon Ward coming into the tackle box, but ultimately he isn't needed at all. None of the defensive linemen get truly washed down the line of scrimmage, which temporarily conceals Awe as he patiently waits for the right time to hit the hole. Pete Robertson forces the running back to cut back inside, where Awe is waiting to lower the boom. This is how this play is supposed to be defended, the only problem is that the linebacker that fills that hole is most often taken out of the play by overcommitting to the man in motion out of the backfield. Either way, this is the beginning of our defense's signs of life, despite TCU eventually punching the ball in on the short field.
After a huge Devin Lauderdale touchdown, the score is 17-24 and the Red Raiders are still within striking distance. The defense has figured things out to a degree and the offense put up 17 points in the 1st on one of the best defenses in the nation. After a huge 3rd down stop thanks to great coverage by Nigel Bethel, the defense is finally forcing TCU to punt. Only Gary Patterson had other plans.
This is a classic fake punt. I'd wager that we were so excited to finally be getting the ball back that we just forgot ourselves. The ball is under thrown, but Justis Nelson commits pass interference. We can sit here and debate wether or not it was pass interference or a facemask all day, but the facts of the matter are that it was called, and it came at the absolute worst time. Our inability to get off the field on 3rd and 4th down struck again, leaving an Arkansas aftertaste for many of us. It's not ridiculous to think that we could have scored on our next possession, either tying the game up or making it a 4-point game. Instead, TCU takes the rock in for another touchdown, and the wheels are beginning to fall off.
Shortly after TCU scored off of the 4th down pass interference call, we drove down the field and scored a field goal, cutting the TCU lead to 11. It's still bad, but it's manageable. If we can hold the Horned Frog offense to a field goal or potentially get them to turn the ball over, we have a chance at striking before halftime. Unfortunately, we happen upon our worst enemy: 4th down.
I am not attempting to throw Kenny Williams under the bus for this, but this hurts. This hurts bad. Fortunately, a Pete Robertson sack forces a three and out for TCU, and despite nearly muffing the punt, we finally have the ball back and a chance to let our weary defense rest their head. Unfortunately, after only a TV timeout and one play, Davis Webb fumbles the snap. According to the ESPN box score, we had the ball for a mere four and a half minutes in the second quarter. That's a lot of time for a defense that has already been burned and is already exhausted to stay on the field. We have to move the ball to keep those guys fresh, as we didn't have much depth in 2014. Hopefully this is a problem that will be fixed in 2015, as the issue of depth is one that has continued to plague us as a team for several years.
These depth issues and the issues of exhaustion crop up for our defense later in the game, even when they schematically play sound.
Here we have TCU pinned on their own 9 in a 2nd and 10 situation. It's pretty obvious that we are bringing pressure on this play, our blitzes have forced Boykin into some bad situations involving deep throws, and we've even pulled off some third down stops deep in our own territory. Boykin gets the throw off before the blitz can make it there, and Bethel is over the top to make the stop. It seems as if Bethel is exhausted, as he doesn't attack the receiver like he normally does. Technically he is in the correct spot to make a play for a moderate gain, but all of those back-to-back-to-back drives are beginning to take a toll. His lackluster tackle attempt is shed easily by the receiver, who goes on to break the tackle attempt of freshman Jalen Barnes. Barnes's missed tackle gets directly in the way of Micah Awe, who might've been able to clean the play up had Barnes not slid off of the receiver's back. After that, it's all off to the races. If we aren't fielding a physically and emotionally dead defense at this point, 99% of the time Bethel makes this play.
TCU keeps abusing the matchups with these exhausted defenders, and at this point it just hurts to watch.
But this wasn't the end, dear reader. It was not the end.
And after that, we have an artist's rendition of the entire 4th quarter.
This day could have gone worse, but not by much. If we could've limited the turnovers, we would've had a shot at making this a more competitive game. The adjustments were there. We were improving drive by drive on defense, and our offense was playing admirably against a very, very good defense. There's no way to say for certain wether we would've won or not, and I hate resorting to hypotheticals, but it's hard not to think that maybe the game would've been a bit closer without the deluge of mistakes that plagued the second and third quarters. I don't think TCU is 55 points better than us, but even without the mistakes I don't think we take this one home. Instead, this is where all the mistakes came to a head, and we saw what happens when we make these mistakes against a team that can really make you pay for them. Sometimes all you need is a shot, and we'll never get it if we can't get off the field on 3rd and 4th and turn the ball over.