Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.
How many words, then, might a single play from scrimmage on a game film be worth? How about two plays?
We’ll get back to that in a minute.
One of the key storylines surrounding the revival of No. 8 TCU has been the Horned Frogs’ renewed status as a force to be reckoned with on the offensive side of the football. TCU ranks No. 5 nationally in scoring (47.8 per game – nearly 17 points per contest more than last year) and leads the country in third-down conversion percentage (63.2). The real story, however, is how the Frogs have achieved this success.
Central to this effort have been two things: a robust rushing attack and the rebirth of fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Hill.
At a clip of 232 yards per game, TCU paces the Big 12 in rushing offense, grinding out yardage on the ground like it hasn’t seen since an unbeaten march to the 2011 Rose Bowl (247 per game) as a member of the Mountain West Conference. The biggest beneficiary of the Frogs’ formidable running game has been Hill, the former Lone Star State Gatorade Player of the Year turned Texas A&M transfer who struggled with ball security last season, tossing a league-high 13 interceptions during his initial campaign at the helm of the TCU offense. Frogs play caller Sonny Cumbie has kept defenses guessing with a balanced attack, helping Hill enjoy an incredibly efficient four-game stretch to start the year, connecting on 72.6% of his throws (No. 6 nationally) while tossing nine touchdowns and trimming that interception total to three.
Studying TCU on film, it’s easy to see Hill playing with a confidence that wasn’t always on display in 2016.
“They’re doing the right things,” WVU safeties coach Matt Caponi said. “Running the ball to set up the play action makes the game more manageable for him (Hill) as a quarterback.”
Now, about those two plays.
Perhaps no two snaps better exemplify the Frogs transformation on offense this year than TCU’s first and final plays from scrimmage in Stillwater, Oklahoma, two weeks ago when Gary Patterson’s squad upended then-No. 6 Oklahoma State.
One was a non-descript first-quarter throw, the details of which were easy to miss; the other, a game-breaking touchdown jaunt in the fourth quarter that wasn’t so easy to miss.
Let’s start from the beginning. Following a touchback that got things rolling at Boone Pickens Stadium, the TCU offense opened with twin receivers to the left and a single receiver right. Kenny Hill began in the shotgun joined by an offset-I in the form of running back Darius Anderson behind him and tight end Cole Hunt to his right.
Hill sent Hunt in motion to his left then took the snap. He offered a quick play fake to Anderson before surveying the right side of the field where he looked to target Shaun Nixon on a curl route just past the sticks. The Cowboys, however, dropped eight defenders into coverage and cornerback A.J. Green collisioned the route, squatting underneath the curl and forcing Nixon to redirect upfield. Hill’s primary target was, for all intents and purposes, neutralized.
A year ago, this was the type of scenario that might have flustered Hill. Last season, facing a similar circumstance, it’s easy to envision the TCU signal caller either dousing the fuse on the passing aspect of the play and taking off as a runner or – worse yet – forcing the ball into harm’s way. That’s what happened on the Frogs’ first series in Morgantown last October when Hill made an ill-advised throw Rasul Douglas picked off, stepping inside to rob a third down crossing route by Frogs WR Emanuel Porter.
That was then. This is now.
When the Cowboys defense handcuffed his first read, Hill didn’t get ruffled. Instead, his nonchalant body language suggested he understood that the situation might still work in his favor. After all, why hurry? The fact that OSU was dropping eight into coverage also meant Hill had at his disposal a seven-man, max protection scheme against just three Cowboys pass rushers.
After surveying the right side of the field for two heartbeats and seeing that the curl route was a lost cause, Hill calmly shuffled his feet to the left side of the pocket and redirected his focus to that half of the coverage. His next look on the play was to slot receiver Desmond White, who was breaking upfield at a 10-yard landmark on a skinny post. Hill offered White a fleeting glance, quickly recognizing that Cowboys safety Ramon Richards was shadowing the post route and choking off the throwing lane.
Hill seamlessly moved his eyes to his third option on the play: Frogs receiver John Diarse. The senior wideout was fighting back toward the sticks after selling a vertical route hard enough to get Cowboys freshman defensive back Rodarius Williams to turn his hips and bail. Before strongside linebacker Calvin Bundage could react to expand into the flat and offer Williams help, Hill fired a perfectly placed ball to Diarse, who made the catch for the TCU first down.
The play concept itself was basic but executed well by a quarterback who has settled comfortably into his scheme. All told, the football was in Kenny Hill’s hands for 3 ½ seconds of real time. During that span, he remained aware of his protection while staying on script and sorting through the necessary elements of the coverage. He identified his only viable option and closed the deal with an accurate throw. This is the type of process he often struggled with 12 months ago.
One final note on Hill . . . A year ago he rushed for 10 touchdowns, the most ever by a Frogs quarterback. Through four games in 2017, he’s yet to reach the end zone as a runner. In fact, he’s only carried the ball in the red zone twice this season (compared to 24 times a year ago). Of course, Hill’s numbers in this area have, in part, been impacted by running back Sewo Olonilua taking Wildcat snaps for TCU in some red-zone situations this year. Stay tuned?
Now grab your clicker and fast forward to the end of the same game. With 2:45 remaining and the Frogs nursing a 37-31 lead, you’ll see TCU facing a second down and seven at the Cowboys’ 45-yard line. This play illustrates the other key element of the Frogs’ offense that has helped it leap forward this season . . . a relentless ground game that can flat out wear you down.
Behind a veteran offensive line that averages 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, TCU leans on you for the balance of 60 minutes (they possessed the football for 39 minutes against Oklahoma State) until your technique finally disintegrates and Frogs ball carriers burst through missed tackles into the secondary. This contributes to TCU’s 6.2 yards-per-carry average in the fourth quarter, tops in the Big 12.
“They’re running the ball extremely well,” Dana Holgorsen said. “They have about four different guys that they can hand it to. Their (offensive) line is big and doing a great job in covering people up.”
For those scoring at home, five different TCU runners have recorded a carry of 30-plus yards this year. All told, the Frogs have six runs of that distance to their credit, the most in the Big 12. Consider that a spoiler alert for what happened next against Oklahoma State.
Operating from the shotgun, TCU split two receivers wide to each side of the formation. Anticipating run, the Cowboys opted for cover zero – true man coverage with no deep help – complemented by a seven-man blitz package. The Frogs went zone-read, with Hill taking the snap and placing the ball in the belly of running back Darius Anderson, predicating his next move on the reaction of Oklahoma State’s Bundage, unblocked and left to his own devices. When Bundage fired upfield to set the edge of the defense and provide containment, Hill shrewdly gave to Anderson.
Anderson might be listed at 205 pounds, but his low pad level helps him pack the wallop of a larger back. When Kyle Hicks – TCU’s 1,000-yard rusher in 2016 – spent August on the shelf with an injury, Anderson made the most of his opportunity. Showcasing a blend of power and balance, the sophomore proved to be one of the biggest stories of TCU’s camp. Both of those skills were on display here – the 26th time he carried the football on this blistering hot afternoon in Stillwater.
The Cowboys managed to congest things at the point of attack, but the Frogs’ offensive line played it perfectly, catching the spill and collapsing the OSU defensive front like an accordion. With a jump cut, Anderson bounced away from traffic and out of Bundage’s reach. He raced past the back judge 45 yards into the end zone for the last of the three touchdowns and 201 yards from scrimmage that helped him garner Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors against the Cowboys.
An effective running game takes a firm commitment and a nasty attitude. The Frogs have both.
Check out these numbers: 36-42-49-52. That’s not a locker combination or this week’s Powerball numbers. Those are the rushing attempts by TCU in its first four games. The Frogs’ running game is here to stay. This unmistakable pattern reflects a balanced offense that’s enjoying the physicality it’s found in running the football as well as the swagger that same balance has helped restore in its quarterback.
A productive rushing attack has far reaching benefits. The fact that the Frogs’ offense has flourished on third down hasn’t been an accident. Part of that success stems from utilizing the ground game on first down to stay ahead of schedule and make those third-down situations more palatable.
TCU averages 23 runs per game on first down this season – the most in the Big 12 (up from 18 a year ago). This level of commitment to running the football has paid dividends and helped the Frogs move the chains. Case in point, in its win at Arkansas last month, TCU converted 10-of-14 third down attempts . . . and five of those conversions came on third down and one plays.
The West Virginia defense, hopeful for the healthy return of a few critical pieces like linebacker David Long Jr. and safety Toyous Avery, will face a test of the highest order on Saturday. And so will a Mountaineer offense that ranks No. 2 in the country in scoring (48.8) and total yardage (594.8).
TCU boasts the No. 1 rush defense in the Big 12 (No. 2 in total defense). This is a deep and disruptive unit that features 15 different players with a tackle for loss and a penchant for getting after the quarterback. True to form for a Gary Patterson defense, most of the Frogs’ pass rush emanates from a defensive line that has registered eight of TCU’s league-leading 11 sacks. The Frogs front four beats you like a bowl of eggs, liberating their second and third level players like senior linebacker Travin Howard (26 total tackles) and senior safety Nick Orr (15 solo tackles) to seek and destroy.
Once again Will Grier (No. 5 nationally in total offense at 376 yards/game) and Co. find themselves poised to tangle with yet another of college football’s most revered defensive tacticians. In the season opener against Virginia Tech, the Mountaineer offense clicked well enough to post the third-highest yardage total (592) ever against a Bud Foster defense, but the massive handicap in starting field position (WVU’s average start was its own 21-yard line) proved too much to overcome in that 31-24 loss.
TCU is 17-0 at home as an AP top 10 team under Patterson, the best record in the country in such games since 2001. For West Virginia to hand the Frogs the first blemish on that mark, finding a way to shorten those long fields will be imperative.
It won’t be easy. TCU’s Kavontae Turpin is slippery, averaging 27.6 yards per kickoff return during his career in Fort Worth – the most by a Horned Frog since 2011 All-American Greg McCoy. Tilting the field in the Mountaineers’ favor will require an all-hands-on-deck effort involving kickers and coverage units, the WVU return specialists and, ideally, a turnover or two by the West Virginia defense to set the table for Grier and the offense.
So here we go. With both teams nationally ranked and all eyes on Amon G. Carter Stadium, the stage is set for this series — which has given us a 94-yard game-tying touchdown pass in the final seconds, an overtime game, a double overtime game, the first 150-yard rusher ever against a Gary Patterson defense, two ESPN College Gameday visits and one nearly-decollated Clint Trickett — to provide yet another moment for the ages.
How that moment unfolds is anyone’s guess. When these two programs lock horns, conventional wisdom is often turned away at the gate. Sure, the team that wins the turnover margin has maintained an advantage (going 4-1 in the series since 2012), but the home team has gone just 2-3 during that span, the same record as the team that has led at the half. In fact, three times in those five meetings the losing team has squandered a double-digit lead.
Recent history suggests your best bet in this matchup might be to win the edge in rushing yardage (the team that does so is 5-0 since 2012) or to outscore the other guy in the fourth quarter (also 5-0).
Either way, it’s TCU week, folks.
Fasten your seatbelts and duck for cover.
No pun intended, Clint.
I’ll see you at the 50.
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