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What to Watch For: Previewing the TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs are limited by a true freshman quarterback, a lack of a pass rush, and an inability to force turnovers.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

After avoiding disaster Saturday night thanks to another late-game field goal by kicker Cameron Dicker, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns now prepare to travel to Fort Worth this weekend to take on a feisty 3-3 TCU Horned Frogs team.

Narrowly beating Kansas in Austin, 50-48, Texas improved its Big 12 Conference record to 3-1 and overall record to 5-2. Meanwhile, the Horned Frogs struggled to put points on the board in Manhattan and left with a loss that now puts them at 3-3 on the season and 1-2 in Big 12 play.

Gary Patterson’s team isn’t one to sleep on, though. In classic Patterson fashion, the defense is still causing some issues for opposing offenses, and he’s about as good as they come when preparing to take on the Longhorns. At least TCU won’t be coming off a bye week like two of the last three Texas opponents.

What should the Texas defense be prepared for from TCU?

Led by freshman quarterback Max Duggan, TCU has been better on the ground than in the air so far. Through five games, the Horned Frogs rank third in the conference in rushing but fall to ninth when it comes to passing.

Duggan is a 6’2, 190-pound scrappy quarterback out of Iowa who TCU has rolled with most of the season. To this point, Duggan has passed for 874 yards and nine touchdowns, and he’s yet to throw an interception. But he’s also completing just 56% of his passes — accuracy has been an issue in the quarterback’s young college career.

Prior to last week’s game, Duggan hadn’t been much of a running threat. Then against Kansas State, he exploded for 115 rush yards, including this rumble down the field for an impressive score.

At various points in this game, Duggan was able to make some plays with his legs off of a combination of some nicely-timed designed runs, a few read plays, and a couple of scrambles. With Duggan struggling some through the air, expect TCU to prod and test the Texas defense early a bit with Duggan’s legs on Saturday.

After struggling to defend scrambles and the quarterback run game against Oklahoma and Kansas, the Texas defense will have to be more disciplined with their assignments and make sure that those assignments are communicated clearly before the play, especially in tempo situations.

For young players like redshirt freshman B-backer Byron Vaughns, who played the first extended action of his career on defense last week, just getting lined up correctly and getting the defensive call from Todd Orlando can be difficult.

TCU’s offense is schemed and coached by offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, now in his sixth season on Gary Petterson’s staff. It’s an offense that incorporates Air Raid and spread offense structure into the scheme thanks to Cumbie’s playing days as a quarterback under Mike Leach at Texas Tech.

With a true freshman quarterback, Cumbie has drawn criticism for running a constricted version of his offense, but that’s also understandable — he’s trying to build Duggan’s confidence and structure the attack around what the young passer can handle. As a result, this will be one of the more limited offenses that Texas has seen this season after facing quarterbacks with at least four years of college experience in six of the first seven games.

Though TCU has struggled to pass at the rate they’d prefer, there is still certainly talent on the Horned Frogs offense that the banged up and struggling Texas secondary will need to pay attention to. On the outside, it starts with junior wide receiver Jalen Reagor.

Against Texas last season, Reagor posted a 8/96/1 line. And though TCU hasn’t thrown the ball well so far, the speedy 5’11, 190-pound Reagor has still splashed with athletic plays, including the two scores below he posted against Iowa State recently.

As these plays demonstrate, Reagor is particularly effective around the red zone because of his incredible athleticism that allows him to high point the football and beat tight coverage. That’s bad news for Texas defensive backs who have struggled to play the football in the air in games this season.

On the year, Reagor has 23 receptions for 271 yards and three scores, numbers that don’t match his talent level. Still, he’s extremely dangerous and Cumbie will likely try to get him in space on easy throws for Duggan and see if the Longhorns can get him to the ground. For the young and inexperienced Texas secondary, taking better angles and tackling with better technique will be key when Reagor does get the ball in his hands.

Behind Reagor in receiving production has been 6’3, 200-pound sophomore Ta’Vailence Hunt, who’s caught 11 passes for 210 yards but has yet to find the end zone. And the Horned Frogs did see the return of Taye Barber, the second leading receiver from 2018, against Kansas State. Barber finished second on the team in receptions with four and caught three passes for 26 yards against the Longhorns last season.

Though after surrendering four scores and over 300 yards against Kansas, it seems as of late the Longhorns secondary can be hit at any moment with a big play.

The strength of the TCU offense is the running game, a two-headed attack led by seniors Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua.

The latter is a 6’3, 240-pound bruiser of a running back who has rushed for 271 yards and three scores on 60 carries and has also brought in a receiving touchdown as well. Olonilua led the Horned Frogs in rushing last season with 635 yards on 135 attempts.

Between the two, the 5’11, 212-pound Anderson has found more green grass so far this season and has racked up 588 yards and six scores on 83 carries. A combination of tough running and elusiveness, as shown below, has led to Anderson’s 7.08 yards per carry average.

In conference play, that average has dipped to 5.24 yard per carry. Still, Anderson has been effective on the ground.

This isn’t the explosive TCU offense the Big 12 has been accustomed to in years past, but considering the Texas defense just gave up 48 to a Kansas team that had been averaging far less than TCU’s 33 points per game, this is still an offense with some key pieces that could get the better of this struggling Longhorns defense.

One of the key choices for Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will be whether the Horns can stop the Horned Frogs running game without blitzing in order to set up the type of third-and-long situations that have allowed Orlando to tee off on young quarterbacks and effectively remove them from the game in the early going.

Orlando has accomplished that task in both games against Iowa State in his career at Texas and last season in Austin against TCU. The concern is that his best blitzers in the secondary, sophomores BJ Foster and DeMarvion Overshown, are both dinged up and game-time decisions on Saturday.

What could the Texas offense see from the TCU defense?

The Horned Frogs defense is still the same 4-2-5 unit run by Patterson that often relies on quarters coverage and divorcing the calls of the defensive front from the calls in the secondary, which are also typically split in half. The idea is to use the front six to spill the running game to the edges, where the two deep safeties can run the alley and keep opponents from getting steady yardage on the ground.

In recent years, Patterson has increasingly used hybrid players, especially at the linebacker position. This year, former safety Garrett Wallow is the standout after single-handedly stalling the Texas running game last year in the third quarter. To find success on the ground, the Longhorns offensive line will have to work to the second level and get hats on Wallow, but that’s easier said than done because Wallow is so quick.

To get Wallow out of position, along with the rest of the TCU defense, Texas may have to break tendency and run some misdirection plays, because Patterson always coaches his players extremely well on how to pick up small keys before and after the snap to help them play faster.

Winning at the point of attack in the running game won’t be easy, either — the Horned Frogs have two excellent defensive tackles in Ross Blacklock and Corey Bethley. Blacklock in particular is one of the best in the conference and will be a challenge for senior center Zach Shackelford. He leads the team in sacks with 3.5 on the season.

Of the six TCU opponents this season, only Iowa State and Kansas have averaged more than three yards per carry against the Horned Frogs. In the road game in Ames, quarterback Brock Purdy did most of the damage on the ground, gaining nearly 100 yards — Texas might have to use junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger more frequently in the quarterback run game this week to unlock the TCU run defense.

The good news for Texas and the bad news for Patterson is that the losses of two-time All-Big 12 first-team selection Ban Banogu and 2018 All-Big 12 first-team selection LJ Collier have depleted the edge rushing talent for TCU. The two combined for 14.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss last season. So far this season, the Horned Frogs have struggled to rush the passer — ranking tied for 98th nationally with Texas with 11 sacks this season. Five of those sacks came in the first two games.

So a Longhorns offensive line that has allowed 12 sacks in the last two games, including nine by the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl, should have a chance to bounce back and keep Ehlinger clean in the pocket.

Losing graduate transfer Jawuan Johnson and Ty Summers at linebackers has hurt the defense, too — TCU doesn’t have the same type of experience at the position. Johnson provided the speed, while Summers provided the beef as a strong blitzer who could also get after the quarterback.

On the back end, TCU has two excellent players in safety Innis Gaines and cornerback Jeff Gladney. Gaines is big safety who is capable of making plays in the box — he had 6.5 tackles for loss last season despite missing the last seven games. Gladney is one of the best cover corners in the conference and will be difficult to beat.

Last season, Texas wasn’t able to get going offensively against TCU until the defense started giving it short fields in the second half as a result of turnovers. Since Duggan hasn’t thrown an interception yet this season, it may be difficult for the defense to help the offense out as much as it did last season. And the Horned Frogs are one of the best teams in the country at limiting opponents from gaining an edge in field position.

So head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have to find ways to move the ball against a defense that has largely dominated against the Longhorns since joining the Big 12. The special teams need to help out, too, after some bad games in recent weeks.

This isn’t Patterson’s best group defensively, but it still has many of his hallmarks of his defenses and won’t be easy to unlock. The difference now is that Texas has its best offense in a decade, so a defining question for Saturday’s game will be whether Herman’s attack can continue producing at such a high level to give the defense the significant margin for error that it may require once again.