All hail Hypnotoad.
The Futurama character is now the unofficial mascot of the No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs, the nation’s most surprising team in 2022 under new head coach Sonny Dykes — the Carter Boys are undefeated at 9-0, in position to earn a berth in the College Football Playoffs, and lead the Big 12 standings.
It’s been a shocking ascension in the post-Gary Patterson era after TCU entered the season picked seventh in the conference in the preseason poll and slotted at No. 41 in the preseason SP+ rankings.
Now the Horned Frogs head down I-35 for a Saturday matchup against the No. 18 Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance and the eyes of the college football world on the Forty Acres for the second time this season.
“We’re playing a very good opponent, very electric on offense, a really good run game — [Kendre] Miller’s a tremendous runner — [Max] Duggan’s a great passer, they’ve got Quentin Johnston on the outside, so a really complete offensive football team,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. “Very, very talented, very fast defensive football team that we have to take an account for and an excellent return game as well. So Coach Dykes has done a great job.”
The matchup provides an opportunity for Texas to notch a home win against a top-five opponent for the first time since beating No. 3 Nebraska 24-20 in 1999.
Having worked with Hal Mumme at Kentucky and Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Dykes has deep connections to Air Raid offenses. And while that was hardly unique in the Big 12 several years ago, it is now as more teams have moved to heavier personnel packages. TCU, however, still likes to spread the field under offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and will provide a serious challenge to the Texas secondary.
Overall, the Horned Frogs average 508.7 yards per game and 43.1 points per game while ranking 13th nationally in offensive FEI. Unlike the old Red Raiders teams, though, Riley operates a balanced offense that runs the ball 56.4 percent of the time and averages 219.7 rushing yards per game.
Quarterback Max Duggan started the season on the bench as Dykes opted to start Chandler Morris, but an early-season injury quickly thrust the longtime starter back into his familiar role. And while inconsistency plagued Duggan over his first three seasons — his best performances tended to come against Texas — the Iowa native has been sensational this season, leading the conference with 24 passing touchdowns at 9.9 yards per attempt and posting the best passer rating in the Big 12. Duggan’s decision making has also improved with only two interceptions and he’s continued to make plays with his legs in the quarterback run game and on scrambles with 282 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns.
“Really cool competitor — this guy is playing at a high level,” Sarkisian said. “He’s making the throws to make, he’s taking advantage of a lot of skill on the perimeter, but yet he’s using his legs. His legs are a factor, especially in the red area... Our discipline, our rush lanes are going to be really important in this game.”
As well as Duggan has played, Sarkisian believes that Miller, the junior running back from Mount Enterprise, is the offensive engine for the Horned Frogs.
“I really think their offense starts with him and goes through him, especially in the second half. I feel like that’s when the running game really picks up,” Sarkisian said.
Miller is now over 1,000 rushing yards this season with 12 rushing touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry after taking over as the primary running back from Zach Evans, who transferred to Ole Miss during the offseason.
At wide receiver, TCU is deep and talented. A former Texas commit, Johnston leads the way as a top NFL draft prospect who shines as a deep threat and with an outstanding catch radius. But the extent to which Johnston will be able to contribute on Saturday is an open question after he was only able to play one snap last week against Texas Tech due to an ankle injury. Even if Johnston is limited or unavailable, the Horned Frogs will remain dangerous in the passing game with the speed of Derius Davis and Taye Barber on the inside and the ability of another big-bodied receiver in Savion Williams on the outside.
Longhorns defenders will also see a familiar face lining up for the Horned Frogs — tight end Jared Wiley, the former Texas contributor who has 12 catches for 136 yards and four touchdowns this season for TCU.
When Dykes left SMU for Fort Worth, he opted against bringing defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt with him, instead hiring Joe Gillespie away from Tulsa, where he’d spent the previous three seasons running Phil Montgomery’s defense.
Gillespie first helped install a 3-3-5 defense for the Hurricanes in 2018 and brought that scheme to the Big 12, including some of the same Flyover defense looks with three high safeties that the Longhorns have now seen versions of in every game since facing the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl.
TCU has been solid this year defensively, ranking No. 34 nationally in defensive FEI, just behind Texas A&M and Baylor, although the Horned Frogs do rank 72nd in first-down rate and 77th in turnover rate. Despite the subpar turnover rate, TCU has 10 interceptions, tied for 20th nationally, led by safety Bud Clark with three.
Creating negative plays has not been a strength of Gillespie’s group with only 19 sacks and 47 tackles for loss, a situation compounded against Texas by the first-half suspension of star linebacker Dee Winters, who leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Winters was ejected for targeting in the second half of the win over Texas Tech.
Compared to the rest of the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have been average on third down, ranking fifth in the conference as opponents convert at a 38-percent rate, and average in the red zone with opponents scoring touchdowns on 62.5 percent of their red-zone trips.
Big plays have been a problem, as well, with TCU allowing 23 plays or 30 or more yards, nine in the conference, and nine plays of 40 or more yards, tied for seventh in the conference. The issues have mostly been in the passing game — of those 23 plays of 30 or more yards, 18 of them have come through the air, so Texas redshirt freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers has a chance to record his best passing performance since the Oklahoma game.
But with the Horned Frogs allowing 195 rushing yards to Texas Tech last week on 5.0 yards per carry, the Longhorns should also have an opportunity to run the ball effectively, especially if Sarkisian continues to lean on the gap schemes that showcase what the offensive line does well and take advantage of the three-high defensive structure.
As Sarkisian mentioned, the special teams have been a strength for TCU this season, combining to rank No. 10 nationally thanks to a 10-of-10 performance from place kicker Griffin Kell in 2022, two punt return touchdowns by Davis, and a punt coverage unit that has allowed only two returns for 17 yards this season, both coming against Texas Tech.
One of the foremost concerns for Texas is how the Longhorns match up against the Horned Frogs in the second half. After scoring only three points in the second half during last Saturday’s win over Kansas State, three points in the loss to Oklahoma State, and 10 points against Iowa State, Sarkisian is still struggling to find the right play calls after halftime as the Horns have struggled to consistently play complementary football following strong starts.
And that’s an areas where TCU is really strong, overcoming second-half deficits in four of the six conference victories.
So it will be a significant challenge for Texas to take another step forward in reversing the narrative of second-half collapses since Sarkisian arrived on the Forty Acres — three points after halftime likely won’t be enough to beat TCU.