Know Thine Enemy: TCU

Stanford's toughest loss to swallow last year was the come-from-ahead 38-36 heartbreaker vs. TCU. The game's in Fort Worth, Tex. this year, and TCU should be better, but so is Stanford. Read on as Daniel Novinson and The Bootleg describe how the Cardinal need to use size to their advantage in week three -- and where TCU might be vulnerable defensively.

Texas Christian Horned Frogs

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ TCU – September 13
Last Year: TCU 38, Stanford 36

Side-by-Side Stats
Stats listed Opponent/Stanford. Stanford stats Pac-10 only.

2007 Offense:
Yards Per Game: 387/297
Points Per Game: 26.1/16.4
Rushing Yards Per Game: 165/79
Yards Per Carry: 3.7/2.3 
Passing Yards Per Game: 222/218
Yards Per Pass: 6.5/5.9
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/7

2007 Defense:
Yards Per Game: 323/473
Points Per Game: 18.7/31.1
Rushing Yards Per Game: 103/193
Yards Per Carry: 2.9/4.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 220/280
Yards Per Pass: 6.2/7.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 7/9

Bottom Line:
2007 Record: (8-5, 4-4 Mountain West)/(4-8, 3-6)
2008 Predicted Points Per Game: 28/23
2008 Predicted Points Allowed Per Game: 23/28
2008 Projected Record: (8-4, 5-3 Mtn. West)/(3-9, 2-7)

Take TCU's stats with a grain of salt, because obviously the Mountain West isn't as strong as the Pac-10. In particular, that defense looked a lot more malleable in person last year than it does on paper here. But there's no doubt the relative strength of the TCU squad is its rush D. The Frogs return nearly as many starters as Stanford.

Second Down: Offense

Star tailback Aaron Brown returns after an injury-filled 2007, as do four starters on the offensive line. All told then, TCU should be able to steamroll most of its opponents.

Brown has ran for 2,049 yards on an LT-like 5.3 average in his first three years at TCU, but an injured knee and broken ankle limited him to just 490 yards and 106 carries last year, after entering the season the Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year. If Brown can carry the load this year (all the more important considering the injury troubles plaguing tailback threat 1A, Joseph Turner), there's no reason why he shouldn't push the 1,500-yard barrier and singlehandedly improve TCU's 2007 record by a win or two.

The line is downright scary, with left tackle Marshall Newhouse and center Blake Schlueter the two stars, and the right side (guard Giles Montgomery and Nic Richmond) returning starters as well. Only left guard Preston Phillips is new, making this TCU's most experienced line since 2004. The Frogs ran for 165 yards per game last year, but at least 190 in four of the five seasons prior. This year, expect a return to the good, old days.

TCU really doesn't throw that much, with last season's rather meager 222 passing yards per game actually the Frogs' highest total in three years. It's probably a good thing for TCU then that the passing attack is the weakest part of the entire team. Quarterback Andy Dalton looked like Peyton Manning against Stanford last year, at 23-of-34 for 344 yards on the contest, but that was an aberration. On the season, Dalton played like the freshman he was with 11 picks to 10 touchdowns, though his mobility did produce 411 rush yards.

As a sophomore this year with returning starting experience, Dalton should improve measurably, but who will he throw it to? The only receiver with 500 yards to his name last year (Ervin Dickerson) is gone, and, in fact, no returning TCU receiver caught more than one touchdown last year. (Then again, Richard Sherman and Austin Gunder are the only Stanford returnees with multiple TD catches in 2007.) Donald Massey, Walter Bryant and Jimmy Young are the likely starters, and while they did each catch for over 300 yards last year, the TCU receiving corps will probably one of the weakest groups Stanford's backfield faces the entire season. (Considering the secondary is the biggest question on Stanford's D, TCU's offense is a pretty good matchup.)

TCU normally leans so heavily on the run that the lack of receiving depth would not be a major problem, but if Stanford can force TCU to the air like it did last year (more on that in second), the visiting underdog Cardinal will have a good shot at avenging its heartbreaking loss last year.

Third Down: Defense

As always, the defense is undersized by BCS standards, but should impose its will in the Mountain West. Given the seven returning starters and plethora of All-Conference level talent, the only question is at safety.

Let's start with the size issue. There's no way around it: TCU is small, with more projected starters weighing in the 100s (three) than the 300s (one, the left tackle Newhouse). Then again, Stanford is relatively small too, with five likely starters in the 100s and just two in the 300s (Chris Marinelli and Ekom Udofia). That compares unfavorably to the cream of the Pac-10. USC, Cal, Oregon and ASU total 17 starters weighing at least 300 pounds, including every starter on ASU's admittedly huge offensive line.

And while TCU overcomes its size disadvantage with one of the nation's best strength and conditioning programs (as the second half of the Stanford game made evident) and by playing in a conference where most of its opponents are on the small side too, it is an issue against BCS schools.

Texas ran for 176 and Stanford 170 against the Frogs last year, two of the season's three worst performances by the rush D. TCU, meanwhile, managed just 43 yards (1.3 per carry) against Texas and 150 (3.1) against Stanford running – both below its season average of 165 rush yards (3.7).

If recent years are any indication then, BCS teams will be better able to run against TCU than the numbers indicate, while their defenses are likely to force TCU to win through the air. Given that Stanford looks to be stronger running than passing this year, and TCU would always rather run the ball, Stanford needs to exploit those trends this year if it's going to pull the upset.

Still, I wouldn't want to get in a fight with senior DT Cody Moore, "just" 6'1", 292, but able to squat an unbelievable 760 pounds. Moore is rather understandably a starter up front, and he'll try to help TCU make up for the loss of its All-Conference pair of defensive ends, Tommy Blake and Chase Ortiz. Senior DT James Vess, a starter in 2006, returns after being suspended all last season, so the Frogs don't actually lose that much experience up front. Their strong sack numbers (41 overall, five against Stanford) may drop with the loss of their two pass-rush specialists, but the rush D should be as stiff as ever.

The two linebackers in TCU's 4-2-5 have both been All-Conference for three years running, Jason Phillips at middle and Robert Henson at strongside, the most important position on the field. (Think of an MLB in a 4-3 D.) Henson's most impressive for making 66 tackles last year – despite starting only one game!

The one weakness in the secondary is at safety, as likely starters Tejay Johnson (weak safety) and Steven Coleman (free safety) are both untested, with strong safety Stephen Hodge the only returning starter. But two factors mitigate any problem TCU may have against the pass. First, the safeties in TCU's 4-2-5 are kind of hybrids between linebackers and defensive backs anyways, so it's not like they'll be sitting in a zone 20 yards off the line, waiting for a good quarterback to carve them up. Second, corners Rafael Priest (Honorable Mention All-Conference) and Nick Sanders are both three-year starters, so I think Gary Patterson has enough confidence in those guys that they'll be defending on islands sometimes anyways.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

I complained about how condensed Stanford's schedule was in the Arizona State preview. Well folks, it could be a lot worse. TCU plays its two biggest games of the season on five days of prep apiece, with the Utah and BYU tilts both on Thursday night, all the better for ESPN coverage. Thursday night games aren't that uncommon in this day and age, but when the big boys play them, they get the Saturday before off, unlike TCU. (At least Utah and BYU both have games the Saturday before as well.) And, like Stanford, TCU has only one bye the entire season.

Seems like TCU, like many mid-majors, will do nearly anything for TV exposure, but at what cost? The last three years, they're 1-5 on Thursdays and 29-3 every other day of the week.

The 36 points Stanford scored in last year's loss is the most TCU has allowed since 2005. Utah, BYU and Texas, three rather strong offenses, have all failed to hit Stanford's high-water mark in the interim.

TCU racks up some big losses in the special teams department, with this year's likely starting kicker and punter both inexperienced freshmen. The biggest loss is kicker Chris Manfredini, who hit 22 of 27 field goals last year, production some NFL teams would take in a heartbeat, not to mention a BCS school. The Frogs also blocked four punts last year, and there's no way a team can get that hot two straight years.

Even so, TCU's a sleeper pick of mine nationally, for a variety of reasons. First, they've won at least ten four of the five years before last season's 8-5, so the talent is clearly there necessary for a breakout season. Second, the Frogs lost 35 starts last year to injury, including the team MVP Brown. They have to get luckier this year.

Third, TCU has had a positive turnover ratio for five straight seasons before last year, unsurprising given that a run-based offense is less likely to fumble than a passing attack is to throw picks. But between the injury-induced musical chairs at running back and Dalton playing quarterback as a true frosh, the Frogs were actually -7 in net turnovers last year. With better experience and luck this year, that number should improve. And as any coach worth his whistle knows, turnovers are one of the statistics most correlated with winning football games.

Finally, TCU somehow went only .500 in conference despite outscoring its Mountain West foes by 67 points and outgaining them by 106 yards per game. Most years, a spread like that would point to a 7-1 mark. Instead, and in spite of a dynamite field goal kicker, TCU was 1-4 in close games in 2007 (and I bet you remember the win). TCU will likely be an underdog in the BYU and Utah games, plus their Sept. 27 visit to Oklahoma, which is why I see them only barely improving their record.

But they'll be favored in their other nine games, including the Sept. 13 visit from Stanford. One big reason is the home-field advantage, and in particular the weather. The game starts at 6 p.m. Central. In mid-September, that could easily translate into a kickoff temperature well into the 90s.

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