TCU, of course, utilizes a 4-2-5 style that makes for better efficiency covering the pass-happy attacks featured in the Mountain West and Big 12, where Penn State varied between a 4-3 and 3-4. But both are hard-nosed, lunch pail defenses that rely on linebackers to operate in space and a defensive front that stalemates, or wins, the line of scrimmage.
“It sounds like a broken record, but these guys are big and fast and strong and explosive,” said WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook, echoing similar statements made about other Big 12 teams. But then Crook topped the typical praise by delving deeper into TCU’s front four. “They are well-coached and you don’t see them out of position,” he said. “You don’t see them create seams for the run game. You don’t see them create seams for the quarterback to step up and take off. They make you earn everything that you get. They don’t give you anything.”
Least of all the type of push West Virginia maintained against Oklahoma State. Both the Cowboys and Horned Frogs like to slant and make plays off their line movement, and the countering adjustment of opposing fronts. But OSU lacks the playmakers of TCU’s four-man line, which might be the best WVU faces this season as a unit, Oklahoma and Alabama included. Texas Christian, known for defense under head coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5, is second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (21.6 ppg) and is allowing a solid 132.3 rushing yards per game, good for fourth. The majority of that came in one poor outing against Baylor (272 rush yards), however, and outside that lone game the Frogs have yet to allow any foe more than 152.
What’s more, TCU doesn’t often blitz. It won’t bring more than the four-man pressure, believing it can both harass and sack quarterbacks sans a fifth rusher. That allows for the five DBs in pass defense, as well as a pair of linebackers to eliminate throws across the middle and outnumber at least the offensive line in the run game. Knifing through gaps and bowing up plays in the backfield is at a premium for TCU, and it’s an aspect of which the Mountaineers are well aware, even after coming off their best overall rushing performance of the season against a similarly-styled foe.
“For the most part what they did was slant,” WVU center Tyler Orlosky said of Oklahoma State. “They slanted almost every play, and TCU does that a lot as well. The interior guys, the end would slant. When they slant like that, we up front have to know where our (assignment) is going to be after they slant. We rely on the guys next to us to help us with our double team. That’s the biggest thing when we run the ball, our double team block. If we do that right, we should have no problems with the slant, but obviously things don’t always happen as you want them to.
“You want to play against the best competition you can, and in the Big 12 you can do that almost any game. They are very athletic and they slant and are very technique-sound. I think for us to be able to do what we are supposed to do we have to keep with our technique, keep with our assignments and if we do that, we should be able to do all right against them.”
The Frogs have forced a conference-best 21 turnovers, with 13 interceptions and eight fumbles, and have gotten off the field by allowing opponents to convert just 27.4 percent of their third downs. That ranks even better than the excellent WVU defense, which rates 13th in the NCAA at 30 percent. That equates to the second-best scoring defense in the Big 12, and the fourth-best total defense at 371.9 yards on average. In all, TCU tops the Big 12 in six defensive categories.
“Because they are so well-coached in their scheme, they don’t give you big plays,” Crook said. “They have been able to control things at the line of scrimmage without blitzing. One of the things we talk about is we are going to miss it a time or two. They are gonna come across the face and catch us off guard at times. But we have to let that go and line-up again and keep moving forward. The thing we can’t do is let things compound on us and miss it one time and get upset about it and then let it affect us and miss it again.
“You gotta do a good job on the backside with footwork and targets to try and stop those guys from getting across your face, first of all. If they do a good job and they get across, we have create upfield movement. It’s all about work ethic, their motor they play with. They don’t take plays off, they hustle and bust their butt from snap to whistle.”
Arguably the biggest threat along the line is defensive tackle Chucky Hunter. The two-time All-Big 12 selection has 17.5 career tackles for loss and seven sacks. They key to neutralizing Hunter, 6-1, 305 pounds, will be to maintain the blocks and communicate effectively in the double team. Gap control is critical for West Virginia, which will hand to the backs often in a stretch run style and have them be patient and await a seam. Ends Josh Carraway (6-4, 250 lbs.) and James McFarland (6-3, 248 lbs.), who share duty on the left side, and Mike Tuaua (6-3, 253 lbs.) won’t crash hard to slow the inside, at least initially, but rather have a controlled bull rush to try and keep the quarterback from stepping up and being better able to see the field.
That can also funnel things to the inside, where the linebackers and fellow tackle Davion Pierson (6-2, 305 lbs.)lurk. Texas Christian will also try backside play pursuit, and try and negate the gains before a hole can open in the stretch or zone read game. Orlosky will be in charge of the play calls, with help from the guard, on the vast majority of snaps in the game.
“The looks on the backside, we have an alert to tell us if we think we have a slant going,” Orlosky said. “That will change our complete technique and our first step and everything. That’s really big and we rely on our tackles to see that and communicate it right down the line. I do think TCU is probably one of the better fronts we are going to play all year. You get excited because you don’t see guys like this all the time. The only difference is there’s no mike ‘backer, and that could change our protection a little bit. Will it change drastically? I don’t think so.”
Crook noted that in a pair of sacks against Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers let their technique slip. That happened early in the game, meaning fatigue wasn’t a factor as much as lack of focus. That is among the points being hammered home this week in drills, especially against a program that has topped the nation in total defense in thee of the last six seasons. TCU (five) ranks second to Alabama (six) in most times leading the nation in total defense since the stat began to be tracked in 1937. All five of the Frogs’ top rankings have come in the last 14 seasons.
“We need to focus on fundamentals and technique,” Crook said. “We really let our technique slip (on the sacks against OSU), which has been something that has happened a few times. I got them together and reminded them of the right footwork and the right approach. They got it straightened out and really started to protect down the stretch.”