There's little question the Horned Frogs' defensive numbers are lacking from where they have been in past seasons. TCU is giving up more than 270 passing and 150 rushing yards while surrendering 30 points per game. But those latter two numbers rank third and fifth in the Big 12, and even Texas Christian's total defensive ranking of fifth places it squarely in the top half of the Big 12 in a down year. The secret, as WVU receivers coach Tyron Carrier pointed out, is Gary Patterson. In his 17th season as the head coach - and 19th overall with the program - the defensive-minded coach has built a consistent winner out of his 4-2-5 look that plays slightly different than most others.
Patterson doesn't window dress, or attempt to fool offenses much. His units consistently churn out high rankings and excellent overall play via sound fundamentals, good open space tackling and speed on the back end that can cover and run down opposing backs and receivers. It's why head coach Dana Holgorsen has told anybody who would listen that this match-up is the most difficult of the season for the Mountaineers. Holgorsen might well be right, even with TCU returning just eight scholarship seniors on both sides.
The Horned Frogs are rushing the passer effectively, thus far managing 22 sacks (3.7 per game) to rank seventh nationally and second in the Big 12. TCU has at least one sack in a school-record 36 consecutive games, the nation's second longest streak behind Ohio State's 41. And starting linebackers Ty Summers and Travin Howard rank first and second in the conference in tackles with 64 and 58, respectively.
"They know where they belong, they know exactly what to do," Carrier said. "They play smaller bodies at linebacker so those guys fly around. So as long as somebody can get somebody's feet to stop, you can get guys to rally to the ball. That's what makes them good. They don't have the traditional linebacking corps. Everybody in the secondary can run, they can cover. The safeties look like corners. They are pretty good across the board, especially for this conference since it's such a spread conference. He does a great job of putting the right bodies on the field."
The biggest issue with facing Patterson's 4-2-5 set is the way it plays on the back end. Patterson has, for years, employed two calls per play for the secondary. The Frogs will split coverage, for example using man to one side and zone on another while dropping the free safety deep in a cover one, or employ one of a handful of base coverages with two deep safeties to protect over the top. TCU begins nearly every snap with a pair of safeties deep, then realigns based upon what the offense shows, sometimes shuffling into a cover five against no-back sets. It makes reading the scheme difficult pre-snap and forces quarterbacks to deal with added uncertainty while moving through progressions in the passing game.
TCU often leaves the corners in man, and expects them to be able to negate the outside and funnel plays to the middle, where there is additional help. The safeties also typically read the receivers routes initially, then play run. That accomplishes two things. It keeps the eyes out of the backfield, while also ensuring the Frogs protect against the deeper pass or blown coverage, which could hurt most. TCU wants to force long drives while figuring many spread teams, like Texas Tech and Baylor, will lack the patience required to do so continuously throughout the game.
Texas Christian's front attempts to negate the inside and spill the ball out, where its space players can close quickly and make plays via numbers, instead of raw force. Again, this is a defense designed to perform against spread offenses, much like what Tony Gibson's 3-3-5 is predicated upon. The idea is to force long marches by protecting over the top first and with intermediate routes second, and get the run game moving east-west instead of north-south where the fast linebackers and hybrid safeties can scrape and run down the ball.
"We have saw it just about every game we played this year from Missouri to BYU," WVU running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said. "Even to some degree against Youngstown State and Kansas State. It's the same defense as Kansas State. But they do as good a job with it as anybody because of how they box things in and keep everything in. Defending the ball 30 yards and in, they are probably the best on the country the way they match routes and fill gaps with safeties and linebackers. They don't show a lot of weakness. They do a great job of game planning, of scheming you and finding your tendencies and attacking your tendencies. They do a great job of knowing when it's a run-pass. We have to do a great job of being on-point with our play calls and signals and everything else because they do a great job of picking up on things."
TCU has also had an extra week to prepare for West Virginia as the Frogs come off their first bye week of the season. It's an added edge which Carrier expects to translate onto the field, especially as the Mountaineers come off a Texas Tech game in which they might have gained confidence - but lost moxie - while Texas Christian harped upon its escape-like one-point win over Kansas.
"I know (Patterson) will have us schemed up pretty well," Carrier said. "You get time off, you get an extra week to game plan. We had that advantage for a couple weeks. It's all about execution and getting into the flow of the game for us and figuring out what they are not gonna let us do and what they will let us do. We gotta score. When we get in the red zone we have to score. This is a scoring league. We can get first down after first down, but if you aren't scoring you won't survive in this league."
Let alone thrive. Which begs the question of how West Virginia overcomes perhaps the toughest rendition of the 4-2-5 it will see this season? The Mountaineers do have a couple advantages in that the offense has become increasingly patient as it has developed a more solid ground game under Holgorsen. WVU will take the four and five yard chunks, if it can, and work the field. West Virginia has also managed to eliminate the negative yardage plays upon which many opportunistic defenses feed, which has allowed them to stay out of third down situations. Howard wasn't touched much last week, let alone sacked, and the pocket has stayed clean for much of the year. That's a must again versus a front four which likes to generate pressure on its own.
Perhaps Carrier summed it best when he noted that WVU's offense is built for whatever is thrown at it. The key is deciphering what, exactly, that is, then being able to react to it. It's something Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsburgy couldn't do last week as the Mountaineers disguised pressures and coverage well, and it will be a challenge for Holgorsen as well as Texas Christian dares WVU to indeed find its version of balance.
"We basically just take when the defense gives us," Carrier said. "There's no big rocket science to it. It's taking what they give you. You find out what they don't like, and we put them in a position they really don't like. We get plays out of that. It could be a formation, it could be a certain run play or certain routes. There's always something a defense doesn't like. The mystery is finding that out and executing it."