Defending the Frog
This may not be the most obvious place to start after a back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire shootout that saw both teams combine for 97 points, but amid the chorus of hosannas for Trevone Boykin, let’s tip our caps to the TCU defense. If nothing else, for a shorthanded group that gave up 35 points in the first half alone on Saturday against Kansas State on the road, it was hard not to be impressed with the Horned Frogs’ resiliency.
At halftime, the forecast was bleak. Kansas State had scored five touchdowns on six chances with the ball, leaving TCU with an 18-point deficit and a win probability hovering around 4 percent. From there, the Frog D spurred a second-half surge. The unit opened the second half by returning an interception for a touchdown, then forced K-State to punt on four of its next five possessions,1 and finally snuffed out the Wildcats’ last-gasp attempt at a comeback by forcing (and recovering) a game-clinching fumble.
Three of which were three-and-outs.
In the end, K-State monopolized the ball effectively enough to amass a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession — a textbook exhibition of Wildcats coach Bill Snyder’s tortoise-like ethos in a conference full of up-tempo, no-huddle hares — yet managed only 385 total yards on a pedestrian 4.8 yards per play.
In the Big 12, where six of 10 teams are allowing well over 400 yards per game against FBS opponents, those kinds of defensive numbers qualify as above average. And along with TCU’s nuclear-grade offense, which racked up 10.3 yards per play (!) on Saturday night, on just 53 snaps, they will do just fine. Halfway through their regular-season schedule, the Horned Frogs are 6-0, ranked third in both major polls, and very much in position to fulfill their lofty preseason ambitions.
Still, for a team whose fate rests on such a mercurial margin of error, the line between “resilient” and “vulnerable” remains in constant flux from one week to the next, and always largely in the eye of the beholder. Last week, the same defense that gave up 45 to Kansas State pitched a de facto shutout against Texas, holding the Longhorns scoreless until the dying minutes of a 50-7 rout. The week before that, it gave up 52 points on 607 total yards at Texas Tech, in a shootout that pushed the Frogs to the furthest possible edge of the cliff without sending them over. Through five games against FBS opponents, the Frogs rank 82nd in total defense, 84th in scoring defense, and 64th in Defensive S&P+. The question is, will their offense have to keep bailing them out on a regular basis to keep those postseason dreams alive?
Last week, I posed more or less the same question about the long-term ramifications of Ohio State’s underachieving offense. Unlike the Buckeyes, it’s not clear whether TCU’s defense is falling short of its ceiling, which has been greatly diminished by injuries and attrition, or whether it can keep a championship season afloat simply by treading water against inferior opponents. At this point, it’s possible that treading water is the ceiling. We knew before the season that the Frogs were facing serious question marks defensively, after losing six of last year’s top seven tacklers, including all five defenders who landed on the 2014 All–Big 12 team. By the end of September, it was already obvious that answers were going to be hard to come by for a unit that lost five starters to major injuries in the first four games. With that context, it’s hard to shake the feeling that whatever qualified success the defense has enjoyed so far (and in the Kansas State game, specifically) looks like success only on a generous grading curve. In any other context, it looks like a liability that’s likely to persist. And with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Baylor looming down the stretch, that curve is only going to get steeper.
TCU’s defensive shortcomings are not necessarily a dealbreaker. The offense has created 50 points in five consecutive games, and the defense has proved in the wins over Texas and K-State that it can string together sustained bouts of competence and old-fashioned opportunism. While coach Gary Patterson will always be a defensive guru at heart, TCU’s success over the last two years is largely attributable to his willingness to adapt to the high-scoring logic of the Big 12, and, with the possible exception of Baylor, no team is in better position to win week-in, week-out based on that formula than the Horned Frogs are right now, with Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson seeming to share the same brain.
“My goal is still to shut ’em out,” Patterson told me this summer, by way of explaining how his defensive benchmarks have evolved to account for increasingly prolific offenses. “But it’s a lot easier to play defense when you’re scoring points.”
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Given where things stood prior to this game, I don’t think anyone in Texas is suddenly calling for the university to erect a statue of Charlie Strong, nor will local barbecue joints start naming brisket plates in his honor. The Longhorns are still a 2-4 outfit with a pair of humiliating blemishes on their résumé (losses to Notre Dame and TCU) and a long track record of failing to capitalize on occasional hints of progress. Just two years ago, the 2013 Horns delivered a stunning, feel-good win over Oklahoma in the darkest hour of Mack Brown’s tenure, and Brown still wound up getting forced out less than two months later. One win is one win.
But this was one win Strong really, really needed. It was the first of his tenure over a ranked opponent, and watching him as the game ended — pumping his fist, getting bathed with Gatorade, crowdsurfing amid a gaggle of his players — it was impossible not to feel at least momentarily happy for the guy. When Strong was hired as Brown’s successor, this was the performance that UT fans envisioned as the best-case scenario. Texas physically dominated OU on both sides of the line of scrimmage, out-rushing the Sooners 313 yards to 67. What little Oklahoma was able to scratch out offensively was a struggle. What little Texas’s maligned quarterbacks were asked to do as passers, they did so efficiently. More importantly, the Longhorns never fell victim to the kinds of big, idiotic mistakes that cost them at the end of close losses to Cal and Oklahoma State. If the worst is behind them, now they have a very clear idea of what the best looks like.
Now that the fan base has had a taste, there will be pressure to make the best-case scenario the new normal. The next five games, against Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas, West Virginia, and Texas Tech, offer a golden opportunity to turn a burgeoning catastrophe into a rollicking bandwagon heading into the regular-season finale at Baylor. But whatever happens between now and then, Strong, for the first time this season, can look ahead to the end of the schedule and feel confident that he’s going to be there.
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Speaking of best-case scenarios: Even the most die-hard, pie-eyed, front-pew believers in the messianic power of Jim Harbaugh couldn’t have imagined the sleeping Wolverine awakening with such ferocity in such little time.
Since their opening-day loss at Utah — a run-of-the-mill affair that offered no foreshadowing whatsoever of either team’s impending success — the Wolverines have allowed a grand total of 14 points, none of them in the past three games. They lead the nation in scoring defense; they rank among the top five in rushing defense, third-down defense, and first downs allowed. The numbers over the past three weeks are almost comical. After allowing BYU and Maryland only 105 yards apiece — that’s 105 yards, total, two weeks in a row — Michigan held the previously undefeated Wildcats2 to 168 yards on Saturday, and didn’t allow them across midfield after the first quarter. On offense, the Wolverines ended all but one offensive possession in Northwestern territory, and scored touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams. Harbaugh remained a raving lunatic throughout.
Northwestern arrived in Ann Arbor ranked 13th in the AP poll, five spots ahead of Michigan.
If there’s a knock on Michigan so far, it’s the uninspiring work of quarterback Jake Rudock, who served as the scapegoat in the loss to Utah and hasn’t been asked to exert himself since then. As a corollary to Gary Patterson, though, it’s a lot easier to play quarterback when your defense is literally not giving up any points.
This week, the Wolverines are substantial favorites against Michigan State, to whom they’ve lost in grisly fashion in six of the last seven seasons. The Spartans will arrive in Ann Arbor undefeated but unsettled on the offensive line and uncertain in their no. 7 ranking after struggling against Purdue and Rutgers in consecutive weeks. If Michigan gets out of that one with its winning streak intact, it’s a clear path to the season finale against Ohio State, and potentially to much larger stakes than anyone imagined in Harbaugh’s debut. This team is shaping up as the story of the year.
The past month has been a rough one for Tennessee fans, who watched their team blow double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas. Given that this particular team was the one that was supposed to vanquish seven years of futility, their frustration with remaining perpetually “one play away” was understandable. Maybe it was because this game followed the exact opposite script, with the Vols rallying from a 24-3 deficit to upset a ranked rival, that this guy’s reaction when Georgia’s last-gasp heave into the end zone fell incomplete felt perfectly understandable, too.
That’s the sound of a fan who’s been watching a bad team from the cheap seats for far too long. Prior to Saturday, Tennessee hadn’t beaten Georgia since 2009, making for one of three sobering losing streaks against its main rivals.3 At 3-3, no one is about to mistake the 2015 Vols for a good team. But that’s one down, dammit, and it didn’t come easily.
The Vols haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006 or Florida since 2004.
For Georgia, the gut punch was twofold: Not only do the Bulldogs look like afterthoughts in the SEC after consecutive losses; they also lost their hyper-productive headliner, tailback Nick Chubb, who went down on the first play of the game with a serious knee injury. Although initial reports on Sunday suggested there’s no ACL damage, Chubb may require surgery and will almost certainly miss the rest of the season, joining a depressingly long list of stars on the shelf. His school-record-tying streak of 13 straight 100-yard rushing games ended with just one carry.
As a sophomore, Chubb is required to return to school for at least one more year before he can declare for the NFL — good news for Georgia if he’s able to return at or near 100 percent and remain there for a full season. As we’ve seen with other great SEC backs, though, if the setback is serious enough, the road to a steady pro paycheck becomes perilous.
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If there were any lingering doubt after Oregon’s abrupt collapse against Utah a few weeks back, there isn’t now. The post-Mariota Ducks are an exceedingly ordinary outfit. At this rate, they will be fortunate to wind up in a bottom-tier bowl game. With three losses (two of them coming in Autzen Stadium), Oregon is already assured of its worst regular-season record since 2009, the year Chip Kelly was promoted to head coach, and that’s with difficult dates with Washington, Arizona State, Cal, Stanford, and USC still on deck.
1. Baylor (5-0) No, the Bears still ain’t played nobody. But in a crowded field of contenders — a dozen undefeated teams remain in the five major conferences — they are the darlings of the advanced-stat crowd, ranking no. 1 according to both FPI and Kenneth Massey and no. 2 per Jeff Sagarin. (Sagarin’s “Predictor” rating, which aims to predict future outcomes, also has the Bears on top.) Meanwhile, the traditional polls were impressed enough with the Bears’ 66-7 blowout over Kansas to elevate Baylor to no. 2, the best ranking in school history. (Last week: 1)
2. TCU (6-0) Boykin accounted for more than 78 percent of TCU’s total offense against Kansas State, not including the key block he threw on a touchdown run by Aaron Green. (Last week: 2)
3. Texas A&M (5-0) More to come later this week on A&M’s upcoming collision with Alabama, but suffice to say the Aggies are probably going to fare better than they did last year. (Last week: 4)
4. Clemson (5-0) I’m already on record here ridiculing the ongoing scourge of “Clemsoning.” But Dabo Swinney is even more fed up with the term than I am, and he’s infinitely more entertaining in his indignation.
Saturday’s 43-24 win over Georgia Tech was the Tigers’ 33rd straight over unranked opponents. (Last week: 6)
5. Florida (6-0) A hangover trip to Missouri would have been the perfect opportunity for the young Gators to blow the goodwill they earned in last week’s galvanizing upset over Ole Miss, but they responded with a routine, 21-3 win in Columbia that was as encouraging as it was unremarkable. Next up: a trip to LSU that will give us a good idea of exactly how much gas this group has left in its tank. (Last week: 7)
6. LSU (5-0) In 10 years under Les Miles, the Tigers have made it to 6-0 only three times. Two of those three teams went on to play for the national title. (Last week: 10)
7. Utah (5-0) The good news: The Utes outlasted Cal to solidify their place as the Pac-12’s last remaining undefeated team. The not-so-good news: Despite six takeaways and a dynamite game from tailback Devontae Booker, the Utes won by only six points, 30-24, and didn’t come close to cracking the end zone in the second half against an ordinary-at-best Cal defense. (Last week: 8)
8. Ohio State (6-0) For what it’s worth, the Buckeyes’ 49-28 win over Maryland was their most encouraging offensive effort since the season-opening blitzkrieg at Virginia Tech. Still, with each passing week there are fewer and fewer excuses for the traditional polls to keep propping up OSU at no. 1 with nothing remotely resembling a quality win. (Last week: 3)
9. Alabama (5-1) Five-star freshman Calvin Ridley finished with nine catches for 140 yards in the Crimson Tide’s 27-14 win over Arkansas, including an 81-yard, go-ahead dagger in the third quarter that — along with the 45-yard dagger he hauled in last week at Georgia — served as notice that the post–Amari Cooper void in Bama’s receiving corps has been filled. (Last week: 9)
10. Florida State (5-0) Adding another notch in a six-game winning streak over Miami doesn’t mean what it used to, but after clearing that hurdle … let me put it this way: If the Seminoles aren’t undefeated going into a November 7 blockbuster at Clemson, I promise to transcribe Jimbo Fisher’s next press conference. (Last week: unranked)
The best of the week …
The really astonishing part of Cook’s 269-yard, three-touchdown effort against Miami is that the dude wasn’t even healthy. Before the game, he was questionable to play due to a gimpy hamstring, and during the game he visibly struggled with the injury on multiple occasions. Even at less than full speed, though, Cook was still the fastest guy on the field in the fourth quarter.
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Saddled with a 21-point deficit against Georgia and a flat-lining season, Dobbs rallied the Vols behind a career-high 430 total yards (312 passing, 118 rushing) and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) en route to Tennessee’s most encouraging win in years.
Jefferson, a highly touted true freshman, was at the center of the Longhorns’ defensive push against Oklahoma, accounting for six total tackles and two of UT’s six sacks in the upset. The Sooners’ rushing total in the Cotton Bowl (67 yards on 1.8 per carry, including sacks) was their worst since a 2012 loss against a Notre Dame team that went on to play for the national title. For his part in the clampdown, Jefferson was honored as the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week.
Fat Guy(s) of the Week: Michigan DT Willie Henry
Henry earns this honor on behalf of the entire Michigan defensive line, which collectively reduced Northwestern’s offense to a gibbering heap. Henry was credited with four total tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, including a pair of sacks. As a group, the Wolverines’ DL rotation dropped Wildcats quarterbacks four times and held Northwestern’s ground game — a formidable attack that had rushed for at least 184 yards in each of its first five games, including a 225-yard afternoon against Stanford — to a grand total of 38 yards on 1.5 per carry.
Catch of the Year of the Week: Miami WR Stacy Coley
Coley’s sprawling, go-ahead touchdown catch in the fourth quarter came too early to keep Florida State from retaking the lead for good, but it made me scream out loud when I realized he came down with it, which is the only real criterion.
It speaks volumes to the level of unmitigated dominance that Fournette has displayed this season that a 158-yard effort on the ground against an SEC defense elicited mostly shrugs. Fournette wasn’t even LSU’s leading rusher in a 45-24 win over South Carolina, ceding the spotlight to true freshman Derrius Guice (161 yards) after leaving the game for good in the third quarter. Why, outside of his weekly breakaway touchdown run in the third quarter (this one covering 87 yards), Fournette averaged just 3.7 yards on his other 19 attempts!
For once, Fournette managed to garner more attention off the field than on it, after he used his postgame interview on ESPN to read a sympathetic letter to South Carolina flood victims after the game and volunteered to auction off his jersey to help relief efforts. The fact that the NCAA actually had to clarify publicly that, yes, he is allowed to do that …
… is a pretty dire indicator of where public opinion is right now regarding that organization.
… and the worst …
The score is indicative of the way this game unfolded: Two of the nation’s most anemic offenses turned in a performance so unwatchable that it achieved the level of abstract art.
The swings at the end of that graph are the result of a monumental comedy of errors in the final two minutes, which first saw Boston College, trailing 3-0,4 fumble away its best scoring opportunity of the day at the Wake Forest 11-yard line. Then, Wake, merely needing to bleed the clock, instead returned the favor by fumbling the ball right back to the Eagles with 56 seconds to play. Boston College, out of timeouts but needing only a field goal to tie, watched the clock run out after a running play was stopped short of the goal line.
The game’s only points came on a field goal following a BC turnover in the third quarter.
Wake Forest won with five (FIVE) first downs, the fewest of any victorious FBS team in 20 years. The defeat marked the second consecutive game Boston College has lost despite holding the opposing offense without a touchdown. Steve Addazio, your thoughts?
This game yields two demerits. The first goes to UCF, a program less than two years removed from a victory in a major bowl game, which now sits at 0-6 for the season after laying another fat, disgusting egg in a campaign that had already included losses to Florida International, Tulane, and Furman.
The other demerit goes to UConn, for taking its attempt to gin up a long-distance “rivalry” with the Knights to ridiculous extremes. The idea began in June, when second-year UConn coach Bob Diaco inexplicably introduced a “Beat UCF” countdown clock and a trophy emblazoned with both teams’ logos in the Huskies’ locker room. This was taken as the joke it obviously was by pretty much everyone — except for UConn, which brought the trophy along for Saturday’s game in Orlando.
I’m fine with participation trophies, and UConn needs all the positive reinforcement it can get. But a rivalry trophy for a “rivalry” that doesn’t exist, awarded to yourself by yourself? No.
Rutgers trailed Michigan State 31-24 with no timeouts and a rapidly dwindling clock. After a 10-yard sack on third-and-10, the Scarlet Knights had one choice on fourth down and one choice only: rush to the line and heave a Hail Mary as time expired. They chose … poorly.
At least suspended head coach Kyle Flood can’t be blamed for this one, since he wasn’t even on the sideline to — wait, what’s that? Oh, Kyle Flood’s being blamed for this one? Sounds about right.
In the grand scheme of things, North Texas probably shouldn’t be an FBS program, and this was already shaping up as a miserable year — the Mean Green lost their first four games by an average margin of 28.3 points. But it is an FBS program, and that makes the 59-point margin in this debacle the most lopsided loss ever suffered by an FBS team at the hands of an FCS opponent. It may have been worse than the score suggests, if that’s possible: Portland State outgained North Texas 670 yards to 198 and held the Mean Green scoreless for nearly 59 minutes.
UNT coach Dan McCarney was fired within minutes of returning to the locker room, a move described by athletic director Rick Villarreal as “a really tough decision.” Note to self: Never go for ice cream with Rick Villarreal.