The Leverage Game

  • By Jed Drenning
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  • November 01, 2013 08:51 AM
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Sustained drives will be difficult for quarterback Clint Trickett and the Mountaineer offense to produce on Saturday against TCU's 4-2-5 defense, according to Jed Drenning.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
We’ve heard about it since Monday and we’ve read about it each day since. Three numbers which, presented in sequence, manifestly tell us TCU-week has arrived. Say them with me: 4-2-5.
They don't refer to an area code or a locker combination. They're not denoting a pin number or a bible verse. Instead, the 4-2-5 at issue is a defense - a stunting-slanting-offensive-irritant-of-a-scheme that trades the brawn of a third linebacker for the versatility of a fifth defensive back. It’s part robber coverage, part nickel package and pure nasty.
It’s not by accident that the TCU defense enters Saturday’s matchup with West Virginia boasting the most takeaways (21), the most sacks (24) and the most tackles for loss (68) in the Big 12 Conference.  TCU’s scheme is an innovative one that can give all offenses fits, but especially those of the spread variety that populate the league. 
In college football circles, few names are more readily associated with the 4-2-5 than those of TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson and his long time partner in crime, defensive coordinator Dick Bumpass, and rightfully so. Their version of the defense was born decades ago - among other places - on the proving grounds of Utah State where they crossed swords with the pass-happy likes of Brigham Young, Utah and New Mexico State.
Through the years, however, the development of the scheme wasn’t without some significant bumps in the road. For instance, in the 2004 opener the Horned Frogs survived a 48-45 double overtime thriller against Northwestern despite Wildcats quarterback Brett Basanez scorching Patterson’s crew for 513 yards and four touchdowns. Two weeks later, the Frogs leaped out to a 21-0 lead over Texas Tech before Mike Leach’s squad settled in to score 10 of the game’s final 12 touchdowns as the Red Raiders romped to a 70-35 win.
Never accuse Patterson and Company of failing to learn from their mistakes. Two years after that meltdown against Texas Tech, the Frogs welcomed Leach’s Red Raiders to Fort Worth in 2006 and summarily smothered them 12-3, marking one of only two times Leach was held without a touchdown during his decade-long tenure at Tech.
“I wasn’t real impressed with Patterson’s 4-2-5 when we put 70 points on ‘em,” Leach told author Tim Layden in the 2010 book Blood, Sweat and Chalk. “But I was pretty impressed when they held us to three points. That doesn’t happen too often.”
Dana Holgorsen was on that Texas Tech staff and he understands full well the capabilities of Patterson’s teams.
“They’re very well-coached on defense and that staff has been together for a while,” remarked Holgorsen this week, sizing up the Frogs. “They’ve been doing the same thing at TCU for about the last 13 years. There’s tremendous continuity within the coaching staff.”
Like West Virginia, the Frogs are off to a 3-5 start but those who have seen them play know that isn’t an indictment against their defense. In fact, in TCU’s five losses Dick Bumpass’ unit has allowed a mere 12 touchdowns while the offense has scored only eight. In short, if there are any chinks in the Horned Frogs' defensive armor this year, Holgorsen doesn’t see them.
“They’re good against the run, great against the pass. They play the ball in the air very well. They have tremendous depth and play a lot of people, and it will be a challenge for our offense,” he said.
The Horned Frogs have been dialing up disruptive defense for years - stopping the run, pressuring the passer and creating more turnovers than Regina Varolli. You want long-term production? Try this on for size. With the 20th ranked rush defense in the country, the Frogs are on pace to finish in the top 25 nationally in that category for the ninth consecutive season. During that extensive span Patterson’s squad has yielded a meager 92 yards per game on the ground. Want more proof? In TCU’s last 75 outings they have recorded 186 sacks (2.5 per game) and 151 takeaways (two per game). You don’t rack up those kinds of numbers over that stretch of time by rubbing a rabbit’s foot. You do it by consistently putting talented players in position to bring a creative scheme to life.  
“A lot of people play the 4-2-5 now,” Patterson told Layden in the same chapter of the aforementioned Blood, Sweat and Chalk. “But nobody runs it like we do. Over the years we’ve made changes. Our answer to any offense used to be: We’ll just blitz one more [defender] than you can block. That’s not our only answer anymore. We’ve evolved. We can zone-blitz you out of a two-deep shell. We can zone-blitz you out of a three-deep shell. We’ll never leave ourselves in a single-high free safety. And we will always play with great leverage and speed.”
Throw in some TCU game tape and the benefits of this scheme jump off the screen at you. The utilization of five defensive backs on the backend provides the Frogs the flexibility to easily adjust to a wide variety of formations – including multiple receiver sets - while the presence of six primary run stoppers still allows Gary Patterson’s crew to maintain numerical integrity in the box and remain strong at the point of attack.
As an offensive enthusiast I can’t help but be impressed by the scheme devised by Patterson and Bumpass each time I study TCU. It’s a lot to take in and – as a former quarterback – I almost recoil at a lot of what I see. The way the Frogs isolate their front end from their backend, then effectively divide the secondary into two coverage concepts. The way they match pass routes; the way they identify a pre-snap “read” side to the formation in their base “2-Read” coverage, similar to the manner in which a quarterback declares the Mike linebacker for pass protection purposes on offense; the way their third level zone coverage defenders can recognize route combinations and spring to a spot, often beating the receiver there; the way defensive tackles Davion Pierson and Chucky Hunter push the pocket. The variety of pass rush techniques flashed by TCU's ends in third and long situations, particularly senior John Koontz. Even 280-pound sophomore tackle Terrell Lathan (four sacks) has proven to be both athletic and disruptive when the Frogs have asked him to slide outside and occupy a 5-technique defensive end spot. This unit isn't short on athletes.
But, like any effective defense, TCU does encounter an occasional hiccup. How do you seize on those moments of weakness? For a blueprint, I explored the five games Texas Christian has lost this fall. In doing so, a few patterns emerged. But, as always, knowing what needs done and actually doing it are two vastly different things.  
Let’s start with the obvious. When it comes to playmaking against the Frogs, you either go big or you go home. By its very design the 4-2-5 is a scheme built to prevent game breaking plays and to instead force an offense to engineer long, sustained (and mistake free) drives. As evidenced by the struggles of TCU’s offensive opposition this season – even in victory – that’s a very tall order.  Staying on the field for long stretches against a hawkish defense so adept at forcing turnovers is a dangerous business.
Touchdowns are at a premium against the Frogs and big plays in all three phases of the game are a must if you hope to score. You have to dig down deep and scrap and claw and fight to find whatever way possible to make such plays. If not, you’re faced with the unenviable task of manufacturing long drives of the 10-plus play variety – and against this crew those are difficult to the absolute extreme.
To lend some perspective, let’s take a quick glance at each team that has beaten the Frogs, along with the number of times each of those opponents managed to reach the end zone - and how they did so.
Opponent: TEXAS
Beat TCU 30-7
Scored three touchdowns as a team
1st Texas TD: Recovered a fumble at the TCU 3-yard line. Took advantage of the short field by scoring on the next play
2nd Texas TD: A 65-yard scoring pass capped a six-play drive
3rd Texas TD: The Horns drove 89 yards in eight plays, helped in large part by a 43-yard Case McCoy pass completion
Beat TCU 24-10
Scored three touchdowns as a team
1st OSU TD: Josh Stewart returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score
2nd OSU TD: Intercepted a pass at the TCU 37-yard line to set the offense up with a short field. Three plays later the Cowboys reached the end zone.
3rd OSU TD:  A kickoff return to the TCU 45-yard line once again gave Oklahoma State a short field. Four plays later they scored.
Opponent: OKLAHOMA
Beat TCU 20-17
Scored two touchdowns as a team
1st Oklahoma TD: This was a rarity against the Frogs. A lengthy, sustained drive by the Sooners that lasted 13 plays and spanned 84 yards.
2nd Oklahoma TD: Brennan Clay’s 75-yard touchdown run capped off a quick, two-play drive
Opponent: TEXAS TECH
Beat TCU 20-10
Scored two touchdowns as a team
1st Texas Tech TD: Baker Mayfield’s 50-yard scoring pass capped off a six-play drive
2nd Texas Tech TD: A 48-yard catch and run to the TCU 1-yard line was the key play on this nine-play, 75-yard drive
Beat TCU 37-27
Scored four touchdowns as a team
1st LSU TD: Sparked by a 44-yard pass, the Tigers drove 80 yards in seven plays
2nd LSU TD: Terrence Magee’s 52-yard scoring run capped off a quick, three-play drive for LSU
3rd LSU TD: Another scarcity – a long, time consuming drive against the Frogs. This one lasted 14 plays and covered 68 yards
4th LSU TD: The Tigers took advantage of a short field, scoring on a three-play drive that was set up by a 77-yard kickoff return
This overview reinforces my point that big plays are an absolute requisite if West Virginia hopes to leave Fort Worth with a win.
From an offensive standpoint, the question you’re probably asking is how do you make such plays? You do so by forcing the Frogs to compromise their leverage.  In other words, in a game of angles, you find a way to go where they don’t want you to go.  Like most defenses, TCU’s scheme is heavily predicated on leverage. Reduced to its most basic form this means if they are deep, you get deeper. If they are wide, you get wider. If they are inside, you get farther inside. The trick, of course, is pulling all of this off after the ball has been snapped.
This could come in many forms. For example, if Dreamius Smith or Charles Sims bounce outside and a TCU safety flies up to set the edge, don’t let them. Beat them to the perimeter and cut it up through the crease. If a Frogs linebacker steps up to stuff the cutback lane on a zone running play, don’t let him. Seal him off and continue slicing through the backside. If TCU has a blitz on and temporarily leaves their secondary exposed in single coverage, Kevin White, Ronald Carswell or another WVU pass catcher have to beat them over the top.
If you want to see an example of a team out-leveraging the Frogs defense to make a big play, check out TCU’s loss to the Longhorns last week. Facing a third down and 10 in the 2nd quarter, Texas lined up at their own 35-yard line showing trips (three receivers) to the wide side of the field. TCU matched the Horns numbers, parking three defenders over top the trips and cheating a fourth - linebacker Paul Dawson - halfway out of the box toward the perimeter to provide extra support. On the snap, Horns inside slot Jaxon Shipley exploded into an option route at a depth of 11 yards and was immediately shadowed by Dawson. Out wide, Texas flanker Mike Davis pushed deep before offsetting on a curl to find an inside hole 15 yards downfield. He was matched off by TCU cornerback Kevin White (no relation). The problem on the play was created by the Horns outside slot receiver, Marcus Johnson. Frogs safety Sam Carter - reading the development of the route combination unfolding around him - anticipated a speed out by Johnson. He guessed wrong - and Texas made him pay for the blunder. Johnson ran a perfectly executed out-and-up (a "wheel" route) and, in one quick lapse, Carter surrendered leverage not once, but twice. First, the veteran TCU defensive back allowed Johnson to break wide of him. That was an issue, but the real crisis emerged when Carter committed the ultimate sin by letting Johnson slip deep up the sidelines.  The disaster might have been averted had fellow TCU safety Elisha Olabode held true to his deep half of the field - but he didn't. Instead, Olabode reacted up to rob the intermediate curl by Davis, leaving the deep zone vacant for Johnson - four full strides ahead of Carter - to haul in a perfect throw by Case McCoy and race 65 yards for a touchdown.  
Such opportunities don't come in bundles against TCU. They're rare - but they do surface. When that happens, the Mountaineers will need to help make their own breaks by pressuring the Frogs secondary enough to be ready to cash in with a difference making play. 
In league competition, TCU’s offense has looked rudderless, averaging just 14 points per game. By hook or by crook, something tells me it will take at least three touchdowns – no matter what form they come in - for West Virginia to pull the upset as 14-point underdogs. The good news? That’s a feat the Mountaineers have managed three times in five Big 12 games this year.
Lost in the heartache of the infamous 92-yard, overtime inducing touchdown West Virginia surrendered to the Frogs in the final two minutes last year in Morgantown is the fact that - up to that point - the game represented one of the Mountaineers best defensive efforts of 2012. Prior to that play, WVU had forced seven three-and-outs and had given TCU signal caller Trevone Boykin fits - limiting him to a 10-for-25 performance for only 157 yards. That's the kind of production the Mountaineers will need against Casey Pachall and the Frogs offense Saturday afternoon if they hope to pull their weight in a matchup that has all the hallmarks of a defensive tug of war.
The Frogs have scored seven offensive touchdowns in five Big 12 games; the Mountaineers, 11.  It might not turn out to be a contest for the ages, but that doesn't detract from its bearing on how the 2013 season will be remembered by either program.
Just how critical is this showdown for both sides? When asked that question this week, WVU senior defensive tackle Shaq Rowell minced no words.
"Whoever wins this game is going to go to a bowl game. Whoever loses is likely not going to go to a bowl game."
From the outside looking in, Shaq's assessment might be spot on.
I’ll see you at the fifty.

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