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Football 201: Thoughts on TCU’s Option Offense and an Iowa State Recap

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TCU’s spread option lacks enough options - how can they fix it?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

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Welcome to bye week, friends. TCU escapes an immensely losable game, and now has a week and a half to rest up, get healthy, and deal with the pesky Red Raiders. I expect TCU to drop in the polls after a big victory against Bye Week U, but in the mean time, let’s talk nitty gritty offensive schemes. After a brief Iowa State Recap, I’ll lay out my case for adding a third option into the Shawn Robinson-era TCU offense, and how some of the Frogs’ red-zone woes can improve with added deception.

Last Week: TCU Horned Frogs (50.6% postgame win prob) 17, Iowa State Cyclones (49.4%) 14

What Went Well:

  • Third Downs! TCU converted on almost 60% of their third downs in this game, despite a relative struggle in the second half.
  • Ball movement. TCU’s 41.3% success rate outpaced the Cyclones and set TCU up to control the clock and sustain a game winning drive.
  • The Run Game, relatively.
  • Defensive Efficiency. The Frogs stopped Iowa State from sustaining drives, for the most part, shutting down third downs (especially in the second half) and preventing two Iowa State fourth down conversions. Not to mention the fact that the defense came up with turnovers and points for the first time in what feels like forever.

What Went Wrong: (This list could be very long. I’ll try to keep it to three.)

  • The offensive Turnovers. Is this our life now? The Frogs are down to 126th in actual turnover margin this season, 123rd in expected margin. That is... not good, and arguably single-handedly responsible for the Frogs’ two losses this season.
  • Field position - the special teams game has a large reputation and has some highlight plays this season, but struggles consistently to get the TCU offense in a position to succeed - starting inside the 25 for a whole half is inexcusable.
  • Finishing drives - yes, the Frogs allowed Iowa State only 2 scoring opportunities, but they allowed touchdowns on both chances. TCU’s defense is 70th in points allowed per scoring drive, and their offense is an abysmal 116th. (See below for my suggestions regarding a red zone offense). Additionally, the TCU defense is 84th in “inside ten” success rate, meaning they are allowing an offense a successful play 54% of the time when backed up to their own end zone.

Adding an Option to the TCU Offense

At some point in the last few months, my friends stopped humoring me when I preached the hypothetical value of the “FrogBone”: a shotgun-style triple option, a run-heavy smash mouth spread I felt uniquely tailored to the needs and talent of the TCU backfield (Shawn, DA, and Sewo) and edge speed (Reagor, Turpin, Everyone). The Flexbone offense, notably run by Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech and both Army and Navy, shifts the on-field burden to the defense’s decision-making, isolating two separate defenders who have to make two independent decisions between the ball and the pitch man. This offense, when executed well, can put a defense on its heels, gaining large yardage in sustainable chunks and setting up a deep passing threat. The service academies, and to some extent Georgia Tech, run these schemes out of recruiting necessity - the triple option can level off some substantial talent differentials. Some teams, like Willie Fritz’s Tulane and Bob Davie’s New Mexico, run variations of the triple option as an attempt to “zig” where others “zag”, as a gimmick to be different. What we’ve yet to see is a team run a triple option rushing offense out of talent instead of necessity.

Until recently, the center held. The triple option was an old-school offense, left in the past, reserved only for those who couldn’t keep up with a spread or a more modern offense. But, over time, the hyper-athleticism of quarterbacks and the exponential sophistication of college defenses changed that landscape. Enter Stage Right the Run Pass Option, a set of plays so simple yet so effective, it’s shocking it took this long to come around. The run pass offense adds a layer of depth and complexity to the zone read for opposing defenses, as QBs now have the option to pull the ball and throw. TCU utilizes an RPO from time to time - against Iowa State, most notably on the seam route where Turpin almost got his head knocked off. That play, Shawn stuck the ball in the running back’s stomach, saw the linebacker creep forward, pulled the ball and looped it right to Turpin for a big gain.

I’m not here to talk about just the RPO, though. The central feature of TCU’s “speed, space, and symmetry” offense in 2018 has been an option-less option. TCU’s offensive woes, it’s lack of big plays, it’s consistent three and outs are all symptoms of a root cause: The TCU offense features an utter and total lack of deception. The jig is up, the playbook is out there. TCU is going to hand the ball on the zone read, they are going to run the WR screen/speed sweep, then they are going to try to go deep. Below, I’ll lay out five instances where a third option in the offense would’ve amplified the Horned Frog attack. That’s right, friends, we’re talking FrogBone.

This analysis will be a play in five acts, where I will pull five first half plays against Iowa State and make the case that a lack of deception is hamstringing TCU’s offensive ceiling.

Play Number One: Safety isn’t Fooled

The Situation: TCU, facing a 3-3 front, runs a weak zone read here, featuring a lead blocker. Shawn Sticks the ball into Sewo’s stomach and looks at the weak side linebacker as a read key. Seeing the WLB stay home, Shawn pulls the ball and keeps it outside. A good decision, but the problem is the Weak Safety, keyed in on the option all the way. The safety has sight lines to both the give and the keep, and can slightly change his route to crash the line and make the tackle on the keeper, which he does, untouched. The single option here works only with the receiver’s blocking, and you can’t see in this frame, but the weak WR is occupied with a corner. No deception, and the safety comes in to blow up the play.

The Remedy: The lead blocker here is wasted. The front is already clogged, and if the backer is the read key, then blocking him is only a redundancy in the option decision. If the lead blocker took the dive read, that would free up a RB/WR to swing out with Shawn, forcing yet another decision on the unaccounted-for safety.

Play Number Two: Backside Pursuit

The Situation: Robinson comes up to the line in the gun, sees something he likes, and audibles into a speed option. Sewo is wide, and the play works as intended, forcing WLB #43 to commit to either the pitch or the QB, and the play should work. The problem? The backside DE, untouched, sees the play develop and from the backside comes over and makes the tackle for a short gain. The ceiling of this play is limited when athletes are unblocked and face no decisions in pursuit.

The Remedy: This play inverts the previous, where there was a dive and no pitch. Here, we have the pitch without the dive, and despite the fact that the WLB sits at the decision point, the play cannot develop due to backside pressure. Here, a dive read sucks in the strong lineman, placing the burden of the play back on the weak side.

Play Number Three: The CB Sees it

The Situation: Here TCU runs a slight variation on the read option, this time sending the RB horizontally to the strong side and reading the lone linebacker. Shawn sees the linebacker track RB, and pulls the ball, aiming for a vertical run. The problem? The weak side CB recognizes the play and crashes, forcing Shawn out of the intended lane and to the edge, where the safety can come over and make what should have been a huge play into a modest gain.

The Remedy: As I mentioned, TCU had the RPO set a few times in this game, but not consistently enough to take advantage of cheating QBs. All the linemen are zone stepping to the strong side, and so avoid going downfield. This play could set up as a pass, no problem, and were it called, Shawn could have freedom to dump the ball over the CB, or take advantage of the CB protecting the pass. Again, another option would add back in the layer of deception currently lacking.

Play Number Four: That’s not a read, pt. 1!

Play Number Five: That’s not a read, pt. 2!

The Situation: This last play is a 2 for 1. In both of these plays, TCU runs an apparent zone read. In the first play, Shawn gives the ball despite the crashing weak side DE and the run is stopped at the line. Look to the wide left! If that call is actually a read, Shawn pulls and has space to make a move (or throw a bubble screen tag onto the play to isolate the CB!). In the second play, Shawn gives the ball despite three LBs recognizing and crashing on the give, and again, he has open field if he pulls the ball.

The Remedy: Here, I’m not even arguing for a third option! I’m just arguing for two!. Either Shawn is uncomfortable pulling the ball, or these calls are straight handoffs. In either case, these plays hamper the upside potential of a TCU offense. Adding a true option call and developing Shawn’s capacity to pull the ball and run effectively will free up this offense in a profound way.

Conclusion

TCU’s “speed and space” offense lacks an effective running dimension. While Sewo has improved on himself from last season, DA hasn’t looked like himself and Shawn Robinson has failed to be the true elite dual threat QB he was recruited as. TCU’s lack of deception in the rush game has stalled the offense, both by shorting themselves out of available yards and by failing to keep the defense honest in the face of decisions. Another layer of option play-calling, i.e. the Flexbone/FrogBone, would force defenders to pick their poison and provide lanes for TCU’s elite backfield rushing talent to make elite plays.