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Football 201: Stomping Southern and Previewing the Ponies

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Your weekly deep dive into the numbers and strategies behind the game.

TCU Football vs Southern | September 1, 2018 | Melissa Triebwasser
TCU Football vs Southern | September 1, 2018 | Melissa Triebwasser
Melissa Triebwasser

Welcome to the first installment of Football 201, your advanced stats-focused weekly preview. In these pages we will use a mix of game film, analytics, and common sense to get into the weeds of TCU’s 2018 matchup.

The defining feature of the Sonny Cumbie TCU offense has been the symmetrical speed attack, spreading the field to create isolation points for talented and quick receivers to make moves with the ball. TCU’s offense of the last two seasons focused on short and wide passes to the edge, anchored in a power spread running attack. The point of the Cumbie offense is to spread you thin, and make you pay for that spread up the middle, both down the field and with the run. TCU, vaunted for its defensive complexity and efficiency, has in fact served as a breeding ground for a modern run offense: athletes like Kavonte Turpin and Jaylen Reagor empower the Frogs to expand the running game with yards-after-carry skill, all rooted in a quarterback’s ability to get the ball where his receivers need it in a pseudo-sweep running attack. TCU’s offense battles anarchy and disorder, instead requiring a passer to be flexible; operating within a set of rules, but flexible. The offense is better when the quarterback takes less into his own hands and dives headfirst into the simple structure of speed and balance, as the old “trying to hard” meme can attest.

”A younger Shawn would have ran a couple of times, but he stayed in the pocket and threw the ball down the field.” -Gary Patterson, post-game

That defining feature of spread and edge speed carries forward yet another year, as we saw Shawn Robinson lead the Frogs with a brutal, symmetric attack against the Southern Jaguars this past Saturday.

Last Week; TCU 55, Southern 7

Author’s note: The recap and preview for this week will be a touch different than I intend for the rest of the season due to the facts that TCU played an FCS school, SMU played a game exclusively on Facebook (so I have no game film), and the S&P+ numbers are not fully running and granular. Next week, I’ll hopefully have game film and the advanced stat profiles, to do a deeper dive. For this week, some observational comments and a box score will tell us what we need to know about the Frogs’ second tune-up game of the season.

The Horned Frogs of 2017 were a team who could hurt you on the ground (23rd in rushing success rate) and through the air (34th in passing success rate), while frustrating most of your efforts on the other side of the ball - the Frog defense rated 30th in the nation, 8th in success rate and preventing scoring opportunities. That formula looks to be about the same this year, as the Frogs presented a smothering defense - blown coverage aside - and a satisfying balance of approach on offense, both in play calling and in direction towards side of field.

TCU’s first half drives revealed little about their play-calling tendencies, perhaps by design; with SMU up next and a bodyblow combination of Ohio State/Texas looming, the Frogs have no incentive to lay their cards on the table. TCU ran 46 plays in the first half with Shawn Robinson under center, passing 56.5% of the time. This number is a bit misleading, though, as mentioned above - the “pass game” at times functions like a sweep run game, getting offensive players to the edge more quickly than a zone or a pitch. The Frogs balanced well, mixing rushes and passes fairly consistently across drives - only three times within a drive did the Frogs run back-to-back-to-back runs and passes, yet they rarely oscillated evenly between the two.

The passing spread chart demonstrates the commitment to edge speed, as 8 of the 19 completions Shawn had were at or behind the line of scrimmage, discussed more in detail below. The passing game looks to be filling the distribution out a little more robustly than last year - the mid-range (10-20 yard) midfield completions are encouraging. Keeping the middle of the field in play in the passing game provides yet another dimension to the TCU attack, and reinforces the edge game, as well; teams will have to stay honest or risk giving up chunks of yards in the middle.

Note that there are three colors on this graph - blues are completions, reds are incompletions where the quarterback was at fault, and yellows are drops, wide receiver incompletions. It’s great to see only one drop in TCU’s first six meaningful drives, and that brings up a new take on how I evaluate a QB’s performance. I use a “true completion percentage”, which is roughly calculated as (Completions + Drops - Saves)/Attempts, where Saves are great and unlikely catches made by the Wide Receivers. I noticed only one save in the first half of the Southern game, a Turpin grab at the ankles, and only one drop, marked in yellow above. Coincidentally, then, Robinson’s true completion percentage is the same as his unadjusted completion percentage. This “true completion percentage” helps to parse out a quarterback’s and wide receiver’s performances. You could track WR’s performances, too, with a modified “net receptions”, which is just “completions - drops”.

Most of those incompletions are down the field. I noted five mistakes from Shawn Robinson’s first half performance: An overthrow on drives one and two - one for 14 yards over the middle and one the lone true downfield strike at 44 yards in the center of the field. That long ball was placed well, but Shawn is going to have to put air underneath the ball and let his receivers go an get the ball. He’s accurate, but he’s got to do more than throw the ball to the correct spot as quick as he can; this weekend, Shawn will have to figure out that long connection to keep this offense at his best. One of those incompletions was not a mistake, but rather a free play downfield chuck, so I don’t hold that against him, and another was a spectacular defensive play (perhaps unintentionally) by a Southern DB to knock a well-thrown ball out of the hands of a receiver. Shawn had an under-throw that Turpin caught, and then two end zone mistakes: both tosses were behind receivers, maybe more results of chemistry than skill.

The final point regarding TCU’s first offensive performance is an allegory, really. Shawn Robinson has to be a versatile point guard in this offense, distributing the ball where his skill players need it, and isolating when nothing else works. Congruent with Gary Patterson’s quote above, this offense is better when it doesn’t depend on the quarterback, when he distributes and only looks to run as a last resort. That brings us to the rushing chart, another dimension of the quarterback’s distribution.

The rushing chart is a bit misleading, as most of the “runs” were a zone read that resulted in a handoff against a poorly trained defense. Couple that fact with the “psuedo-sweep”, and we have a run chart that looks heavily skewed towards the middle, but in reality is almost perfectly balanced. The buried lede on the run game is that Sewo looked great taking the first snaps, and Darius did enough to prove his health. Both of those can be attributed to the performance of the patchwork quilt offensive line. The tests for the OL will get tougher, but with some steam and chemistry, TCU’s run game looks to be a nice complement again to it’s passing game.

The more fun aspect of the run game was Emari Demercado. Unheralded, Demercado came to TCU as a California Juco transfer, specifically as depth. With two star, entrenched starters above him, and a dynamic Kennedy Snell around, Demercado wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. And maybe he still shouldn’t be! But, against Southern, he was so fun. Demercado had a great return, and his 57 yards (7.1 average) lead the team Saturday. I don’t expect Demercado to be a “Guy” on this team, but here’s hoping the Frogs get more big leads and we get to see more of Demercado.

This Week:

TCU (16th in S&P+, +6 spots) at SMU (107th, -34 spots)

The Southern Methodist Mustangs football team has been on a slow rise the last few years under the leadership of former Lake Travis High School and current Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Chad Morris. When Morris took the helm at SMU for the start of the 2015 season, the Mustangs had just completed a 1-11 disaster of a season, finishing 127th in S&P+, second to last in FBS. In 2015, the Mustangs showed some signs of life, but ultimately failed to take a serious step forward in a season marked by misery - SMU lost to FCS powerhouse James Madison. In 2016, Morris improved his squad to 5-7, stealing a stunning win from G5 darling Houston in Dallas. The Mustang offense started to come into its own, and the team finished 90th in S&P+, just starting their climb into college football’s middle class. 2017 was Morris’s crowning achievement - the Mustangs’ finsihged 7-6, 60th in S&P+ and in a bowl for the first time in years. With that season under his belt, Morris moved north to the SEC and Fayetteville, leaving behind a program with a little bit of traction and a long way to go.

SMU had a bad weekend; In their first game - that bowl game debacle notwithstanding - under new coach and Texas Legend Sonny Dykes, the Mustangs let Mason Fine and the North Texas offense pass at will in a 46-23 loss that was 36-0 going into the fourth quarter. Fine went 40/50 in completions to the tune of 444 yards and 3 touchdowns, the Mean Green picked up 34 first downs to SMU’s 9 in the matchup. SMU had trouble with the pass, allowing 8.9 yards per attempt and hardly touching the QB - 2 sacks on 50 attempts isn’t exactly breathing down the quarterback’s neck. The Mustangs did put up a decent effort against the rush, averaging 1.6 yards per carry allowed, but to be fair, UNT brings back 78% of their offensive production from a unit that ranked 63rd in rushing last season. That effort pales in comparison with the poor pass defense - UNT had nine receivers with receptions longer than 10 yards (eleven players had receptions). The SMU defensive effort versus North Texas was predictable: even though SMU brought back 80% of their defensive production from a decent unit last year, UNT found a rhythm towards the end of the season and is one of the more high-efficiency offenses SMU will face this year. In fact, the UNT offense, while stylistically different than TCU’s, serves as a fine litmus test for how the Ponies should stack up this Friday.

Defense has never been the Mustangs’ strong suit, but the SMU offense didn’t instill confidence in Sonny Dykes’s Year Zero effort: Junior returning starter Ben Hicks completed 50% of his passes for 10.5 yards per attempt, 2 touchdowns, and interception, and a comical QBR of 1.3. While Hicks did return, SMU this fall returns only 58% of their offensive production, with the most notable loss being superstar wide out Courtland Sutton to the NFL. In his stead, Hicks shared the wealth well: four receivers had 67 or more yards, although two fourth quarter TDs of 71 and 59 yards inflate that number substantially. Throughout this contest, SMU struggled to meaningfully move the ball, achieving only 9 first downs and converting 2 of 10 third down opportunities. In all, SMU possessed the ball for 15:47, a trivial sample size to analyze other than to say, “Not ideal.”

What to Expect:

SMU always gets up to play TCU, and a rivalry game in the rain might be the spark a battered and disorganized team needs. That being said, TCU should win this squarely. If things are going right for the Frogs, expect a large turnover margin as a talented and speedy defense exploits a clunky offense. SMU will try to go fast, which could put them in a hole early - if they struggled against UNT’s defense, the Mustangs are in for a doozy of a game this Friday. On offense, the Frogs should continue their balanced spread, and if they can establish the run game to keep the defense honest, coupled with the fatigue effects that come from a defense staying on the field for most of the game, we can expect some big plays and some monster drives from TCU. Ideally, Shawn Robinson connects on a few of those downfield passes he just missed in the Southern game, and this one could get away from SMU quickly. The SMU defense will have to play out of its mind to contain TCU’s speed and power, and the SMU offense will have to be substantially improved from the first three quarters of last week to compete.

Prediction:

TCU 38, SMU 6

TCU starts slow, but this is a crockpot of a game. Let it warm up slowly, and it’ll be fully roasted by the end of the evening.

Other Games I’m Recording/Watching:

Thursday: Kennesaw State at Tennessee Tech, because I have a problem, and that problem is college football. This is the only weeknight game this week.

Friday: I’ll be at TCU SMU, and conveniently, there is no slate opposite this game.

I’ll keep myself to three interesting games on Saturday, one from each slot.

Early: Georgia Tech at South Florida: I love a good triple-option/air raid spread matchup. Lots of potential to get weird, and everyone else at that time slot is going to be a blowout.

Late Afternoon: As tempted as I am to tell you to root for Maryland to lose to Bowling Green, I think the move here is Colorado Nebraska. A great rivalry of old, and Scott Frost gets his first test against a hot Colorado team. If that gets boring, I’ll have Iowa-Iowa State recording.

Evening: Lots of good games here. In no particular order, I’ll keep tabs on Wyoming- Missouri, Penn State- Pittsburgh, and Michigan State-Wazzou. All three of those involve teams who should be at the top of their divisions and have a lot questions left.

What games catch your eye this week? What are your thoughts about TCU’s offense, the matchup with SMU? Let me know in the comments.