TCU Horned Frogs (28th ovr SP+, 37th off, 30th def)
at Oklahoma State Cowboys (27th, 10th, 55th)
SP+ Prediction: Oklahoma State +2.8, 56%
FEI Prediction: TCU +2.6, 55.3%
Beta Rank Prediction: TCU +2.3, 48%
(My own)EPA Prediction: TCU + 4.95, 64.4%
WHEN OKLAHOMA STATE HAS THE BALL
Oklahoma State Offensive EPA/Play: +0.016 ovr/ -0.02 rush/ +0.072 pass
TCU Defensive EPA/Play: -0.042 ovr/ -0.257 rush/ +0.197 pass
The Cowboys’ rushing attack is something new to Stillwater. Oklahoma State is rushing on 60% of their early (1st and 2nd) downs, and their volume stats reflect their commitment to getting Chuba Hubbard the ball - Hubbard has almost 1400 yards on over 200 (both leading the nation) and 16 touchdowns, and has not carried the ball fewer than 20 times in a game , nor rushed for fewer than 100 yards (FCS competition excluded). On a per play basis, though, the Cowboys are limiting their effectiveness by shying away from their usual “run and gun” gameplay under Mike Gundy, due in no small part to the addition of progressive hire Sean Gleason of Princeton.
The new OC has come in with a tenacious and innovative mindset, and that plus a first-time starter at quarterback has made the ground game an essential part of the Oklahoma State offensive attack. The Cowboys average 5.4 yards per rush, sack-adjusted, and average -0.020 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play. Evidently, “establishing the run” is important in the minds of the new OC Gleason, as the Cowboys rush more than they pass in every situation except passing downs on their own side of the field. Especially in scoring opportunities (roughly, having the ball inside your opponent’s 35), the Cowboys turn again and again to Chubba Hubbard. The Cowboys focus on the inside zone, encouraging their linemen to take a zone step, and letting Hubbard employ his dynamic lateral step and breakaway speed to find a hole. In games against 4 down lineman teams (i.e. Kansas State), when blitzes failed to reach Hubbard at or before the line, he made them pay with a chunk of yards. The Frog defense must account for #30 out the backfield every play, or risk a long afternoon of grinding rush defense.
Aside from a few plays - Hubbard has long runs of 84 and 65 on the season - the Cowboy offense is mostly limited to those chunk plays. Oklahoma State is 9th in the Big 12 with only 19.1% of their plays going for at least 10 yards; when they get to that next level, though, it’s because they’ve broken a run free - the Cowboys rise to fourth in plays going at least 20 yards, indicating that when they get yards, they make it count. The Oklahoma State offense is theoretically explosive, yet not consistent in that explosiveness.
Any conversation about Oklahoma State’s 2019 passing game begins and ends with 2018 Biletnikoff Award finalist Tylan Wallace. The Cowboys average almost a tenth of a point better in EPA on passes than they do rushes (+0.07) and, including sacks, average 7.6 yards per pass. Wallace drives most of that: the receiver has more reception than the next three WRs on the Cowboys’ roster, and his 903 passing yards constitutes 45% of total receiving yards amassed by the team. The downfield threat is not so much an “over the top” threat as it is a “gain chunks of yards” or “let Wallace embarrass defenders” threat. Against Iowa State, Wallace averaged 8.5 yards per reception, outside of a 71 yard highlight reel off a screen pass. With a dynamic talent like Wallace outside, Gleason is unafraid to minimize what redshirt freshman QB Spencer Sanders has to do to get Tylan the ball. For instance, consider Wallace’s long TD reception:
It’s a familiar play to TCU fans, taking the play-action on the inside zone run to try and get numbers on the bubble screen. Here’s the thing: Iowa State played this extremely well. The Cowboys didn’t get numbers, and this should’ve been a measly 3 or 4 yard gain were it not for the Herculean effort by Wallace. Yes, he scored on this play:
First-Time QB Starters
Giving Sanders easy opportunities to get the ball to Wallace and to minimize his decision-making pressure seems to drive the Oklahoma State offense towards screens and shorter routes - again, a familiar situation for TCU fans. And as much as I don’t like to repeat that phrase and acknowledge that Oklahoma State and TCU are in very similar offensive situations, but:
And that makes sense; although Sanders has thrown 35 more passes than TCU QB Max Duggan (more on Duggan later), he’s been only slightly more effective in the pass, perhaps negligibly so. Sanders’ calling card is his scrambling ability - Sanders rushed for 100 yards against Texas and Oregon State, and for 50 against Kansas State and Tulsa. His season QBR - the combined value of his rushing and passing - is 62.4, 61st in the nation. Sanders, as a redshirt freshman, has been, well, about average. Kind of decent, you might say. He’s posted a QBR of over 70 three times this season (recall, 50 is average for QBR): 76.7 against Iowa State, 75.8 against Texas, and 94.3 against Oregon State.
The difference between those three numbers, though, lies in how Sanders earned them. Against Texas and Oregon State, Sanders largely earned his value on the ground. In the Texas game, Sanders still posted an above average QBR despite two interceptions, no touchdowns, a 54% completion percentage, and 2 sacks. Against Iowa State, though, Sanders avoided sacks, threw only 1 interception and 2 touchdowns, and completed 66% of his passes, rushing for only 43 yards. If you’re an Oklahoma State fan, even though the absolute total QBR didn’t improve, you have to be encouraged about Sanders’ development in the passing game.
It feels reductive to paint the Oklahoma State offense as the sum of three players, but I could reduce it even further; as Sanders goes, so goes the Cowboy offense. When he can pass and distribute the ball effectively, that frees up Chuba Hubbard to penalize defenses with chunk yards, and the Cowboys can put up enough points to get the win. There are some obvious endogeneity issues with this, but when Sanders completes at least 60% of his passes, the Cowboys are 4-0, averaging 42 points per game, and when Sanders completes less than 60% of his passes, the Cowboys are 1-3, averaging 33 points per game, the lone win coming against G5 Tulsa.
The Cowboys are 10th in opponent-adjusted Offensive SP+, but that opponent adjustment is doing a lot of work.
Oklahoma State Defensive Opponents
|Opponent||SP+ Defense Rk||Points||Pass Yrds||Rush Yrds|
|Opponent||SP+ Defense Rk||Points||Pass Yrds||Rush Yrds|
Against top 50 defenses, Oklahoma State is 2-1, averaging 29 points a game, 186 passing yards, and 269 rushing yards. Against defenses outside the SP+ top fifty, Oklahoma State is 2-2, averaging 39.25 points a game, 283.5 rushing yards, and 232.5 passing yards. Oklahoma State has feasted on bad defenses, and therein lies their “theoretical” potency on offense. When they can play their style of football, be multiple, and make defenses account for Wallace and Hubbard, the Oklahoma State Cowboys are a high-functioning offense. When they can’t, they are a mediocre offense.
WHEN TCU HAS THE BALL
TCU Offensive EPA: -0.03 ovr/ +0.134 rush/ -0.297 pass
Oklahoma State Defensive EPA: +0.116 ovr/ -0.017 rush/ +0.265 pass
TCU’s offensive strengths match up well with Oklahoma State’s defensive weaknesses: the Frogs are .15 EPA points better than the Cowboys in the rush game.
Oklahoma State’s Defense
The chart above is coded from the perspective of the offense, so we have to be a little careful with the interpretation. Oklahoma State’s defense has been fairly porous in scoring opportunities this season, ranking 118th in EPA on first downs, 121st on passing downs, and 78th in standard downs in scoring opportunities. Additionally, the Cowboys are very vulnerable on first downs in the open field - 74th in EPA/play. There are opportunities to score on this team. All in all, the defense has been underwhelming against quality competition - the Cowboys are dead last in EPA/play in the Big 12 Conference, and allowing a fourth of a point in EPA on passes.
The defense has forced six interceptions and recovered four fumbles - TCU has only lost 10 balls all season, one of them Max Duggan’s much-celebrated first interception this weekend versus Texas. 10 turnovers puts Oklahoma State’s defense at 120th in the nation. Turnovers, though, have been key to Oklahoma State’s defensive success - in their two best performances, holding Texas to 36 points and Iowa State to 27, the Cowboys had 3 turnovers. The three against Iowa State were interceptions, and effectively stealing drives is their defense’s best chance at succeeding. If Oklahoma State has a repeat defensive performance against TCU, it’ll be on the back of turnovers.
Max Duggan has an QBR of 69.3 on the season, 44th in the nation, and the freshman has posted a QBR of 84 and 88 in the last two weeks, seemingly in a bit of a groove. First, finding his legs against Kansas State, and then his arm against Texas, averaging 14 yards a completion and tossing for two touchdowns. As he develops, and as he rises to the task, the offensive has been giving him a little more of the reigns; as I noted on Twitter and elsewhere, TCU dramatically altered their run/pass mix in favor of attacking Texas’s depleted secondary, and the Frog coaching staff was rewarded for their adjustment to the tune of 24 second half points and a win.
Against top 50 SP+ defenses, TCU is averaging 26.3 points with an 0-3 record, while when facing defenses outside the top 50, the Frogs averaged 40.67 points and a 4-0 record. Oklahoma State’s defense is right there on the line, at 55th - in terms of magnitude, Oklahoma State (+26 on defense) is 1.6 points worse than Kansas State’s defense (45th). Oklahoma State definitely falls on the “better” side of the scale of competition TCU has faced, but it’s a bit deceiving. The Cowboys have allowed at least 20 first downs to an offense in five of their games, and have relied on convenient turnover timing to do most of their work. If TCU can minimize their fumble problem and have Max Duggan take care of the ball through the air, they’ll be able to move the ball against the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State allows opponents to complete 58% of their passes, but allows 13.2 yards per completion. Against Texas last week, TCU averaged 14.3 yards per completion, their highest of the season. If the TCU offensive attack looks more like it did against Texas, rather than the 11 yards-a-completion run-heavy attack featured earlier this season, TCU should have no trouble gaining yards against this Oklahoma State defense.
I’m riding with the Frogs here, and trusting the EPA numbers. I think TCU hits 40 points for the second time this season. I’ll say TCU 42 - Oklahoma State 38 in a nail-biter.