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Five Keys: TCU vs. SMU

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TCU’s running backs and cornerbacks will need to play at a high level to ensure a Horned Frog win Saturday.

TCU v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Saturday marks the 99th Battle for the Iron Skillet, a rivalry defined by NCAA penalties, conference realignment and wild win streaks.

To wit — before the SMU death penalty in 1988, the Mustangs won 15 games in a row from 1972-1986. Since then, TCU has won all but six games in the rivalry, and the Frogs have claimed 17 of the last 19 games.

This isn’t meant to denigrate SMU at all, or to argue that the rivalry is an antiquated event, but TCU should win this game every year. And yet, the Mustangs have found a way to make it weird almost every time, from a rain-soaked 42-12 game in 2018 to a 56-37 points-y explosion in 2015.

This year should be no different. SMU has a bevy of talent on the offensive end and a talented head coach in Sonny Dykes. TCU should win this game on paper, but the game isn’t played on paper — it’s played in sweltering heat at Amon G. Carter Stadium at 2:30 p.m. sharp this Saturday.

Here are five things the Frogs need to do in order to win their eighth straight Iron Skillet.

TAKE WHAT THE DEFENSE GIVES

Pardon the cliche, please. But TCU won the Purdue game by hammering the run game when it became clear the Boilermakers couldn’t stop Sewo Olonilua and Darius Anderson from gashing the defense on every play.

SMU gave up over 200 yards on the ground to North Texas, a primarily pass-based offense. If TCU finds itself in a close game, the Frogs should not hesitate to run the ball at every opportunity, and commit to beating the Mustangs on the ground. It’s not the most exciting way to win a ballgame, but it will get the job done.

STOP THE RUN IN THE RED ZONE

Shane Buechele, the former Texas quarterback, is now the signal-caller at SMU and is doing a solid job. But when the Mustangs need a touchdown, they’ve turned to the run game. Through three games, Buechele has just five touchdowns on 98 passes, while the SMU run attack has 12 TDs on 140 carries.

It’s strange to say about a Dykes-led offense, but SMU has done most of its scoring running the ball. That plays into TCU’s hands, as the Frogs are an excellent run-defense team. Stopping the run game could turn some SMU red zone opportunities into field goals, which might be enough to tip the game in TCU’s favor.

TAKE DEEP SHOTS

If the Frogs do spend time pounding the run game, SMU’s defense might creep up. That could allow Jalen Reagor and the rest of the TCU wide receiver corps to sneak behind defenders for big games. Whether it’s Max Duggan or Alex Delton at quarterback — and we’ll get to that in a minute — TCU has to be ready to take advantage of those scenarios.

SMU is stingy against the deep ball. The longest gain the Mustangs have allowed through the air this season is 38 yards. If TCU can crack that mark in addition to dominating the ground game, the Frogs will be in good shape.

LET DUGGAN PLAY MEANINGFUL MINUTES

While he didn’t put up great (or even good) statistics, Max Duggan played crucial minutes for TCU against Purdue. He played most of the second and third quarters in a game that was still undecided, and that’s a promising sign for the freshman.

He should be given free reign to do the same against SMU. Delton is reportedly going to start, and that’s fine. But Duggan needs reps, and letting his take the reins against SMU in early-game scenarios can only help him and the Frogs later on down the road.

LET CORNERS BE AGGRESSIVE

Buechele is 65-98 this season for 871 yards and five TDs, which are solid numbers. But he’s also thrown three interceptions in three games, all against non-Power 5 competition. Disrupting the passing game could help take SMU out of an offensive rhythm and allow the Frogs to take control early.

Jeff Gladney will most likely be tasked with shutting down James Proche, the senior wide receiver who has been a starter for SMU for so long that it feels like he’s been there since the Craig James years. But Reggie Roberson Jr. is also a threat in the passing game, giving the Frogs something to think about in the secondary.

TCU cornerbacks could be the difference in this game. If they can take Proche out of the game — much like they eliminated Purdue’s Rondale Moore — and pick off any bad decisions from Buechele, the Frogs will be in good shape.

PREDICTION: TCU 38, SMU 21.