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Keys to Victory: TCU at Houston

We take a look at what the Horned Frogs need to do to come away with a victory in the Big 12 opener.

Nicholls v TCU Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Given the way this season has started, TCU could not have picked a better team to open Big 12 play against. We knew coming into the season that Houston might have some struggles, as I discussed in my opponent preview for the Cougars, but I’m not sure anyone would’ve predicted a loss to Rice. Houston seems to have major issues across the board, and Dana Holgorsen may already be on the hot seat. Let’s take a deeper look into the Cougars.

Houston Offense

Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith won the starting job for the Cougars, but he has struggled to really command the air raid system. In their 2 games, Smith is 46/76 passing with just 493 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also threw an interception against Rice. Smith has also added 88 yards on the ground and 3 more touchdowns. Needless to say, this isn’t your typical Dana Holgorsen air raid. Containing Smith in the run (or scramble) game will be crucial to a TCU victory. If Smith is held in check, I don’t expect Houston to have much of a ground game. In the passing game, his favorite target has been sophomore receiver Samuel Brown. The Georgia native has 15 catches for 244 yards on the season but no touchdowns.

From a schematic point of view, Houston doesn’t do anything crazy offensively. They’re going to spend most of their time in 10 personnel with 4 receivers on the field. They’ll get into 11 personnel and bring in a tight end they like on occasion, but that’s about all they do. Since Donovan Smith is 6-5, 240 they like to scheme up some designed quarterback runs. I’ve seen quite a bit of QB counter in the first two games. The rest of the run game is pretty vanilla, your typical inside and outside zones being most notable.

In the passing game, Houston is going to look to get the ball out of Smith’s hands quickly. The offensive line is serviceable but not great. Smith was sacked 3 times in each of the first two games, so it will be important that TCU generates pressure against Houston. The air raid scheme is stereotypical. Houston is going to take shots downfield with concepts such as four verticals, but they’re also going to make you defend the width of the field in the screen game. I expect Holgorsen will feature the mesh concept as an answer if TCU plays as much man as they have in the first two games. From what I’ve watched, Smith really struggled when his first read was not open (see video below). If TCU can take away that first read on a regular basis, I think the defense will have a good night.

Houston Defense

Houston has struggled on defense this year. The Cougars gave up 417 yards to UTSA in week 1, and 470 to Rice last week. 401 of Rice’s yards were through the air, while the Roadrunners rushed for 208. It seems that whatever the game plan was for both teams ended up working out pretty well. The Cougars have only recorded 3 sacks on the year, but they have forced 5 turnovers through their first two games. This defense just doesn’t really seem to play very hard. They don’t look very physical, they don’t rally to the ball, and they miss a lot of tackles (see video below). TCU should have no trouble moving the ball against Houston.

Schematically Houston doesn’t do anything special on defense. They’ll give different looks up front, switching between odd and even. They’ll often have a stand-up defender that comes off the edge. They do like to bring pressure from various places. I’ve seen safeties and corners blitzing, so that’s definitely something to gameplan for. Rice caught Houston on a blitz once with an RB screen that went for big yards. It seemed that Houston struggled at times to align properly as a defense (see video below). I’d like to see Briles scheme some things up that put TCU in favorable matchups before the ball is snapped. If you have a quarterback struggling to make reads, one of the best things you can do for that quarterback is make it easy with formations.

TCU is coming off a game against Nicholls State, an FCS opponent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had already started repping Houston during the week. I’m hoping TCU will open up Big 12 play with a statement win on Saturday. The Frogs have a definite talent advantage over the Cougars. I’d also take TCU’s coaching staff over Houston’s any day of the week. I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams start a little slow with conservative play in the first quarter, but I think there will be some points scored as the game goes on! It should be a fun one.