By King Jemison
This is the final part of The Daily’s three-part preview series on the TCU Horned Frogs, who play Stanford in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Antonio, TX. This part takes a look at the vaunted TCU defense and how Stanford can use Love to break through the Horned Frogs defensive line.
TCU head coach Gary Patterson has traditionally produced some of the best defenses in college football, and this year’s unit is no exception. The Horned Frogs allowed the fewest points, total yards, rushing yards, passing yards and red zone points in the Big 12 on their way to a 10-3 season and an appearance in the conference championship game.
Patterson has coached the best total defense in the FBS in five of his eighteen years at TCU, but the fast-paced spread attacks in the Big 12 have forced him to adapt. This year, he found success by keeping those explosive offenses off the field and shortening the game. In 2015 and 2016, the Horned Frogs faced about 77 plays a game, but this year they are limiting opposing offenses to just 66 snaps per game. Over the course of the season, this meant the defense was on the field for just 855 plays as opposed to 1006 the year before. Fewer plays means less chance of injury and less chance for opposing offenses to find the end zone.
TCU’s ability to get off the field defensively is in large part a result of their proficiency on third down. They allowed third-down conversions on just 29.7 percent of attempts, good for eighth in the FBS. All those third down stops meant fewer long drives for the offense and more time for the defense to rest.
The Horned Frogs looked like a well-rested group when facing the run. They gave up just 99.8 rushing yards per game, putting them at fourth in the FBS. Shutting down the running game forced teams into third-and-long situations and allowed TCU’s pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback, while also letting the secondary focus on covering the elite receivers in the pass-happy Big 12.
TCU’s defensive line took advantage of their freedom to rush the passer and transformed into one of the most formidable fronts in the nation. The Horned Frogs had the top two individual sack-artists in the Big 12. Senior defensive end Mat Boesen led the conference with 11.5 sacks, while junior defensive end Ben Banogu finished second with 8.5 sacks on his way to being named the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Those two bookends up front terrorized opposing quarterbacks and carried TCU to 41 sacks on the season, 11 more than the next closest team in the Big 12. Its average of 3.15 sacks per game put it at 10th in the FBS.
The defensive line was expected to be one of the weaker points for TCU this year, a team that was not even ranked to start the season. The emergence of Banogu and Boesen turned that weakness into one of their greatest strengths. Despite being in his fourth year academically, Banogu had played just one year of college football after redshirting his freshman year and then transferring from University of Louisiana-Monroe at the end of his sophomore season. He was finally allowed to play for TCU this year and immediately made a huge impact, racking up a team-best 15.5 tackles for loss en route to becoming an All-Big 12 First Team selection. His stellar play in his first year of Power Five football has garnered him some NFL attention, and he may end up leaving TCU after just one season to enter the Draft this coming April.
Boesen also took a circuitous route to TCU, going from Boise State to Long Beach Community College before eventually finding his way to Fort Worth. Last year, he was a pleasant surprise for a struggling Horned Frogs defense. This year, he turned into the star for one of the best defenses in the country. His strong play was rewarded with 3rd Team All-American recognition from the AP, and he joined Banogu on the All-Big 12 First Team.
The two pass-rushers were not the only TCU defenders to wind up on the All-Big 12 First Team. Joining them were senior linebacker Travin Howard and senior defensive backs Nick Orr and Ranthony Texada. All three have been starters for the last three seasons when healthy.
Howard made the All-Big 12 First Team for the second straight year. He led the team with 98 tackles and has amassed 333 stops over the last three seasons. Orr was third on the team in tackles from his safety position and also tied for the team lead with two interceptions and has eight for his career. Texada has been considered one of the better shutdown corners in the Big 12 since his redshirt freshman season, and this year he led the team with 13 pass breakups and also had an interception.
Those defensive stars have made the Horned Frogs extremely difficult to score on. They give up just 17.6 points per game, the 11th lowest total in the FBS. Their defense seems to get stingiest when opposing offenses get in the red zone. The Horned Frogs have allowed scores on just 64.5 percent of opposing teams’ trips to the red zone, the second lowest mark in the FBS. They’ve surrendered an FBS-low of just four rushing touchdowns in the red zone.
TCU’s defense will obviously present a great challenge to the Stanford offense. However, the Horned Frogs did show vulnerability over the last few games of the season. Oklahoma’s incredible offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield scored 38 points in their regular season meeting with TCU on Nov. 11 and then hung 41 on the Big 12’s best defense in the conference championship game. The Sooners rushed for over 200 yards in both meetings and Mayfield had a combined seven touchdowns without a single interception. Perhaps they provided a blueprint for Stanford to expose those few weaknesses in the stout TCU defense. Sophomore quarterback KJ Costello will need to be sharp to give Stanford a chance to attack that talented secondary.
Helping Stanford’s cause is the return of Bryce Love to full health. Love declared himself 100 percent before the Alamo Bowl after he battled through an ankle injury for the second half of the season. The Heisman runner-up may be playing in his last college game against TCU’s highly-ranked rushing defense if he does decide to enter the NFL Draft this April. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. PT on Thursday night and will be televised by ESPN.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.