A Make or Break Game
There’s an uncomfortable underlying aspect to Baylor’s matchup with TCU this Saturday: this could be Baylor’s best remaining opportunity for a win this year. There’s no clear answer here—games like at Texas Tech and hosting Kansas State remain—but TCU has been scuffling lately and Baylor gets them at home.
This series has been, well, strange over the past handful of seasons. Things were wild in the Briles years, culminating in 2015 with probably the worst weather game I’ve ever seen (thankfully I was not there; my wife was, she assures me it was way worse than 2013 Baylor - Texas). 2016 was the first game where the majority of the coaching staff quit on the players and TCU embarrassed Baylor at home (my wife assures me that was pretty much the worst atmosphere she’s ever experienced at a game). Then began the Rhule era, with an overmatched 2017 squad, a putrid 2018 game where neither team could move the ball, and finally 2019 which was one of the first signs of Baylor’s significant late season downturn.
Enter 2020. While Baylor has been through multiples eras within the past decade, TCU has retained its defensive-first identity under the extremely well-paid and respected Patterson. But TCU fans have become uneasy, as the team has established itself as clearly in the top half of the league when it comes to recruiting (along with facilities and budget) but has failed to reach the top half of the league recently. Make no mistake, they expect to win this game, for good reason: if they, at the height of their stability and talent, can’t beat a struggling Baylor team, what’s the point?
For Baylor, they’re staring at 1-3 if they drop this one or 2-2 if they win. There’s a big difference between those two. This is a team that just last year was in the Big 12 title game. It’s full of guys who have not lowered their sights one bit. If they’re intent on getting back to the title game this is a must win.
When Baylor Has the Ball
Baylor’s offense does not match up well at all against TCU’s defense. It starts with understanding Patterson’s philosophy on defense. As Matt Rhule said,
“I think it starts with Coach Patterson doing a masterful job of taking away the things that you do well and so you go into a game like, you know he’s going to take away your top three runs in every formation, your top three passes, they’re going to take it away by scheme and then they have great players playing really aggressively, they don’t give you free stuff. They sit there, they play press man, their safeties are flat footed and they’re going to sit there and they’re going to challenge you to throw the ball deep and then they’re going to go compete for the ball. They’ve got great ball skills.”
Basically, TCU designs their defense to suffocate what you do best. For most college football offenses, that means standard run plays, some RPOs based off those, and a few pass concepts that you like to run out of a few different formations. Patterson goes in every week with his main goal to take those away. He’s ultra aggressive on standards downs (1st & 10, 2nd & 6, etc.) and relatively more conservative on passing downs (2nd & 10, 3rd and 4+, etc.).
You might (probably should) be thinking: well doesn’t every defensive coordinator do that? Shouldn’t every defensive coordinator do that?
Well, kind of. The thing is, when you sell out to stop an offense’s bread and butter concepts, you leave yourself vulnerable to big plays. Most offenses aren’t built around taking deep shots to wide receivers split wide to the field, for instance. So TCU will leave that guy in solo coverage. But for an offense, all you have to do is hit that one time, even if you have to try three times, for that to potentially be a big play and get points. This is the central “gamble” of Patterson: he’s betting that, over 4 quarters, the opposing offense will score fewer points if you stifle them on a down to down basis and occasionally give up the big play. This leads to problems against offenses like Oklahoma with guys like Spencer Rattler at QB who can threaten any part of the field on every play.
You can probably see why this is a bad matchup for Baylor. What little Baylor has gotten going on offense this year has all been RPOs, option routes over the middle, and some base run game. Brewer has not been able to deliver the ball down the field, not even on boundary deep shots like he was able to do last year to Mims, let alone deep shots to the field which generally require the ability to throw 50-60 yards in the air. The central question for Baylor’s offense in this game is: what are they going to do when TCU takes away the only stuff they’ve gotten to work for them so far this year?
This is what Baylor’s RPO game has looked like this year. In the below play, Brewer is reading the boundary safety. If that safety comes up in the run game, hit the glance.
Y-iso/glance RPO pic.twitter.com/bAMegdEkP0— Asst to the Minister of Culture (@Ian_A_Boyd) October 26, 2020
As Ian said, if they play press-man, the RPO becomes a back shoulder fade instead of a glance.
Glance becomes a back shoulder fade against press-man pic.twitter.com/avwXDsU5d8— Asst to the Minister of Culture (@Ian_A_Boyd) October 26, 2020
This back shoulder version is going to be the primary one available to Baylor this game. The glance route to the boundary is going to be one of the base concepts that Patterson focuses on eliminating. How will he do that? Well, let’s look at a typical TCU defensive alignment.
The “weak safety” is the operative player here (and he just happens to be one of the best players in the conference, Ar’Darius Washington). TCU teaches their safeties to play flat footed and not trigger forward until they know the RB has the ball. Thus, the glance route is not an option if the safety just sits there.
OK, so that’s the point of reading the weak safety, right? If he stays back, you have favorable numbers in the box! Run the ball! Well .... sorta. First of all, Ar’Darius Washington is super explosive, so even though he is playing flat-footed he can get there in run support decently quick. Secondly, there’s another guy you have to account for: the strong safety. If he comes up against the run (which TCU will do some), you no longer have a numbers advantage in the box, you only have a numbers advantage to the field (the wide side of the field). So what do you do? You RPO the field defender (the SS in the above image). Here is Baylor doing that against Texas:
This will probably not work very often against TCU. As explained above, Patterson takes away your bread and butter stuff. He will be telling his field-side defenders (the CB and free safety) to not respect anything deep and to jump these quick routes. Until Brewer demonstrates the ability to throw deep to the field and/or Fedora starts calling those plays, Patterson and TCU’s D will not play defense like they have to.
The other passing concept that worked well for Baylor against Texas was an over the middle option route, either to Gavin Holmes or Josh Fleeks.
3rd and 8. This is the playbook for Baylor on passing downs so far. Spread the field, but Brewer is really only reading one guy over the middle. Texas' LB knows this is coming, he just sits in the spot and waits for Holmes to come to him. LT struggles again. pic.twitter.com/YjjDdbAD7l— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) October 25, 2020
They’re letting Gavin Holmes option the linebacker. Depending on his leverage, Holmes will either sit break inside or sit down. This play had mixed results for Baylor against Texas. It works well against man coverage when a quick WR can work off of a slower inside linebacker, not so much when the defense is just sitting in zone on a passing down.
Here’s the problem for using this play against TCU—they have much, much better interior linebacker play than Texas does. Garrett Wallow, Dee Winters, LaKendrick Van Zandt—none of these are guys I’m excited about my running back or inside receiver beating in space.
Thus, the major conundrum for Baylor this week: TCU will likely squat on boundary RPOs, the strong safety will sometimes outnumber the box for the running game, and the field DBs will sit on short routes. Furthermore, when you spread them wide to attack them over the middle, their linebackers will more than likely hold their own on option routes over the middle. So what’s the weakness? You guessed it, attacking them vertically to the field and over the middle.
Last year, Baylor was able to get Josh Fleeks open on interior posts two separate times. TCU will leave this open (not literally open, but they will usually only dedicate one DB to defending this). The first time (video below), Brewer underthrew it into the wind for an interception. The second time, he airmailed it with the wind for what would’ve been the game winning score in regulation.
This is the reality for why Baylor isn't calling deep shots. This is a ~38 yard throw. This is what it has looked for the past ~ 10 games. Boundary "shots" only. It just is what it is. pic.twitter.com/XYDEflgmmY— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) October 27, 2020
TCU’s defense is going to challenge Baylor to beat them deep. Given what we’ve seen over the past handful of games from Brewer, I don’t think Baylor can do it with him at QB. I hope I’m wrong and he comes out airing the ball out, we will see. Ultimately, I think Baylor resorts to a lot of running the ball for short to medium gains, hoping that TCU messes up a gap which results in a long run (they’ve had a few lapses this year). TCU’s defensive line is not up to its usual standard of play. I think we can expect a lot of plays that look like this on Saturday:
Expect a lot of this this Saturday. Boundary safety sitting flat footed to protect against RPO, Hook/Apex triggering hard against the run. pic.twitter.com/gf0hfmt3iS— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) October 29, 2020
One thing Baylor has going for it in this game is that, due to some subpar DL play both on the interior and at end, they could force TCU in some conflicts where DEs are responsible for RBs out of the backfield. Fedora did some good things at Texas getting the running backs more involved in the passing game with the flare screens, I’d bet he’s trying to figure out a way to get Lovett or Ebner matched up in favorable situations. There’s also a possibility that this is the game where Baylor’s OL puts it together and just flattens a subpar TCU DL.
I don’t think Baylor can get much going against TCU’s defense without some run busts on their end. Unfortunately, while TCU’s defense has looked vulnerable in some parts of this season, they’re vulnerable in ways Brewer can’t attack. If they want to score more than 14 offensive points this weekend without short fields or multiple major busts by TCU’s defense, Brewer needs to stretch the field or Baylor needs to make a change at QB. Also, if they’re going to stick with Brewer, they need to run him more. I know they’re afraid of him getting injured given his injury history, but he’s still an adept runner and Fedora needs to utilize that aspect of his game.
When TCU Has the Ball
TCU’s offense has really been scuffling over the past few games. In their opener against Iowa State, they had just gotten Max Duggan back from an undisclosed medical issue, so they started Matthew Downing in the first half and got basically nothing going. In the second half, they let Duggan give it a go. He responded by leading touchdown drives on every remaining drive, except for one in which his WR deflected a perfect pass into the waiting arms of an Iowa State defender. He can really throw the ball.
Duggan has some serious upside. Rip it, son pic.twitter.com/jCbF2N6szc— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) October 28, 2020
When the pocket breaks down, he’ll remind fans of a healthy Charlie Brewer when scrambling. He’s a great athlete.
After his great performance versus Iowa State and then against Texas the next week, I’ve been surprised to see how poor he’s been against Kansas State and Oklahoma. Unfortunately, only highlights are available against Kansas State so I couldn’t glean much there. Against OU he played alright, but was often done in by a terrible offensive line performance against a very good OU pass rush. When he had time he still made great throws like this:
Baylor has to like the matchup of their defensive front against TCU’s struggling OL. Furthermore, their best OL, Left Guard Wes Harris, is out for the season with an injury. Baylor should be able to get a lot of pressure on Duggan. Their OTs have really struggled this year. OU is able to get to Duggan with only a 3 man rush here on 3rd and 7:
Baylor has been terrific getting after the quarterback this year, and they’ve been great at doing it while only sending 4 rushers. Baylor has 3 guys who are great to elite at getting to the QB: defensive end William Bradley-King, insider backer Terrel Bernard, and outside backer Jalen Pitre. Those three will be at the forefront of getting to Duggan this game.
3rd and long. This is the basic conundrum offenses have on passing downs vs Baylor this year. Do you assign your OL to stay on Bernard and give the RB to Pitre, or the reverse? Bernard decoys here, gives Pitre the 1v1 vs the RB and he blows him up. pic.twitter.com/FR9k0voJWD— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) October 25, 2020
Most importantly, they have to keep him contained in the pocket. He’s a great runner and also great throwing the ball on the run. Get a rush, keep him contained, and wait for him to make a mistake throwing into coverage. He’s still a true sophomore, and has shown a predilection for throwing the ball into traffic like this:
TCU’s run game doesn’t present anything too scary. They have great skill talent at RB with guys like Darwin Barlow, but their OL play has been so poor that it’s not something you have to dedicate many resources to. Baylor’s gameplan against TCU should be pretty straight forward: play base on standard downs while making sure you have enough guys wide to guard against their quick game, have the linebackers rush while maintaining leverage against Duggan, and then get creative on passing downs to force turnovers.
What to Watch For
- Does Fedora at least attempt some deep balls to see what will happen? My thesis has been that he isn’t calling them because of Brewer’s limitations, but even if that is the case I think he and Aranda will feel the pressure to at least try and air it out.
- Can Baylor get a decently consistent running game going? The difference between getting to 2nd and 5 versus 2nd and 8 this game could be the difference between Baylor scoring 6 points or 21 points.
- Can Baylor shut down TCU’s quick game? A major reason Baylor stifled TCU in the past is that guys like Blake Lynch, Henry Black, and Chris Miller could totally shut down the field screen game. Baylor’s been pretty stout against it this year under Aranda.
- How effective is TCU’s running game on standard downs? Baylor will turn Duggan over if they get him in too many passing downs. TCU needs to get consistent gains on 1st and 2nd down so they can keep Baylor’s defense on their heels.
- TCU always pulls out a crazy trick play for this game. Just hope it doesn’t immediately lead to points.
This game could come down to a battle of wills. Baylor seems to be in the middle of some tumult right now, as two of its better players and team leaders had decided to opt out before deciding to stick with the team. Even though all of the reports since then have been positive, saying that they’ve moved on, understood their actions, etc., it is one of those situations where I don’t know what else they would say. Maybe everything is peachy in the locker room right now and guys have totally cleared it from their minds, but a team is made up of individuals, so I’d bet that at least some guys are having a hard time right now.
I am very worried about the offense going into this game. With TCU’s talent in the secondary, I don’t see a path to scoring many points unless they have several large busts in the run game. My worry is that, if Baylor has another anemic offensive showing, that we get into a situation where TCU is leading something like 9 to 3 late in the 3rd quarter and the defense is trotted out there again and again with massive pressure to keep it close. Sometimes you see the floodgates open in those scenarios. Baylor has terrific leadership from guys like Terrel Bernard, Jalen Pitre, and JT Woods, so I doubt it, but it is something to consider.
My prediction is given the assumption that Aranda sticks with Brewer this game no matter the on-field results. Given that, I’ll take TCU in a very ugly and frustrating game, 16 to 10. If Brewer looks much better than he has in the recent past or they make a change and Baylor can threaten downfield, then all bets are off and Baylor could put some points on the board. Either way, I think we are in for a wild, emotional one on Saturday. That’s what rivalries are for, right?!