Here we are, two days from the biggest game in modern TCU history, and something feels amiss. Maybe it’s the post-Xmas/pre-New Year lull. Maybe it’s the disaster that is all three of my bowl pools at present. Maybe it’s because, deep down, while I’m absolutely thrilled to be in the Rose Bowl, part of me still thinks we should be getting a shot at the big one. Mostly, though, I think I’m just out of practice. After all, since I missed the New Mexico game, it has been nearly two months since I’ve seen the Frogs in action, which is almost an eternity when you consider the season is only slightly longer than that time span. I’ve heard of a bowl game hangover for the actual teams, but for the fans? I doubt I’m the only one.
So by this point, I think I’ve covered all the bases with the positional breakdowns. If you’re like me, you’ve read all the articles, watched all the college football live highlights and, in kerleys case, left flaming bags of dog shit and razors on Rod Gilmore’s doorstep every day since the season ended, if not before then. We know what everyone is saying – that, despite being favored, TCU is going to get run over by Wisconsin’s rushing attack and the only way we can hope to keep it interesting is if we come out, hit them in a mouth, and stay just one step ahead on the scoreboard. Given, this is certainly a game where winning by one point would be absolutely suitable, if not downright appropriate, but considering our guys haven’t had to play and win a close game in a couple of years, I’m doubting that’s the most desirable route. Not that we couldn’t pull it off – with as many seniors as we have, the mental part of that equation goes out the window – but, like many of you, I’ve been pretty spoiled with the 40 point victories and don’t think my ticker could handle anything different.
Unfortunately though, I think it’ll have to.
Wisconsin is good. Actually, Wisconsin is very good. Whereas most successful Big Ten teams – Ohio State springs to mind – lull you into a loss, Wisconsin will hit you in the mouth, run past you on the outside, go over the top of you, throw to the tight end and, if need be, hit you in the mouth some more. They’re disciplined – among the top ranked teams in the country in turnovers and penalties – and, like a Patterson coached team, each member of the team has a job and they perform that job to perfection. Except for when they play Michigan State, of course, but they’ve been quite a different team since that game, so we can’t hold it against them. We may disagree with the voting procedures, but QB Scott Tolzien did win the award for the top senior QB in the country over our very own AD, and you can’t take that away from him. Also, anyway you spin it, the Badgers practically have three 1000 yard rushers in the backfield – Montee Ball and John Clay lack about 100 yards each to hit that mark, and you can easily argue that had both been healthy all year they would’ve topped it easily – and with a couple of All-Americans in Gabe Carimi and Lance Kendricks leading the charge, they have perhaps the best offensive line in the country; if you read the national media, they have the best offensive line ever assembled by god or man and if the Badgers don’t rush for over 1000 yards against our measly peons who fraudulently call themselves the top ranked defense in the country, it’ll be the greatest injustice seen since Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for the Blind Side. Regardless, and all sarcasm aside, this is easily going to be the best offensive line we’ve faced this season and our front is going to have their hands full. Wayne Daniels described them as, on video, looking like a combination of Air Force’s blocking schemes combined with BYU’s size which, to me, sounds like a pretty salty combination. Hopefully they aren’t as ‘cut block and break someone’s ankles’ happy as the Falcons, though.
But while I have all the respect in the world for Wisconsin and view them as the only suitable team we could’ve faced this post season outside of Auburn or Oregon, I just can’t shake the knowledge I have of the product TCU has put on the field this year. By that I mean, while I know I should have this ominous feeling heading into the weekend based on everything I’ve heard about how good Wisconsin is and how they have all the pieces in place to overpower us, I just don't see us losing this game. I’m not sure how many of you saw it, but SportsMadison.com posted a pretty cool piece compiling the most notable statistics for TCU heading into the game, and while some of them were pretty generic and obvious, a couple stuck out.
For one, sixteen of our last nineteen victories have come by 27 points or more. Think about that. That’s pretty ridiculous. And while some of those have come against the scrubs, two of those are against Utah and BYU, and Baylor also makes the list, although after that abortion they called a bowl performance last night, that doesn't hold much weight. I think this is why there was such an overreaction when the SDSU game ended like it did; it’s not that the powers that be disrespect the Aztecs – well, ok, it’s that a little bit – but that they expect more from TCU. And they should. It's kind of like how when the Yankees don't run away with the division, the local media rip them. They're not mad, just disappointed because they're so used to the opposite.
I also read a stat that when TCU rushes for 167 yards or more, they’ve won 51 games in a row. In that same vein, whenever the Frogs have more yards on the ground than through the air, the number is 40. And while I don’t think we should let that stat dictate how we run our offense… it definitely sticks out, doesn’t it? TCU rushes, on average, for 261 yards per game while Wisconsin gives up 132… so while I’m not guaranteeing that we’ll hit the number, and even if we do I suppose all streaks are meant to be broken, there’s definitely a very, very good chance both of those statistics will be in play in Pasadena.
So with that, combined with the previews of the past couple of weeks, we’ve pretty much established what both teams have to offer. And it’s very balanced. TCU has the better passing attack, Wisconsin has the better ground game. Wisconsin, begrudgingly, has a better offensive line, but TCU arguably has the better D line. And while the Frogs have better receivers, linebackers and defensive backs, it’s not by as wide of a margin as I may have made it sound. Well, except in the secondary, because we’re really, really good there, although it will not matter as much playing a team like the Badgers. Both teams are coached by former players from the Midwest who waited their turn in line as coordinators at their current schools before moving into the head coach’s chair. Heck, both teams have the EXACT SAME scoring average at 43.3 points per contest. That’s pretty spooky right there.
So how do you compare the two? Well, the most obvious, and most flawed, way is to look at common opponents, and in this case both schools have a UNLV pelt nailed to their wall for the effort. I say the most flawed way because clearly the timing and venue of the game plays a major role in the outcome. However, in this case, let’s be a little generous with the rule and call it even since Wisconsin played UNLV early in the season at home before they hit their stride, and TCU played the Rebels on the road at 10:00 PM in what was basically a walk thru before Utah the following week. And statistically, other than the QB performance, these two games were nearly mirror images of one another. Here’s a stat breakdown:
Total yards – TCU: 530, Wisconsin 475.
Rushing Yards – TCU: 273, Wisconsin 278.
First Downs – TCU: 30, Wisconsin 23.
TOP – TCU – 32:49, Wisconsin: 38:19.
We also each had two turnovers, including a goal line fumble. And, while you might have thought with 21 points vs. 6, we’d have the clear edge defensively, that isn’t the case. At all. Wisconsin gave up 217 yard, TCU 197. Wisconsin allowed 112 yards rushing, TCU 69. Wisconsin allowed 105 yards passing, TCU 128. Third down conversions were negligible as well, with TCU holding the Rebels to 3/13 and Wisconsin 4/14. It looks like we both got a little sloppy playing down to the competition but, in the end, emerged with convincing wins.
Of course, there’s one major differences here that I mentioned earlier, and that’s the QB comparison. Scott Tolzien didn’t have a BAD night against UNLV – 15/20 for 199 yards, no TDs and a pick – but compared to Dalton’s 16/23, 252, 2 TDs and no picks, there’s not really much to see here. And that’s the main difference between the two QBs and why I’m still baffled that Tolzien won the Senior QB Award over Dalton; Wisconsin merely asks Tolzien to do enough to not lose games and TCU asks Dalton to win them. And while the Dalton haters out there must be absolutely petrified that the game could come down to the WINNINGEST QB IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL making a few plays to pull out the biggest win of Patterson’s career, keep in mind our defense is going to be playing the Badgers the exact same way and, when push comes to shove, do you want the guy with a red head leading the charge or the one in the red jersey? This should be a no brainer.
But, let’s assume that each team is able to stay on its game early, that Wisconsin comes out and pounds the ball up our gut and that the Frogs are able to play some spread and keep the Badgers off balance. Who does the most pressure fall on for each team? For the Frogs, clearly the front seven are going to have the toughest job here, but more than that the backups are going to have a tough time. I feel pretty good that Wayne Daniels, Jeremy Coleman, Cory Grant and Stansly Maponga are going to be able keep things relatively in check, not to mention Tank Carder and Tanner Brock. After all, they have all year, so why should it change now that we’re playing the Big Sister of the Rich? But guys like Braylon Broughton, DJ Yendrey, Kris Gardner and Kenny Cain are potentially going to be the difference between winning and losing this one for us. Don’t kid yourselves, Wisconsin isn’t going to suddenly go, “Well, they THINK we’re going to run the ball, so let’s pass it!” overnight – dudes are going to absolutely try to pound our defensive linemen into submission and take linebacker or safety along with them in the ruckus. So clearly we are going to have to have a healthy rotation of bodies getting in and out of there to combat this, and the rotation is even shorter if Kelly Griffin doesn’t play. Truthfully, I don’t feel all that nervous about this. All of those guys, aside from Kenny Cain, have the physical size to deal with the pounding they’re going to take, and I expect them to shed far more blocks than they take head on, anyway. Plus, having the aid of a second strong safety sneaking into the running lanes essentially adds another man to the linebacker mix. It’s not going to be as easy as “stay in your lane and make a play” on most downs, but I don’t see us suffering much of a drop off, if any, when our starters are taking a Gatorade break. Wisconsin might think our defense looks a lot like Michigan's, but I can assure you we hit a little bit harder than the statistically WORST defense in the entire Big Ten.
As for the Badgers, I think the biggest burden is going to be placed on those guys going up against the left side of our offensive line because that’s where Marcus Cannon is and JJ Watt isn’t. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised to see us run to Watt’s side more than a few times all game, and if we do I’d fully expect us to give him the Tommy Blake/Jerry Hughes double team treatment that we’ve seen so well in the past. Not that Zack Roth isn’t up to the challenge, just why chance it? Clearly the biggest takeaway from the Fiesta Bowl last year was how, after we got down early, we panicked and tried to play catch up. I think I mentioned in my write up that it was the only time that I can truly remember our coaching staff getting out coached and they didn’t quite rise to the occasion. Given, Andy Dalton throwing 3 picks doesn’t help matters, but as soon as we got down, we abandoned the bread and butter run game and tried to pass our way back into it, which clearly didn’t work. That’s the fault of the coaching staff and I think they’ll correct it this year. As good as Dalton is at running the option and as good as our receivers are at blocking for it, I think you’re going to see all sorts of zone read and speed option plays to start the game and, if they work, that’s definitely getting used to control the clock. And once we hit that magical 167 mark? Well, that’s when you start mixing it up a little bit. I’m kidding about using that number as a benchmark, but we’ve lived by the run all year and I see no reason to stop.
Of course, playing devil’s advocate once again, let’s say Wisconsin comes out, loads the box, and dares Dalton to try and win another game with his arm alone. Not that Utah and Baylor are necessarily the best comparisons here, but based on his performances in those games, the biggest on our schedule, I have little fear about him having a repeat of last year. When the pressure has been turned up this year, he's risen to the occasion and he'll do it once more if need be.
So I guess the only thing left here is to pontificate on how I think the game will go. Given my track record from last year – I said that we’d run the ball the entire game and win by 2 TDs – all of this is clearly to be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s my blogduty so pontificate I will. So I just spent 500 or so words talking about how I thought we’d avoid the pitfalls of last year and how we should run the ball hard to start the game and see where that got us. But you know what? I really like our passing game. A lot. Jeremy Kerley would be enough to convince me of this, especially when you complement him with Bart Johnson and Jimmy Young, but with the addition of Josh Boyce this year, I see no reason why we don’t try and utilize them early on, much like we did against Baylor and Utah. Heck, Skye Dawson caught a 50+ yarder early in the Oregon State game and while he didn’t do much else, that kept the Beavers on their toes a bit and was a big factor in the win. Yes, overall I would MUCH rather have us stick to the game plan that has put us on the road to 12-0, but if we’re going to keep them honest, we’ll have to hit a few home runs in the passing game to open up the run. It’s science. I definitely think we trot out a few 3-4 receiver sets early before bludgeoning them into submission with our own three headed rushing attack.
As for Wisconsin, what you see is what you’re going to get. They’re going to run, run, run a little bit more before going for a big pass play and, when that fails, run it some more. I’d say there’s a very good chance they out rush us overall, but I think it will be closer than the experts predict. I think Kelly Griffin plays and does just enough to make life difficult for the Badger backs. But, not so difficult that they don’t put a few points on the board. They’re going to score points. I can see two rushing TDs and another to Kendricks, but no more than that. Wide receiver Nick Toon might be expecting a big day, but he hasn’t been quite the same player this year as he was the last with his hobbling injuries, and with Teague and Greg McCoy version 2010 2.0, we’ve got quite a lockdown situation going on back there. Plus, with Tejay playing centerfield, I don’t see him getting behind us one time all night. That may sound like a bold prediction, but that’s how I see it. Scott Tolzien is going to get an up close and personal look at the top ranked pass defense in the country, and I doubt he’s going to enjoy the experience.
So clearly, being a mega homer, I like TCU to win the game. But if you’re a casual fan tuning in with no rooting interest, why should you pick the upstart, non-BCS little guy over the tried and true, thoroughbred Big Ten school? A few reasons exist, some tangible, most not.
The numbers don’t lie: TCU is stronger than Wisconsin in just about every facet of the game. We have the better offense, the better defense, the better special teams. Really, the only place they beat us in in penalties and turnovers, and while those two areas become infinitely important in a close game, which this will be, I don’t think we’re going to beat ourselves this year like we did last. Speaking of…
We’ve been there and we know what it feels like to lose: As an obvious disclaimer, Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl is about 10,000 times bigger in every way than Boise State in the Fiesta. We’re not trying to kid ourselves into thinking it’s just another game – this is the most important game for TCU since the 1930s. That’s some heavy stuff right there. It’s important not only because it’s the FREAKING ROSE BOWL, but because it’s a knife in the heart of blue bloods everywhere. Utah beating Alabama was a huge deal and likely played a key role in their Pac 10 invite this past summer. But every SEC fan in the country ignores that loss because, “Alabama was worn down from an SEC schedule and was in letdown mode after losing to Florida in the SEC Championship.” That’s not the case for us. Wisconsin had their one slip up and enters this game playing their best football of the entire season. The hottest team in the country, some might say. This is huge. Last year, besides being outplayed and outcoached for the first time in memory, we let the gravity of the situation get to us. The Fiesta Bowl was seen as the destination, and a win was just gravy. Not this year. This senior laden team is ready for battle. They wanted to get out there early and get the jitters out. They want the extra practice. They want the pressure that comes with it. And most importantly, anything less than a win is failure. They know what that lonely plane ride home feels like when you’re this close and miss; I have a feeling this particular trip home will feel significantly different.
We have the best coach in college football: I love saying that because it makes fans everywhere absolutely CRINGE, but it’s true. GP is the best coach in the entire country, and it pisses people off to hear that because they can’t have him. Think of what he’s done – he came into the program when we were arguably worse than SMU, faced a couple of down seasons along the way, and now has a private school of 7000 students in Fort Worth, Texas primed to become the only non-BCS team to play in back to back BCS games, the first to play in a Rose Bowl, and had to basically put a restraining order on the Big East before accepting their invitation. He’s also one of the most well compensated coaches in the country, TCU has the second highest winning percentage in the NCAA since 2008 and has won at least 10 games in seven of the past nine seasons. Oh yeah, and he helped raise over $100 million for a stadium renovation, with a lot of the money coming from donors who did not even attend TCU. I’d say that’s a person who has it going on. Bret Bielema is a good coach. Perhaps a bit of a ‘run up the score’ asshole, but a good coach. But he has nothing on GP. Chris Petersen got his number last year, it won’t happen twice in row. Fool me once, right George Bush?
We won the Lawry’s Beef Bowl: Well, this one definitely falls into the “intangible” category, but the numbers again don’t lie. In the 55 years that the Beef Bowl has been held, the winning team has gone on to win the Rose Bowl 38 times. Those are some good odds right there. Plus, hopefully it puts to rest some of the size comparisons when our scrawny little scrappy warriors bested the supposed beast masters from cheese country 670 pounds to 650.
Alright, so you can definitely dispute the merits of some of that reasoning, but my current lack of nerves makes me feel really, really good about Saturday. Our guys, our school, our entire city is ready and will accept nothing less than a win. I think it’ll be close, but unlike last year I don’t think the game will ever be truly in doubt. Two teams with unusual mascots enter the Rose Bowl, only the one who spits red blood from its eyes emerges. Alright, well both will technically leave, but one will have sad face emoticons floating above their heads. The Frogs win a close one and bring the college football old guard to its knees on a beautiful evening in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Pick: TCU 24, Wisconsin 21.
Unlike you intelligent folk, I am not heading out to the game until Saturday morning, so plenty of travel related SNAFUs are certainly in play. Regardless, everyone have a safe trip out and I hope to see you on the golf course pregame. Go Frogs.