Ahh, another game, another instance of TCU playing down to the competition in the first quarter, although this one was perhaps even more shocking. Even during the Dalton years the TCU offense was often guilty of painfully slow starts, only to crank things up after a drive or two. But to be completely shut out on the first quarter? Against an FCS opponent? And NOT shut them out? That was kind of a whole new low. Apologies to the section V dwellers who had to listen to me openly root against our boys for a few drives in a bout of reverse psychology, or least I tell myself that's what it was. To be honest, I was as frustrated during that first quarter as I've ever been during a TCU game mostly because, seriously, come ON, guys!! What the hell??!! Do we really need a 21 point outburst two minutes before halftime to crank it up against PORTLAND STATE??? Hype up their athletes all you want, but a team fielded entirely of our freshmen should be able to put those guys away off the bat. This is an entirely new team with much to prove. Playing down to the competition should never be on the table.
But lest you think I missed the final 55-13 tally, the last 32 minutes of the game were outstanding. The defense clamped down, the offense stepped up and special teams play may have been our brightest spot for the first time in I can't remember. That performance is going to go a long way in determining what happens this Saturday when SMU comes to town for the biggest game of the year to date. If you like your glasses half full, just compare the jumpstart the second half of Baylor gave us in the first 3 quarter against Air Force. If you like your glasses empty, think about the slow starts the past two games and how a team like SMU will humiliate us if we come out flat.
In lieu of the traditional recap, and in honor of the beginning of Hate Week, here are 3 reasons why Saturday's performance should give us hope against the Ponies, as well as 3 reasons why it shouldn't. This will be extremely cursory because I have to have some ammunition for the actual preview, don't I?
Three Reasons for Hope:
Waymon James and, less so, Aundre Dean. Ed Wesley is rumored to return this weekend... but will it actually help? I'm not trying to suggest that this offense hasn't missed Wesley; to downplay the impact of last year's leading rusher riding the bench all season would be foolish. But...
Waymon James has been absolutely outstanding these past two games. Last week he had 11 carries for 90 yards and a huge block to set up Greg McCoy's kick return. This week he had 10 carries for 136 yards and a score - 13.6 yards per carry!!!-, and McCoy returned the favor. More on that later. To use the common cliche, he is running like a man possessed and has more than earned his fair share of reps going forward, no matter what happens with Wesley. We've always considered Waymon to be a sneaky quick bowling ball, but the kid has some serious speed to go with his strength, as evidenced by his 65 yard TD run to open up the second half. In a move we've seen Wesley utilize against Wyoming, Waymon let the Vikings defense know that the play isn't over until he's smashed into the turf when he rolled off a pile of tacklers and sprinted into the end zone. We had big hopes for the kid when he was coming out of HS. To this point, we've been well rewarded.
As for Aundre Dean, he may never get the opportunity to live out his massive expectations coming out of HS, but it's not for lack of effort. Kid runs HARD when given the opportunity and very well might be the breakout RB in Wesley's absence if Waymon wasn't playing absolutely out of his mind. His numbers aren't huge, but he's a very, very tough runner who isn't afraid of contact and I would expect to see him in goal line situations going forward. However, if missing out on Dean in said situations means we get more big plays like Waymon's run and Boyce's screen for TDs, then I suppose we'll be all the better for it.
Has Skye Dawson Arrived? It's still probably too early to say, but he sure looked good on Saturday. Of course, his TD pass DID have an element of luck to it - and according to Patterson he was running an incorrect route at the time - but hey, much like Wesley's catch and run against Clemson last year, the best plays don't always play out as they were drawn up.
Regardless, it was a relief to see Dawson's speed on display to give ourselves the knowledge that we weren't all crazy for expecting big things from him. He led all receivers on the day with 111 yards - including the aforementioned 73 yard scamper - and 2 scores but the thing that stick out to me is his team leading 8 receptions, double that of next leading man Josh Boyce. Drops have been a big drawback to the performances of Dawson and Antoine Hicks and may have even cost us a game already this year. It's hard to say what will happen with Hicks, but for Dawson, perhaps a little confidence is all he needed going forward? We'll find out this weekend I suppose.
But I can't stop there because Skye also looked better in the return game just one week after being removed from those duties. He returned two punts for 41 yards, but one of those went for 42 yards, with the other resulting in a net loss. The 42 yard return nearly went for a score and set up his first reception TD. Waymon James was probably the MVP of this particular game, but Skye certainly gave him a run for his money.
Look Out, Beamer, because TCU is looking like special teams U. Two kick returns for TDs in 2 weeks, a 46.5 yard average per KR this week as well as 28.3 on PRs? Not bad. Not bad at all. Seriously, go back and watch Waymon's KR and then watch McCoy's from last week. Last week McCoy took the ball, started his run, pointed Waymon towards a defender whom he promptly put into his own bench, and hit the jets for the score. But this week may have been even better. Waymon fielded the kick and started his run left, but watch McCoy - he looks back at him, gives Waymon a "Hey, this way" finger direction, and lays out TWO defenders, springing Waymon for the untouched score. We may rip McCoy for his CB play at times, but you can't discount the value of having a weathered Senior on special teams in a moment like that. Once he gave Waymon that direction, you just knew it was going to be a big one. Just fantastic interplay between the two and let's have some more of that this week, shall we?
I mentioned Dawson in the KR game, but Brandon Carter looked solid as well, taking his one return for 43 yards. However, that comes with a caveat as all he saw between him and the end zone was a punter and didn't notice the defender closing in on him who promptly slapped the ball out of his hands. TCU recovered, but for anyone wondering why Skye started the game at PR after last week, there's your answer. Carter is going to be that guy once Skye graduates, but he still has a few things to learn.
Our coverage teams had a solid day as well, holding the Vikings to an 18.4 yard average on KRs and 0 punts returned. Tra Battle has especially shined in special teams situations, having perhaps the hit of the day on the opening kick. The PSU return man saw a hint of daylight, but then Battle calmly strided in and gently put his shoulder into the returner, which immediately stopped his momentum and certainly damaged part of his soul. Seriously, I say gentle because it wasn't like he rared up and popped the guy - he really did just smoothly step in, lower his shoulder and spring and put the kid on his ass. It was a pretty mondo power move. Deryck Gildon has also shined on special teams this year and led the team with 3 tackles.
But, I'd be remiss if I didn't give credit where credit is due. Ross, you're forgiven for at least one week. He converted all 7 PAT attempts and both of his field goals, including one from that pesky PAT range that has so often troubled him. Much like Dawson, let's hope this performance gives him the confidence he needs going forward.
Three Reason for Fear:
Sluggish Start. It's an easy one, but after watching SMU dismantle Memphis Saturday, it's a reason to be somewhat afraid. Fortunately Memphis is one of the worst teams in the NCAA, FBS or FCS be damned, so we can't really compare apples to apples, but let's look at their first half starts. Against aggy, they were within a TD for a quarter and a half before the farmers pulled away. Against UTEP, they were up 21-10 at the half. However, the last two games they really kicked it into high gear, going up 40-0 on Northwestern State until 1 minute left in the game, and blanking Memphis 42-0. In both games they scored at least 26 points in the first half.
Yes, we are better than both of those teams and I wouldn't expect similar results. But if we start slow on both sides and the Ponies go up 14-0 on us early, do you have faith that this team will fight back? Apologists will give a resounding YES and point to the Baylor game as a reference point, but was that a result of the defense clamping down or Baylor getting conservative? June Jones may have as much emotion as a sack of potatoes, but don't think he's going to get soft with a lead.
The great thing about this TCU team is that our offense can keep us in any game. But there's also a point where their capabilities hit a wall and it's going to be up to our defense to make something happen. Based on the way we've given up short, underneath passes - a pretty key component of SMU's offense - it's a scary proposition. I've never been afraid of playing SMU in my nearly 10 years as a TCU fan. Until this year. Prove me wrong, team.
Tanner Brock out for season. Kenny Cain returned this weekend and looked solid, leading the team with 13 tackles and a sack and Tank Carder joined the club with a huge INT score and 6 tackles, but Brock's definite absence is going to be rough on this team going forward. You just can't lose your leading tackler from a year ago and spin it in a positive light. You may recall Patterson suggesting that Kenny Cain was challenging Tank for his starting spot, a comment we brushed aside as typical Patterson-speak, but he may have been right. However, he never tried to look past Brock's absence. Like I've said before, I'm as far from an X's and O's expert as there is, but even I can tell something is missing from our front seven without Brock. Stansly Maponga -6 tackles, 1 sack- notwithstanding, that crew just doesn't seem to have the speed of past units. For instance, they gave up 119 rushing yards to Portland State. Sure, it was only good for 2.9 yards per carry, but did you see how easily their QB outran our defense on plays where the secondary had his receivers covered up? I can't recall that happening in a LONG time. Of course the positive spin on that is exactly what I said - the secondary had the receivers covered, something that hasn't been a given at all this year - but it's still a reason for concern. PSU RB Shaquille Richard - are you as glad as I am that we have finally reached the proper time lapse for the emergence of children named after Shaquille O'Neal to start playing sports? - had 98 yards on the day. I can't see this happening if Tank and Tanner are terrorizing backfields again this year. Fortunately SMU QB JJ McDermott doesn't pose an open field threat, but underrated RB Zach Line is taking notes.
Third and Fourth Down Efficiency on defense. TCU led the nation in third down efficiency last year, only allowing the opposition to convert on 21.9% of their chances. This year through four games, three against underwhelming opposition, the Frogs are allowing opponents to convert on 46% of their third down tries. Even worse, TCU has allowed opponents to convert on 60% of their fourth downs. This is where a lot of those quick, underneath passes I mentioned earlier happen. These types of drive extending defensive lapses are KILLER and often lead to unnecessary scores. SMU is currently converting 51% of their third down tries, which is about average, although they are only 1/8 on fourth downs. I'll hit on this more in the actual preview, but I think this will be THE factor in determining the outcome of this game.
Like I said, a lot of good things this week, but it's hard to get a reading on this team based on the opponent. The first third of the season is officially complete and now we begin the middle third which, collectively, will be the toughest stretch of the season. Of the next 4 games, only one should be a gimme and two - SMU, SDSU - could easily be losses. I have no opinion on BYU yet, but as it is the last game of the 4, we're going to have a good feeling one way or the other by then. 3-1 is realistic, although 2-2 would not stun anyone. I hope practices go a lot smoother this week than they have the past few weeks or it could be a long, hot, ugly Saturday. I just pray that God would never allow us to lose to SMU AND Baylor is the same season. Go frogs.