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Predicting how TCU’s speed will fare vs. Ohio State’s power

The Horned Frogs have won big upsets before, but how do they match up with the loaded Buckeyes?

Southern v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Gary Patterson has wanted this one for some time now. At Big 12 Media Days, he started on a brief tangent about wanting to compete against the top coaches in the game, including Urban Meyer, before getting back to a “it’s about the players” cliche. An old exchange between Gary Patterson and a recruit, revealed on Twitter, also made clear that TCU craves games like this.

Meyer won’t be on the sideline on Saturday night, not that Patterson considers that particularly relevant, but the matchup is compelling nonetheless. TCU has embraced smaller-school strategy on both sides of the ball, while Ohio State has blended spread philosophy with traditional power running and trench play.

The result is a classic “styles make fights” matchup at Jerry World: the hard-nosed blue-blood against the underdog with a chip on its shoulder and a bag of tricks.

Heading into 2018, the Frogs had one of the better defensive lines in the Big 12. They returned star athletes Ben Banogu (12 run stuffs, 8.5 sacks) and Ross Blacklock (two sacks, 10 run stuffs) up front while plugging in up-and-comer Corey Bethley and converted LB (formerly converted QB) Ty Summers. Then Blacklock was lost for the year in fall camp. So instead of having a big man with NFL measurables, the Frogs are back to having speedsters and scrappers.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s offseason shuffling across their OL produced one of the largest possible combinations, with former guard Michael Jordan sliding to center to produce a unit whose left tackle is one of its shortest members ... at 6’6.

Size vs speed up front

Ohio State TCU
Ohio State TCU
Thayer Munford: 6-6, 319 (left tackle) Ty Summers: 6-2, 235 (defensive end)
Malcolm Pridgeon: 6-7, 310 (left guard) Terrell Cooper: 6-2, 286 (defensive tackle
Michael Jordan: 6-7, 312 (center) Garrett Wallow: 6-2, 212 (middle linebacker
Demetrious Knox: 6-4, 312 (right guard) Corey Bethley: 6-1, 290 (defensive tackle)
Isaiah Prince: 6-7, 310 (right tackle) Ben Banogu: 6-4, 249 (defensive end)
Average: 6-6, 313 Average: 6-2, 254

When the Buckeyes play with a TE like 6’6, 250-pound Luke Farrell, that only adds to the massive size differential, as the Frogs involve a safety like 6’2, 203-pound Innis Gaines or 6’2, 206-pound outside linebacker Arico Evans.

Naturally, both teams employ strategies to make the most of the types of players they have up front.

Ever since Tom Herman came through, Ohio State has been an inside zone team. When they’ve had QBs like Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett, they ran it as the zone-read play. With Cardale Jones or now Dwayne Haskins, they tend to use blocks or RPOs to handle extra defenders, rather than QB keeper options.

With such a big OL, the inside zone sets them up to easily find people to block, and you see them easily covering up opposing DL:

That’s textbook inside zone blocking. They cover up the guys in the gaps they are covering, and when the OL are able to advance on LBs, they create creases. And anywhere there’s a double team, the defender’s moving backward.

While Ohio State looks to force opponents to get around large people in confined spaces, the TCU front is geared around making it hard to block speedy people. They are constantly moving around with twists, stunts, and fast-flowing LBs supported by safeties. The Frogs also have their DTs try to tie up OL at the point of attack, to protect the LBs:

On this play, they line up the DTs in the A gaps and have them charge into the blockers, while the LBs are flowing to the lead blocker and the ball, with DBs coming quickly in support.

TCU plays with three safeties at all times (before you count their often safety-sized LBs). Below, you can see them employ their cover 1/cover 6 hybrid coverage, with the weak safety opening up to the middle of the field while the strong safety opposite sneaks into the box like a third linebacker and the free safety drops down over the slot in man:

As a result they get another speedy guy into the box and one that the OL doesn’t have enough blockers to handle. Just one of many ways they have to move versatile athletes around to outnumber an offense at the point of attack. A standard running play against TCU looks like the OL trying to make sure they track all the DL and get their hands on them while hordes of safety-sized defenders are racing to the football.

Ohio State’s traditional zone/power option game would have a challenge with TCU’s defense, which always has a quick, sure-tackling dude patrolling the box and unblocked.

However, the 2018 Buckeyes also create stress points away from the action by punishing man coverage, which you tend to get from the Frogs, with perimeter tosses and deep shots:

If the Frogs can’t get pressure with their quick DE tandem and Haskins has time to throw outside to this cast of receivers, then whether or not the Buckeye OL is able to consistently block in the run game won’t matter too much.

While TCU has a lot of precise speed on defense, the scary “size vs. speed” matchups for Ohio State might be against the TCU offense.

Or at least, that would be the case if TCU wasn’t so inexperienced at QB and OL.

Being a Big Ten team, the Buckeyes have tended to play a walk-out linebacker in lieu of a nickel, while playing a safety with man coverage abilities behind him. The best version of this was the Darron Lee/Vonn Bell combo. This year, they’re relying on RS freshman Pete Werner and star junior Jordan Fuller.

While this approach tends to work in B1G play, they got into some trouble a year ago against Baker Mayfield and the OU spread passing attack.

TCU has extreme speed in its WR corps, highlighted by true sophomore Jalen Reagor and blazing senior KaVontae Turpin:

SMU brought a big blitz here that left Turpin in space, and that was it. And if Ohio State allows the Frogs to connect to this little speed demon in space, the Buckeyes’ abundance of pro-caliber DBs won’t avail them in catching him.

But TCU is starting over across the OL, which includes three new starters in place of stalwarts, and at QB, with spread-option ace Shawn Robinson. He can’t yet consistently make quick reads and accurate tosses in TCU’s air raid. He’s at his most comfortable running option plays that use his elite speed and power:

He can kill teams on zone-reads like this for days, and he’s really good at reading an unblocked defender’s eyes and turning what looks like good leverage by the defense into busted contain. Unfortunately for the Frogs, he’s not yet good at ensuring the ball gets to speed in space ... or at protecting it.

So the Buckeyes may get away with playing three true linebackers and trying to bully the inexperienced Frog OL with their size and pressure packages up front.

TCU craves opportunities to prove its quality on big stages, and much of the country will probably find them a particularly appealing underdog against Ohio State.

However, they may not have the savvy veterans on offense to execute a strategy based on skillful passing, and running against Ohio State’s starting line will likely be a challenge for anyone.

If they can’t keep it close enough for a few big plays to make the difference, they can’t be the team to knock off Ohio State this year. But of course, Patterson has been waiting a long time to solve this riddle.

Expect the Ohio State WR corps and TCU’s inexperience at QB to make the difference as Ohio State thwarts TCU’s big upset and covers the 13-point spread. (And S&P+ has the Buckeyes as more like a 19-point favorite.)