Arkansas brings its prototypical SEC offense to the spread-dominated state of Texas this week when it takes on TCU in Fort Worth.
In a battle of contrasting styles, the Razorbacks will attack the Horned Frogs with a punishing ground attack. TCU’s high-flying offense, meanwhile, will try to contend with the physicality of the SEC.
The matchup reignites an old rivalry, too. These schools last met on the football field 25 years ago, when both were members of the Southwest Conference.
So what should the Razorbacks’ game plan be against TCU? Let’s take a look at what the Frogs do on both sides of the ball, and how Arkansas should attack them:
Defending the TCU offense: disrupt timing and get ready for tricks
TCU’s offense under co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie has been a machine. The Frogs have averaged more than 42 points a game each of the last two seasons with an Air Raid passing attack that stretches defenses to their limit.
The first thing Arkansas must do to slow the Frogs offense is disrupt their timing. The Air Raid is built on quick throws to the outside that get skill players in space. Those plays are designed for the quarterback to quickly set his feet and get rid of the ball before the pass rush can become a factor.
On this play against Texas Tech in 2014, Deante’ Gray turns a 5-yard hitch into a 92-yard touchdown. That’s the speed the Frogs want to get into the open field.
The Razorbacks can take away those throws by having their cornerbacks press receivers at the line of scrimmage while their defensive linemen get their hands up into passing lanes. CBs Jared Collins and DJ Dean (if he’s healthy) have to be up at the line and make Gray and the other TCU receivers work to get open.
It’s a risky strategy given the Razorbacks’ recent struggles in the secondary. A couple wrong moves could lead to some explosive plays downfield.
The risk will be worth it, however, if the corners are able to take away TCU QB Kenny Hill’s first option and make him hold on to the ball longer. That will take away the easy gains and create more sack opportunities for DE Deatrich Wise Jr. as Hill is forced to go through his reads. The more Hill feels pressure and isn’t able to get rid of the ball quickly, the more TCU’s offense will stall.
The other thing Arkansas should be ready for is wide receiver pass plays. They’ve become a staple of TCU’s offense since Meacham and Cumbie took over.
Here, the Frogs throw what appears to be a bubble screen to WR/RB Shaun Nixon, who then completes a long touchdown pass to a wide-open Josh Doctson. Again, TCU’s quick passing game sets up what the Frogs want to accomplish. But if Arkansas can disrupt that timing, it will have a ripple effect on the rest of TCU’s game plan.
Attacking the TCU defense: throw deep and try something new
While TCU head coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 defense is unique and tough to figure out, it possesses one consistent flaw: it’s susceptible to the deep ball.
When the Frogs give up a lot of yardage, it’s almost always because they’ve given up a number of long passes. Patterson puts a lot of trust in his players, often leaving his corners in 1-on-1 coverage in order to roll coverage elsewhere.
The result is when every player executes his assignment, no one is open. But when one player makes a mistake, there’s a massive breakdown.
On this play against Oklahoma State in 2015, TCU’s Nick Orr bites on a pump fake. With no help behind Orr, WR James Washington has an easy 50-yard touchdown.
Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema has to trust junior QB Austin Allen to throw the ball downfield. Senior WR Dominique Reed has the speed to blow by defenders, especially if he’s matched up against one of TCU’s less-experienced corners. Arkansas can be patient running the ball and then use play-action to set up some deep shots.
The other thing to know about Patterson: He’s obsessive when it comes to watching film. He’ll study tape of an opponent’s offense going back years prior. Part of why his defenses play so well is that he makes sure they are exceedingly well-prepared.
To have success against him, the Razorbacks have to install some new wrinkles on offense. Whether it’s a formation they have never used or a trick play they have yet to debut, they need to run some things that the Frogs haven’t already seen.