WVU football: TCU defense can confuse, deceive
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Three weeks ago, West Virginia's passing attack ran into a problem at Texas Tech and the way the Red Raiders defensive backs played its tight, man-to-man defense.
A game later, the pass again failed against Kansas State and the way its defense played a zone defense with space the Mountaineers didn't take advantage of in a second straight loss.
No. 23 WVU looks to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the end of the 2004 season Saturday against TCU. The Horned Frogs, who come to Mountaineer Field for a 3 p.m. game on Fox, succeed on defense with a mix of man-to-man and zone coverage.
Within the same play.
"It can deceive you," Mountaineers Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
TCU (5-3, 2-3 Big 12 Conference) has made its name nationally with defense, coordinated by longtime assistant Dick Bumpas. The school has led the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense five times in the past 12 years, including 2008-10.
This season, the Horned Frogs are No. 23 in total defense in their first season in the Big 12, where the passing offenses have offset a rush defense that ranks No. 12.
Opponents pass for 234.3 yards per game - but for 60 more yards per game in Big 12 play.
Holgorsen said the conference's spread offenses have kept TCU from continually playing its half-and-half defense, but there are still times when the defense will put some players in man coverage while asking others to play zone coverage.
"They do about three things from what I see and a lot of it is man or zone, but they will do man/zone concepts where they'll straight up man you on one side if they believe they can man you on one side and they'll play zone on the other," WVU quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "It's all about who they believe they can match up with."
TCU might play man outside against WVU's Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods and use one safety or two to guard against vertical passes. The Mountaineers (5-2, 2-2) use three or four receivers on most snaps and sometimes feature five. TCU could cover the inside receivers, whether there are one, two or three, with a zone defense without compromising the other coverages.
Yet TCU might also play man on Woods on one side of the field and zone with a second defender on Bailey on the other side and still keep the same plan for the inside receivers.
"Sometimes I get confused if it's man or zone because there's a lot of matching routes that goes on that looks like man," Holgorsen said. "It's 50 percent man and 50 percent zone pressure."
When receivers enter the part of the defense that's being defended with a zone, those defenders then pick up the route until the receiver enters another zone. Most other zone defenses leave room in the zone and ask the defenders to erase the space in response to something the offense does.
TCU's defense closes the space before the offense does anything.
"It's almost like playing a basketball zone. Teams play zone and man, but they're more of a man/zone team," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
"They've got guys in a zone and they're going to be on top of your guy. It's not a deal where they're shuffling and they'll allow a completion and rally to the ball. They're trying to knock the ball down."
TCU is allowing opponents to complete 52.7 percent of their passes for 14.1 yards per completion, but it has also forced a Big 12-best 15 interceptions. Iowa State is second with 10. Cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers and defensive linemen have interceptions for TCU.
"That's more a testament to them not being out of place," Dawson said. "They squeeze the air out of a lot of underneath routes and a lot of balls get hit and tipped to the next level for interceptions. They just do a good job matching patterns and squeezing the air out of things. You seldom see guys just running wide-open through their defense."
The Mountaineers were ranked No. 1 in pass efficiency and No. 2 in pass offense after their 5-0 start.
They'd completed 79.6 percent of their passes for 406.8 yards per game and 11.8 yards per completion. In consecutive losses, the completion percentage has dipped to 57.8 percent, while yards per game is down to 215 and yards per completion is at 8.3.
Holgorsen has criticized his receivers for not winning battles against cornerbacks when they press up in coverage and not exploiting open space in zone coverage. TCU will play close in man and zone coverage.
"I'm going to have to be really accurate this week," quarterback Geno Smith said.
His coaches will have to be really attentive, too. Spavital said TCU acts fast when it's in trouble.
If an offense is successfully attacking something the TCU defense is doing, or if a defender isn't faring well against the opponent within the scheme, the Horned Frogs will change and do it within the same possession.
They might stick with the new plan. They might change back to the original idea. They just trust the available possibilities to do something effective. Dawson said TCU has a handful of groupings that can do a variety of things to match up against an offense, which is a lot like what WVU's offense likes to do to a defense.
"One side might be man and one side might be zone on one play, but the next play they might change up and have zone on one side and man on the other side," Dawson said.
"It just depends. Basically, if you watch (Bumpas) call the game, he'll call it like we do offensively. He calls it by feel. He'll mix and match coverages depending on what they're going well and based on a gut feeling."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.