A Look Inside The TCU Offense Under Coordinator Sonny Cumbie
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Much has been written about Gary Patterson and his four-down defensive alignment.
The way it plays just two true linebackers, preferring instead to employ a pair of hybrid safeties, much like WVU, and often times split coverages on the back end with the five defensive backs. Instead or revisiting such, we’ll take a look at a TCU offense that has found its balance between steady, methodical football and attacking opposing defenses at their weakest points.
Coordinated by Sonny Cumbie, a Texas native who played at Texas Tech from 2000-04, the offense is yet another in the Big 12 off the Mike Leach branch. But unlike Leach, who has largely stayed with a more pure version of the Air Raid, Cumbie has swiped a page from the Dana Holgorsen playbook and implemented a versatile running game as well. Understanding quarterback Kenny Hill is at his best when asked to manage a game rather than win it throwing 50 times, Cumbie is using a blend of misdirection, option and power football.
The Horned Frogs are a heavy zone read squad, and in the first play of their second possession against Oklahoma State, lined up in a two back formation before bringing a receiver in motion to to identify a zone defense. Hill handed to the left side back breaking to the right side of the formation, while the right side back went left, freezing the linebackers for a second and setting up a lead blocker when the ball was the handed to receiver Jalen Reagor coming on an end around.
The freshman sold the play perfectly, aligning normally and taking the initial step into the pattern and causing the corner to begin to bail out three steps. He then tracked back inside, taking the pitch off the reverse and gaining 17 yards around the left end while the lead blocker, the other running back, sealed the linebackers inside. The play, with its misdirection, motion, false initial steps, put OSU on notice that it had to play straight up, or risk getting burned somewhere.
The first down segued into a fast tempo, and after an incompletion TCU used a WR screen and a quick out underneath a vertical clearing route off a five-wide (empty backfield) set for a first down. It was four plays, four different formations and 29 yards gained, and it showed what West Virginia is up against: The best overall offense it has faced this season.
There are stats to back such reasoning, perhaps first among them being TCU’s 47.8 points per game, fifth nationally and third in the Big 12 behind WVU and Oklahoma. The offense is 17th in total offense at 497 yards per game and 25th in rushing. But what it does better than Virginia Tech or Kansas or East Carolina is capitalize on opportunity and convert in key downs and situations. The Horned Frogs are first in the FBS in third down conversions at an incredible 63.2 percent. It’s ninth in pass efficiency, a product of better understanding Hill’s limitations, and it has allowed just five sakcs, the same number as the Mountaineers.
The kicker? It’s scored on 89.5 percent of its 19 red zone opportunities. Of those, 14, or 74 percent, were touchdowns. That’s an extremely solid percentage, though far behind WVU’s 18 TDs on 22 attempts, a pace that if continued would finish as a watershed mark in school history.
The corollary to this is the hangover from West Virginia’s last outing against Kansas, when it gave up 564 yards, 367 rushing, and 34 points. The defensive line play was less than mediocre, failing to get off blocks or gain penetration. Both Xavier Preston and Dylan Tonkeery struggled at linebacker, and the absence of multiple starters, spur safety Kyzir White in particular, was an execution dismantler.
“There is no question, when you look at it from a statistical standpoint, it is unacceptable,” line coach Bruce Tall said this week. “We know that. I take full responsibility for that. Guys, like anything, they have a lot of pride in what they do. It is just unacceptable so we have to get better.”
Coordinator Tony Gibson was also honest in his assessment.
“It’s not like it broke up any momentum of us playing really well, so it came at the right time,” Gibson said of the open week. “Tackle. If you look last week, there were two runs that went over 120 yards. We misfit a gap and then the other one we had about eight guys miss a tackle. That is the biggest problem right now in run defense.
“We had two really good days of practice. I thought Sunday we had a lot of pep in our step. It’s good to get everybody back out there and run around. Watching film and making sure that our guys are (in the right place); we fixed some things, we simplified a little bit. Hopefully that will help out.”
Gibson also delivered a tougher statement heading into a match-up versus a top 10 team.
“We do not have 11 guys right now that I feel confident in saying ‘you are our starters’ and then just let them coast through the week,” he said. “We are not that good right now. Every day is a competition at every position. It’s disheartening at times to watch and look at that film and think ‘Wow how did we get to this point?'”
Some of that is coach speak. But it raises the question of exactly how West Virginia is going to defend Texas Christian. Gibson hit squarely on two points: Tackle and proper fit, i.e. assignment football. The Mountaineers must be better at stopping plays upon the initial contact, and not allowing added yards. Too many times in the open field, defenders were laying shoulders into KU’s offensive players instead of wrap tackling.
WVU worked on that this week, tackling twice in practices, which is almost unheard of. The fit aspect goes back to understanding and recognizing alignment, and understanding the gap fits. TCU will try misdirection, attempt to confuse, and then use that paralysis by analysis to their advantage. The Mountaineers might not be able to truly attack the sets as Gibson would like, because the coordinator is balancing putting too much pressure on the corners in man, versus getting additional numbers involved in blitz packages.
It’s a tough tightrope, made tougher by the patience and timing within the TCU offense. The Horned Frogs poked and prodded at OSU’s weaknesses, scoring once on a fade route in single coverage for a 20-10 lead at the half, then using option to extend the lead before sealing the game on a zone read that simply used OSU’s aggressiveness against it. Taking the snap and seeing the end rush, Hill simply handed to running back Darius Anderson, who broke into the open field for a 42-yard TD run after the end blew past and a linebacker got sucked inside.
Now, TCU’s offense benefited from four Oklahoma State turnovers, including two interceptions and a fumble by quarterback Mason Rudolph – and that’s a part of it, too. WVU’s offense and special teams cannot place the defense in short field situations. The three most operate in collaboration.
But in terms of purely slowing TCU, Gibson’s defense must be more methodical, not looking for the big play, but instead forcing the Frogs to piece together long drives, relying on fundamentals and fit, then striking as opportunities warrant. It can’t often sacrifice risk for reward, because it doesn’t have the personnel to shift those gambling odds in favor as it did versus Baylor in 2014. In fact, a stalemate in the WR vs corner battle is a moral victory.
If West Virginia has the fortitude to play such a style, and gets back to its fundamentals and lack of purely blown coverages and assignments, it has a chance to limit TCU to 30 points or fewer – giving its offense an opportunity to win the game.