Minnesota opens the 2015 season with a visit from TCU, a team that currently sits at No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Golden Gophers will likely have their hands full with the Horned Frogs, but defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel knows one thing that could potentially slow TCU’s offense, a feat no one has really been able to accomplish this year.
“If we can get that game moved to November and play up in Minneapolis in November I’d feel really good,” he joked. “I don’t think they really like to play in cold weather. If we could do that, that’d be all right.”
Barring that, Sawvel knows his defense will have to prepare for a major challenge from TCU. After all, he has first-hand experience, having coached against the Frogs in their 30-7 win over the Gophers on Sept. 13. That score, though lopsided, could still be considered a mark of achievement for Sawvel.
Minnesota held quarterback Trevone Boykin and his team’s explosive offense to only three touchdowns, with all three drives drives starting inside the Gophers’ 39-yard line. TCU is averaging 50.6 points against teams that aren’t Minnesota, a testament to the turnaround by new Horned Frogs offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.
On Saturday the Frogs face No. 7 Kansas State in a major Big 12 matchup and a likely playoff elimination game. The Wildcats boast one of the league’s stingiest defenses -- they've allowed 4.8 yards per play, third in the Big 12 -- but must battle a TCU offense that even scored 58 points in its lone loss this year (Oct. 11 vs. Baylor). Can that offense truly be stopped?
Minnesota doesn’t field the country’s most formidable defense -- it allows 351 yards per game, eighth in the Big Ten -- but it found ways to limit the Horned Frogs’ offense. Defending an up-tempo attack all starts with quick decisions on defense, Sawvel said.
“They go fast,” Sawvel said. “We knew they wanted to go up-tempo. We don’t huddle on defense ourselves. We don’t use wristbands. Pretty much every call we have is done within two seconds. We used to use wristbands, and if you do that, kids are reading what the call would be and the ball’s getting snapped.”
The Gophers used quick play-calling to limit Boykin’s options, particularly through the air. Though the quarterback finished with 258 passing yards and two touchdowns, Minnesota made him work for every yard. Boykin averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt, down from his season average of 7.8, and never threw a pass for more than 21 yards. The Gophers also intercepted Boykin once.
Sawvel credits a mix of man coverage and zone coverage in keeping Boykin’s arm relatively in check. The Gophers' defense was particularly effective on third down, holding TCU to just two conversions on 12 attempts. The Horned Frogs’ naturally fast pace slowed on third down, which gave Minnesota a chance to disguise some of its coverages.
“Third down is like a whole separate scheme of defense against that style of offense,” Sawvel said.
But TCU took advantage of good starting field position on all three of its touchdown drives. Minnesota struggled to contain Boykin on the ground; he rushed 12 times for a season-high 92 yards, including one 34-yard run. The Gophers also got burned on two fade routes that turned into touchdown catches for Horned Frogs receiver Josh Doctson.
Sawvel said he came away from the loss impressed by Boykin’s arm strength. The quarterback hit several parts of the field against Minnesota, even without any deep balls. Boykin has the ability to expose an inexperienced secondary.
“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “If you play against their style of offense and the speed that they have, you better have five or six really good defensive backs who can play pretty well. If you don’t, you’re going to struggle.”
West Virginia used to its secondary to its advantage last week against TCU. The Mountaineers lost 31-30, but they stifled Boykin and the TCU offense in the first half. Coach Dana Holgorsen’s cornerbacks, who are part of the Big 12’s second-ranked pass defense, pressed TCU’s receivers at the line of scrimmage on several downs early. West Virginia also blitzed a lot in the first half, even on third down. The Frogs’ offensive line had difficulty containing the pass rush, a big reason why Boykin and the offense went three-and-out on four of their first five series.
At halftime, the Mountaineers had held Boykin to 71 yards passing, with 47 of those coming on one broken play. He’d also thrown one interception. Though TCU eventually scored 24 points in the second half to win, it managed only 5.4 yards per play on a season-low 389 yards of offense.
The Horned Frogs aren’t likely to survive against Kansas State if Boykin plays similarly to how he did against West Virginia. The quarterback passed for a season-low 166 yards on just 12 completions. It was an uncharacteristically forgettable day for Boykin, whose name has recently emerged in Heisman Trophy conversations. He is just the third quarterback since 2009 to average at least 300 yards passing (309.0) and 50 yards rushing (52.9). The other two? Heisman winners Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel.
“There’s a lot of people who play that style of offense that don’t have a quarterback like that,” Sawvel said. “If something breaks down, he can scramble for 25 yards. And he hurt us on a couple of scrambles in that game at different times. A lot of people who play that style, when you think of Mike Leach and his Texas Tech teams, the quarterback is fairly immobile. He’s not really willing to run. That’s where Boykin presents a little bit of a different element to it.”
That element has worked wonders for an offense that’s among the most improved in the country. TCU averages 22.9 more points per game than it did in 2013, the biggest jump of any FBS program. If its current pace continues, it will set school records in points, first downs, plays, passing yards and total offense. On Saturday that offense will be without running back B.J. Catalon, but Aaron Green and Trevorris Johnson have the talent to make up for Catalon’s absence in the backfield.
For as dominant as the Horned Frogs' offense has looked thus far, Saturday's matchup with Kansas Sate could be its toughest test, and TCU's hopes for a playoff bid hang in the balance. Coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcats held Auburn to 20 points in a 20-14 loss on Sept. 18. Kansas State hasn't lost since then, a run that includes a 31-30 win at Oklahoma on Oct. 18. However, just as Kansas State's defense may be the most daunting challenge to TCU's offense, the Horned Frogs attack may exceed anything the Wildcats have faced.
“They’re coached extremely well,” Sawvel said of TCU. “Those coaches know that offense and they know the answers they’re looking for.”