West Virginia is an odd place, not only because their fan base is most famous for setting furniture on fire or because North Texas sports a population four times their entire state’s or because their football players wear song lyrics made famous by a singer born in New Mexico who was obsessed with Colorado. But anyone who has been to Morgantown knows you don’t quite feel like you’re part of the greater United States anymore, or the Big 12, or even the 21st century. Still, TCU’s offense didn’t start slow, but West Virginia’s game plan exposed a purple Achilles’ heel, and it’s a foreboding warning about possible pitfalls that also represent the Frogs’ greatest overall strength.
Defensively, this was the same game we’ve watched the last three weeks, and it’s a little like watching a ’90s action flick: It’s well produced and entertaining, but you wish they would shock you by breaking the formula a bit. As fans have come to expect, Joe Gillespie’s defense couldn’t stop West Virginia in the first half but mostly clamped down in the second, though 10 points was the most they’ve surrendered after halftime since the Kansas game.
In case you didn’t read my prediction for this game, do so, and then buy me a drink if you catch me out and about. TCU’s offense went colder in the second half than anticipated, but five different Frogs found the end zone as Sonny Dykes spread the love in an offense by committee. Max Duggan (#15) seemed to be fighting calf issues but still tossed the ball for more than 300 yards and three scores despite throwing only his second interception of the season. Kendre Miller (#33) topped 100 yards again and averaged an insane 10 yards per carry with a score. Quentin Johnston (#1) was slowed by an ankle injury but still managed a long touchdown while Taye Barber (#4) and Savion Williams (#18) each logged stat lines near 100 yards with a touchdown grab each. The most ridiculous part of this game was the speed at which the Frogs scored. The five touchdown drives from the Frogs totaled 23 plays, meaning — on seven-point drives — the Frogs found the end zone every 4.6 plays on average (not accounting for punting or Griffin Kell’s two field goals).
As I alluded to earlier, the speed of scoring also proved to be something that kept West Virginia in the game. The Mountaineers managed to possess the ball for 13 more minutes than TCU and the speed at which Duggan and company appeared and vanished from the field meant Gillespie’s defense earned their paychecks by playing overtime. The team stats, otherwise, are remarkably similar. TCU outgained WVU only by 60 yards, and each team coughed the ball up twice via one fumble (TCU’s was an egregiously officiated “muffed” punt) and an interception each. The difference in the game was the very reason West Virginia was able to control the ball and keep things manageable and close until the very end, but the Mountaineers played pickleball while the Frogs played tennis.
TCU was Federer with a monster forehand in the form of Barber and Johnston streaking downfield, and WVU was someone who is good at pickleball, stubbornly catching deke and dunk passes to advance the sticks on long drives. But TCU survived, and they’ll need to keep doing just that. I wouldn’t say — and Coach Dykes agreed in an on-field interview — the Funkytowners played especially well, but good teams win their clunkers on the road, even when several of their players (Duggan and Johnston, especially) are banged up.
TCU returns home to face Texas Tech on Saturday morning in a matchup I circled at the beginning of the season thinking both squads would be searching for identity behind new coaches. It turns out that Tech has pretty much the same identity they’ve always had: an explosive but inconsistent offense and mostly bad defense. The Red Raiders are 4-4 and have beaten Texas and West Virginia but have yet to find victory on the road at all this season. The tortilla tossers are fresh from a homecoming butt-whooping by Baylor and will be looking for redemption by spoiling TCU’s playoff run in their quest to reach a bowl game. The Raiders are most vulnerable, statistically, on the ground, but teams have passed against them successfully as well. Based on the data, Joey McGuire’s defense is better than the Frogs’, but his offense is far behind TCU’s, an impressive unit ranked fourth in yards per game and second in yards per play.
The betting line for this weekend opened with the hometown boys favored by 9.5 points. I wouldn’t touch that spread in a game where the coaches and players know each other extremely well, and TCU has become every remaining team’s de facto national championship game. There are no easy outs on the schedule as the Frogs are the biggest game left for a slate of conference opponents with no chance of going to the Big 12 championship game or anything better than a third-tier bowl at best.