Amid the jubilation of the Rangers claiming their first World Series title in franchise history last Wednesday, perhaps everyone forgot that the Frogs were visiting Lubbock to try and retain the Saddle Trophy the next night. Maybe — and probably more accurately — no one cared.
Thursday night was strange for many reasons, notwithstanding a weekday college football game and an adorable rally-possum storming the field. The really strange parts were personal. One: When the Frogs rallied for an uncharacteristically successful third quarter and took the lead, I didn’t really even want to see them win (explanation forthcoming). Two: When the Red Raiders eventually closed their 35-28 victory, not a single Tech fan (of which I’m close friends with many) texted, called, or posted on my socials to talk trash. The likely reason is that both of these teams are. Trash, that is.
Frog QB Josh Hoover notched a productive evening during his third start, with 353 yards and a touchdown, but tossed two errant and damaging interceptions in the process of 52 passing attempts. Running back Emani Bailey was light on yardage compared to normal but exploded in the red zone when it counted for two touchdowns. But here’s the thing. Per the norm, this offense is just difficult to watch, and if you blink, you might miss it.
The reason comes back to mismanagement by Head Coach Sonny Dykes and new Offensive Coordinator Kendall Briles. Among the go-to commentator fodder during every Frog broadcast is how fast TCU’s offense goes between plays, trying to catch the defense off guard, which happens occasionally. More often, it just turbocharges the imminent punt formation after Briles dials up three disjointed pass plays in a row or throws in some cute change-of-pace when things are finally gelling in the rushing game. There are 133 Division I teams, and the TCU offense is the 122nd worst at time of possession. Ball control isn’t exactly a sexy statistic, but it works for teams like Iowa State and Kansas State, who both smothered the Frogs this season by hogging the ball offensively.
Another gag-inducing stat is TCU’s red-zone conversions, which ranks them 127th in the country, meaning there are only six teams in college football less likely to score any points when they have the ball within their opponents’ 20 yard-line. When factoring specifically for scoring a touchdown, this group isn’t much better at 103rd.
The most important metric is scoring offense — that’s how you win — and the Frogs are exactly average compared with the rest of the country at 58th. Briles is hoping you’ll see the often touted but completely meaningless total-offense ranking — how many yards you gain, irrelevant of scoring — which has TCU at 16th. Interpretation: This offense moves quickly and is talented at gaining meaningless yards.
Next, let’s tackle the defense that seemingly can’t. Red Raider running back Tahj Brooks seemed like an amalgamation of Barry Sanders and Herschel Walker Thursday night, weaving through Joe Gillespie’s 3-3-5 defense with impunity, never going down at first contact and often never leaving his feet at all. The sidelines and whistles are all that stopped him from scoring every time he touched the pigskin. I’ve been hard on Gillespie and his system since he arrived from Tulsa, and that isn’t changing now. Brooks accumulated 146 yards on 31 carries, and every team TCU has recently lost to simply runs right at the Frog front knowing we don’t possess enough trench meat to slow them down.
Defense — and football, in general — is such a beautiful and complicated game because it involves striving for an unachievable balance. This defense is simply too inclined to stop the pass — which it doesn’t do well, either — to be successful. Simply put, we’re making it too easy for teams to successfully attack in the rushing game, which is already an easier phase to find success in if your opponent will allow you.
Despite our eyes telling Frog fanatics that this defense is bad at tackling people, which they are, the group has improved in most statistically significant categories compared to last year, most notably a current 57th in scoring defense compared to the 90th they finished in last season, though last year’s team did play three more games against excellent opponents that this team surely won’t.
The long and short is that the ’23 Frogs are synergistically terrible, and Dykes knows it. Sonny, who is somewhat Texas Tech royalty, was visibly frustrated with his assistants on the sidelines Thursday night as TCU’s four-game winning streak against the Raiders was snapped. Gillespie’s defense is adequate on their best day but, paired with a boom-but-mostly-bust offense, seems categorically awful. Briles is utilizing this developing group poorly. Bailey has been a productive workhorse all season but scored only his third and fourth touchdowns of the year in Lubbock, which reeks of mismanagement for an offense so poor at converting in the red zone.
If you do just a little research, you’ll see this sort of disharmony isn’t new for Briles’ breakneck offense. His Razorbacks were very offensively successful, but their defense was correspondingly terrible and their time-of-possession ranking similar. Those Hogs did finish with a barely winning record but were generally destroyed by their better opponents, and any close loss was a low-scoring affair in which the offense produced next to nothing. Granted, this Frog offense is a very different group from last season, but the best coaches don’t watch their players flail in a pre-set system. The best coaches adapt the principles to maximize the athletes at their disposal, and that isn’t happening — on either side of the ball.
Realistically, both Gillespie and Briles need to be shown the door at the end of the season. At the very least, one of them has to go, because together they are worse than either one of them would be alone. Briles is new to these parts, but fans have seen all they need to. Gillespie’s leash has been longer, and there’s improvement, but the ceiling on his system is lower than my expectations for construction on I-35 ending during my lifetime.
TCU has three games left, and they’ll need to win two to make a bowl and escape a small and sad society of having a losing season following the appearance in or winning a national title game. The Frogs host the Longhorns for the last time in the foreseeable future on Saturday night, and the burnt orange sit alone atop the conference as the lone team with even a prayer of being selected to the College Football Playoff. There’s nothing I’ve seen this season that leads me to believe the Frogs can win, but stranger things have happened. If this season ends with the dismissal and retooling of either the offense, defense, or both, then we can say the year meant something. Otherwise, this program will stand still as a train tooting their own horn but heading nowhere.