The Cougars and Horned Frogs each had a tune-up game last week, with TCU clobbering New Mexico, and BYU thumping Idaho State. The teams have played each other the last six years as members of the MWC, and TCU holds a 4-2 lead in the series since 2005. These teams will have a grand stage tonight at the Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. BYU fans will remember that as the place where their Cougars upset then #3 Oklahoma back in 2009.
TCU isn’t used to losing. After going 7-5 in 2007, the Horned Frogs went 11-2 in 2008, with their only losses coming to #2 Oklahoma and #8 Utah. In 2009, the Frogs were 12-1, their only loss being in the Fiesta Bowl to Boise State. Last year they went undefeated, capping an amazing regular season with a Rose bowl win against #5 Wisconsin. 2011 began with a surprise loss to Baylor, and later, an OT loss to SMU. What’s different about the Frogs this year? They returned only 2 starters on offense and 4 on defense from last year’s team. And the stats are telling. TCU led the nation in total defense (yards) in each of the last three seasons. #1. This year, they are currently 37th in that ranking, behind who? #34 BYU. The Horned Frogs are giving up an average of 347 yards per game, where last year that number was just 228. The Frogs led the nation last year in scoring defense as well, only allowing 12 points per game. this year? 21.9 – same as BYU. Don’t get cocky, these guys will still put up a lot of points, but they are not the same team they have been the last few years.
BYU needs to win this game. This is the last non-WAC opponent on the Cougars’ schedule this year. It’s a big game, played in a big venue. This may be the only chance the Cougars have to prove just how much they have improved, and to show that they can perform well against more than just the league’s bottom feeders. BYU has looked great since Riley Nelson stepped in and took over the starting QB job during the Utah State game. Tonight’s game will show us just how good they really are.
Keys to the game
Nelson. Riley, when asked the difference between last year and this year, said that a lot of it has to do with his approach to the game. He was trying to force everything, trying to make every throw be the perfect one. This year, he says he has learned to trust his reads, and to allow his teammates to make plays. I would add that he makes smart decisions with the ball most of the time. The players and coaches believe in him, but most importantly, he believes too. The Horned Frogs will key on him for sure, and they may break up some plays. In my opinion though, that is where Riley has been at his best this year. When a play is broken, he recognizes it and escapes to rush or throw for a first down. I haven’t seen a BYU QB in recent history that is as elusive as he has been lately – and if there is a big loss on a play, Riley finds a way to get it back the next play. TCU may have planned for the set plays, but you can’t plan for the plays Riley creates when he’s thinking on his feet.
Receivers. The receivers have responded to Riley in an amazing way. There are always 8-10 guys in each game getting receptions and making big gains and touchdowns. Cody Hoffman has been showing us more of the stuff he did in the New Mexico Bowl last season. He has been so clutch on third down and in the endzone – making some amazing catches. When a play is broken, the receivers have done a good job of breaking their routes and getting open, and when they’re not receiving the ball, they are throwing good blocks for their teammates.
The Rush Attack. Mike Alisa was once again the rushing leader for the team against Idaho State, averaging more than 8 yards per carry on 8 carries. The only higher average was that of Nelson, who averaged nearly 9 yards per carry. BYU really spread the rushes around last week, with Quezada and DiLuigi also contributing significantly to the rushing yards total. All four of those guys had a rushing touchdown in the game as well. The best part about having so many capable runners? There is always somebody fresh to run against what is usually a stingy rushing defense.
Special Teams. Special teams determine field position, and field position wins close games. If the Cougars win today, I think it will be a close game. In big games, you hope that your special teams come up with something big. Time for another Hoffman kickoff return for TD.
Bronco D. More than anything, I think the BroncoD has to be happy to not be facing Andy Dalton again. Sure GPat will still be on the sidelines, with his visor and sweat towel girl, but Dalton was a red-headed menace that had the Cougars’ number the last three years. But, unlike the defense, the offense hasn’t had quite the drop-off this year. The Horned Frogs are still averaging nearly 44 points per game, good enough for 8th in the nation. They are averaging 234 yards passing and 217 yards rushing. That rushing total will be lower against the Cougars, and their quarterback will be forced to make plays with his arm. In the Horned Frogs wins, Pachall only has around 22 attempts, in the losses, he had around 40. Forcing the Frogs to pass is the only way BYU will beat them. Their QB is no slouch, but putting the game on the shoulders of the sophomore worked for Baylor and SMU.
The Horned Frogs and Cougars have similar records, but the Frogs’ wins have been more impressive. And when they’ve lost, it’s been close. I’m not the only BYU fan hoping that Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium still has some magic left for the Cougars. This is as good a shot as the Cougars have had in this game for a few years, but I think TCU will win narrowly, defeating the Cougars 34-31.