It's rare to see a defensive battle in the offense-happy Big 12, but Saturday may provide us with such a game as Oklahoma takes on TCU in Fort Worth.
TCU is always known for its defense, but the Sooners have had quite a few stellar defenses over the years and they've reclaimed a bit of that dominance from the early years of the Bob Stoops era.
It's been a strange week leading up to this game. There hasn't been a lot of talk about the matchup and the high the Sooners were on after the big road win at West Virginia has all but vanished. It's probably all due to the bye week, which came at a great time for the Sooners as far as health and rest is concerned, but probably took a bit of the momentum from an impressive 4-0 start away.
The Horned Frogs will not be an easy matchup for Oklahoma on Saturday. TCU is much-improved over last year's 4-8 record, but the record of a year ago doesn't give a clear picture of how close TCU was to being a bowl team. The Frogs lost six games by 10 points or less, four of those by three points or less. So while TCU is improved, it's not like it was blown out in all eight losses last year.
TCU has not played anything close to elite competition. Samford is an FCS program—an up-and-coming program, but an FCS program all the same—and SMU is one of the worst FBS teams in quite some time. The win over Minnesota was a solid win, but Minnesota is no elite program either.
So it comes as no surprise that it's a bit hard to peg just how good TCU is this year. There is improvement, no doubt, but just how much? We won't know for sure until the two teams face off on the field on Saturday.
Oklahoma has had problems with TCU the last four times the two teams have faced off. The stunning loss in 2005 obviously rings loudest, but in 2008, the TCU defense handled the OU offense like no other unit besides Florida could. The past two years have been struggles for OU as well. It's quite likely this week's game could be equally tight, but that's forgetting a key factor.
The Sooners have improved drastically as well, and based on the first four games, it appears the Sooners' improvement is greater than that of TCU. That's merely an observation, one that won't be realized until the clock hits zero.
Saturday will be a tough test for the Sooners for a litany of reasons. But Oklahoma is a tough team themselves, one that has made it a habit of responding to challenges and asserting itself as a national title contender. It will have to do so again to leave Fort Worth with a win.
Three questions for Oklahoma:
1. Can the Sooners run the football?
Despite the close games with TCU, OU has had success running the ball the past two years. More on that below. The Sooners come into Fort Worth without Keith Ford, but they showed he wasn't missed too much against West Virginia, as Samaje Perine destroyed the Mountaineers to the tune of 242 yards and four touchdowns. It'd be too much to expect that from Perine again, but even half that total would be a solid performance against a formidable TCU defense. The OU offensive line has a challenge in front of it, but as has become the theme for these Sooners, OU normally responds well to challenges.
2. Will Trevor Knight be effective throwing the football?
Regardless of how the OU running game is, the Sooners will have to throw the ball against TCU and the TCU secondary won't make it easy. The Horned Frogs always have excellent players in the secondary and this year is no exception. Chris Hackett and Sam Carter headline a veteran group that will force Knight to be accurate with his passes or risk turnovers. Knight has been steady this year, but he hasn't been exemplary as far as accuracy is concerned. This week would be a good one to turn it up a notch. Also, the Sooner wide receivers will have to rise to the occasion. Knight can't be accurate if he has no one to throw to.
3. Can the Sooners contain another spread attack?
West Virginia made the OU defense look not so dominant two weeks ago, but the Sooners made halftime adjustments and held the Mountaineers to one field goal in the second half until a meaningless touchdown when the outcome was no longer in doubt. This week, TCU throws another spread offense at the Sooners, one that is completely different from the TCU offense of a year ago. The Horned Frogs are throwing the ball a lot more than in past years and are averaging 532 yards per game. Oklahoma has the right combination on defense to contain such an offense: a big, physical defensive line and a lot of speed in the secondary. TCU has run up a lot of points and yards against some pretty pitiful competition so far as well, so it's hard to know for sure how good TCU's new offense really is.
Three stars to watch for TCU:
1. QB Trevone Boykin- 79-123-1, 64.2 comp. %, 858 yards, 8 touchdowns
While it may not be easy to see how improved the TCU offense is as a whole, it's easy to see how improved Boykin is. The junior has made big strides from a year ago and has already tossed eight touchdown passes to just a single interception. His competition hasn't been very good, but it's impossible to ignore how Boykin has progressed in just a year. His running ability—he's the Frogs leading rusher so far this year—is going to be another thing for the Sooners to be mindful of on Saturday.
2. LB Paul Dawson- 26 tackles, five TFL, one sack
The senior is leading the Frogs in tackles for a second straight year from his linebacker position. Dawson is also second on the team in tackles for loss, and is yet another in a long line of talented TCU linebackers. Dawson also has an interception this year, showcasing his ability to play up close to the line of scrimmage and drop into coverage. Knight needs to be aware of him at all times.
3. S Chris Hackett- 18 tackles, one interception
Hackett has become a household name in the Big 12 the past two years, playing in all 25 of TCU's games and starting in 21 of them. Hackett doesn't make a lot of interceptions—he has one this year and five in the two years before 2014—but he is a smart player and helps anchor the TCU secondary. Oklahoma's young and inexperienced wide receivers are going to be tested going up against Hackett and the rest of the Frogs.
Key matchup: Oklahoma rushing attack vs. TCU defense
Even though TCU is known for defense and has played the Sooners tight the past two years, OU has run very well against the Horned Frogs' defense. Two years ago, TCU finished No. 10 in run defense, but OU ran for 177 yards and 5.5 yards per carry. Last year, it was the same story as OU ran for 203 yards and 5.3 yards per carry against the No. 21 run defense in the country. The Horned Frogs are allowing 91.7 yards per game this season while OU is averaging 222.8. If the Sooners are able to run the ball well against TCU, it could set up a comfortable Sooners win. This matchup won't decide the game, but it will go a long way toward determining an outcome.
Prediction: Oklahoma 30, TCU 13
TCU has never scored more than 20 points against OU and that trend continues. It's a sluggish win for the Sooners, but the OU defense locks down the new and improved TCU offense, showing the numbers came from the Frogs' lack of competition. Perine goes over 100 yards again.