Steven Johnson: Time for TCU to do some soul searching on defense

This was supposed to be the year that TCU’s football program took the next step defensively.

The Horned Frogs returned an All-American cornerback, an All-Big 12 linebacker and five more starters from last year’s national title runner-up. The defense was expected to be deeper, more comfortable and more productive, but the unit didn’t show it in the first game as Colorado outscored TCU 45-42 in a massive national upset.

TCU wasn’t supposed to be in shootouts this early in the season. On Saturday, the defense could never find a way to get off the field.

TCU was supposed to have a better pass rush this year with more blitzes and athleticism on the defensive line, but Buffaloes quarterback Shedeur Sanders was rarely uncomfortable during his 47 pass attempts.

If you score 42 points and have over 500 yards of offense, you’re usually supposed to win that game. A lot of things that were supposed to happen didn’t come to fruition for TCU. Now Sonny Dykes and the Horned Frogs must do some soul searching on defense after what the HOrned Frogs’ head coach called a “terrible” defensive performance.

“We had high expectations on defense coming into the season,” Dykes said. “Our back seven was returning for the most part, (but) it felt like we didn’t play particularly well at corner today. We gave up some big plays, we didn’t make any plays on 50-50 balls. When you look at it and go how do you lose a football game, it was just the perfect storm for that.”

Dykes also pointed out how the Horned Frogs had two interceptions in the endzone and a missed field goal by the usually reliable Griffin Kell. He’s correct when he says all those things are a recipe for losing a football game.

And sure, there were some frustrating moments on offense with playcalling and Emani Bailey not being on the field for the final drive due to cramping, but overall the offense scored six touchdowns, averaged seven yards per play and didn’t give up a sack despite the miscues.

The biggest takeaway has to be the fact that TCU needed to score 45 points just to make it to overtime, let alone win the game.

The second biggest takeaway has to be how easy the game was for Colorado offensively. If TCU didn’t dial up pressure then it wasn’t getting back there. If there was a one-on-one situation in the open field, the winner was usually the Colorado receiver.

Schematically and effort wise, the Horned Frogs were taken to school on a national stage once again and will have to go back to the drawing board earlier than expected.

“We got scheme’d pretty good today,” Dykes said of Colorado’s offensive attack. “We’ve got to tackle better, we’ve got to play with more effort, we’ve got to do a better job of getting off the field on third down. We’re just going to figure out what else we can do.”

One thing TCU has to figure out how to match the 3-3-5 with the skillset of the roster. Like any defense, the 3-3-5 has its strengths and weaknesses.

If the last four games are any indication, teams are exploiting the weaknesses more than feeling pressured by the strengths of TCU’s defense. Over the last four games, the Horned Frogs are allowing 46.5 points per game.

Sure you can throw in the added context that three of those teams (Kansas State, Michigan and Georgia) were all Power Five conference champions and Michigan and Georgia are viewed among the best teams in the sport. And, heck, maybe Colorado ends up having one of the best offenses in the nation led by Sanders and Travis Hunter.

But, needing to outscore powerhouse programs with blue chip talent 45-42 is not a sustainable path to success. It’s one thing to be like Lincoln Riley during his tenure at Oklahoma where the Sooners rolled in Heisman contenders and No. 1 picks at quarterback one after the other.

The Horned Frogs don’t have that margin of error this season, not without a Max Duggan or Quentin Johnston on the roster. So, now all the eyes are on the defense after such a lackluster showing. Is it scheme? Was it just effort and bad tackling? Was it both?

The frustration on the face of defensive leader Josh Newton was easy to see in the postgame press conference especially when asked about Dykes’ comments about Colorado being more excited to play than TCU.

“They showed it, simple,” Newton said. “It’s that important. Being excited to play is that important in this game. It starts within, I told my team we were prepared, but at the end of the day I can’t play for 11 other men. We have to go back to work together. We got 11 more ball games to win, this was just one.”

The All-American corner is correct, there’s still plenty of football to be played and the Colorado game can either serve as a wake up call to the defense or be just the first of many lackluster performances this season.

There was no bigger indictment of the defense than these two plays in the fourth quarter. TCU had Colorado pinned back for a third-and-16 after retaking a 35-31 lead. A stop and score may have been enough to finally pull away.

Instead Sanders hit Hunter again up the seam for a 43-yard gain against single coverage. The Buffaloes scored two plays later. Then on Colorado’s game-winning drive, TCU had the Buffaloes facing a fourth-and-2 with less than five minutes to go.

The Horned Frogs gave up a 46-yard touchdown and wouldn’t be able to get into field goal range on the final drive.

Those two plays are moments this defense was supposed to shine. But Saturday served as a harsh reminder that things that are supposed to happen don’t always come to fruition.

The story of TCU’s defense has yet to be fully written, but man, that was a brutal opening chapter. And now the main character, the Frogs’ defense, already finds itself at a crossroads much earlier than expected.