A few days before playing TCU, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was asked about the best way to attack the Horned Frogs’ defense.
He offered the typical pregame platitudes before zeroing in on the one weakness he saw.
“They’re very confident in their corners,” he said. “That No. 2 is a very good player. They do have a tendency to load the box, that’s just how they do it. It’s worked for them. It just speaks volumes for their corners and how well they’ve been able to play on an island out there. But we know we’re going to have our opportunities and we’re going to take advantage of them.”
The No. 2 Mettenberger was referring to is TCU’s All-America cornerback Jason Verrett. Verrett and his counterpart, Kevin White, played well against LSU despite often being stuck in single coverage against some talented receivers. And Mettenberger, indeed, took advantage of the single coverage numerous times with some pinpoint passing for big gains.
The season opener offered a potential glimpse into how most of TCU’s remaining opponents will try to attack the Frogs, especially their pass-heavy Big 12 brethren. Verrett’s reputation as a shutdown cornerback means teams are likely to challenge White with more frequency.
It should be more of the same at 11 a.m. Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana (1-0) at Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Lions run a wide-open offense that will show every conceivable look to a defense, from the veer option to five wide receivers.
Both White and Verrett get some help from the safeties, but TCU’s defense is at its most dominant when the cornerbacks are able to play well on that lonely island.
“There will be more people throwing at Kevin and I thought Kevin handled it very well,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “He’s a lot different player than he was a year ago. I thought Kevin White and Jason Verrett fought all night long. We have to play better at linebacker and play better at safety.”
White and Verrett made several dazzling plays to break up passes, twice in the end zone, against the Tigers. White broke up four passes; Verrett broke up three. But the Frogs’ young linebackers and experienced safeties too often left gaps in the pass defense by trying to do too much, as Patterson said this week, or by simply getting beat.
“They have to play better in space,” Patterson said of his linebackers. “We didn’t play bad for the first ballgame against what you had. Everybody we’re going to play down the road is going to be in space.”
The Lions’ diverse offense offers the defense a healthy challenge Saturday. And then five days later, the defense will be tested again by Texas Tech’s pass-heavy offense in Lubbock. TCU allowed a season-high 56 points to the Red Raiders in a triple overtime loss a year ago.
“They do things defenses don’t like. They make everybody be assignment-oriented,” said Patterson, who’s most concerned that some of his young linebackers aren’t ready for the Lions’ veer-option sets. “We have a bunch of guys who don’t know how to do that. Or, are not doing it as well as I’d like to. They’re like playing Portland State a couple years ago, only with better players.”
TCU won that game 55-13 and held Portland State to 176 yards passing.
Last year, TCU was fourth in the league in pass defense, allowing 218.5 yards per game and second only to Oklahoma in pass efficiency defense, holding teams to a 53.2 completion percentage and 115.3 efficiency rating. The Frogs intercepted a league-leading 22 passes, including four each by safeties Sam Carter and Elisha Olabode.
Both of them ranked in the top seven of the league in passes defended. Verrett led the league with 16 breakups and six interceptions while building his reputation as a shutdown cornerback. White finished with eight pass breakups and one interception.
Of course, the best pass defense is a good pass rush, as Patterson is fond of saying.
Against LSU, TCU was unable to consistently pressure Mettenberger, which at times strained the Frogs’ secondary. That was the case on many third downs, of which LSU converted 13 of 19. TCU held opponents to a league-leading 29.9 percent third-down conversion rate a year ago, seventh best in the nation.
Suspended defensive end Devonte Fields will help in that regard when he returns, which Patterson suggested could be Saturday.
No one hopes to see him back more than TCU’s cornerbacks, especially White, who will be on a lonely island all season.