Unbeaten Frogs face freshman Utes QB
TCU's biggest home game in decades comes down to defense, handling pressure
FORT WORTH, Texas -- After a week of hype, including ESPN College GameDay's arrival on the TCU campus and the unveiling of new uniforms, the Frogs and Utah Utes are just about ready to play football. They will do it in front of a sellout crowd at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
It's No. 4 versus No. 14 in the BCS standings with a Mountain West Conference championship still on the line. TCU wants to stay undefeated and keep alive its slim hopes of a national title berth. Utah, the defending conference champion, has no plans to hand over the trophy.
So let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's game.
1. TCU's defense versus Utah freshman QB Jordan Wynn: Wynn made his first start last week against New Mexico and was 18-for-28 passing for 297 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Wynn's favorite target was junior wide receiver Jereme Brooks, who had six catches for 135 yards and a TD.
Wynn will be tested much more this week against a TCU defense that is No. 3 overall in the nation. Look for the Horned Frogs to throw all kinds of different stunts, blitz packages and formations at the true freshman quarterback.
The biggest key will be whether TCU can generate enough pressure with its front four, featuring defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Wayne Daniels. Utah has a quick offense that allows the quarterback to get rid of the ball fast to help negate the rush. TCU wants to put enough pressure on Wynn to flush him out of the pocket or make him throw the ball even quicker than he wants. If Wynn has time, TCU must do the job in the secondary and get help in coverage from its linebackers, including Daryl Washington and Tank Carder.
It will be interesting to see how Wynn handles the sellout crowd and TCU's creative and stingy defense. He did say this week he was looking forward to the challenge.
2. Special teams: TCU's Jeremy Kerley is one of the more dangerous return players in the game. He leads the Mountain West Conference in kickoff and punt return average and has had two electrifying returns for touchdowns this season. Kerley is No. 8 in the nation at 15.40 yards per punt return, and no one in the top 35 in that category has had more chances to return punts than Kerley. He's also 15th in the country in kick return average at 28.9 yards.
Utah, though, leads the MWC in kickoff coverage as kicker Ben Vroman has a bunch of touchbacks. Freshman punter Sean Sellwood is averaging 42.9 yards per punt and can pin teams deep. He'll need to be accurate on Saturday, keeping the ball away from Kerley.
Field goals could matter, too. TCU's Ross Evans missed two of them -- from 26 and 35 yards -- in the fourth quarter of last year's 13-10 loss. And Utah made two, including a 37-yarder as time expired in the first half. Evans is 11-for-12 this season for TCU, while Utah's Joe Phillips is 11-of-13.
3. Running game: Both teams want to establish it so that things can open up in the passing game. This is one area that TCU might have an advantage. The Frogs are No. 6 in the nation in rushing at 242.11 per game, which includes quarterback Andy Dalton, who can collect yards running the zone-read play. Running back Joseph Turner may not put up huge numbers, but he's a reliable short-yardage back who takes care of the football and keeps defenses honest. And TCU won't hesitate to use Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker in the backfield, either.
TCU is just as impressive at stopping the run. They are sixth in the country in rush defense at a stingy 89.67 yards per game.
That's not to say Utah can't run the ball, either. Eddie Wide and Sausan Shakerin have done a consistent job of finding holes and running hard after contact. Wide has rushed for at least 105 yards in the past six games, including last week's season-high 147 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns. Utah has 186.89 rushing yards per game, good enough for 27th in the country.
Utah's defense has allowed 129.78 yards per game on the ground, 51st in the nation. They must plug holes and not allow Dalton to get free on the zone-read.
4. First half: While games are usually decided in the fourth quarter, pay close attention to the first half Saturday. The team that can make some big plays, grab momentum and dictate field position should have a distinct advantage.
In TCU's first six games, they managed to score just 21 first-quarter points. They've been shut out in the first quarter three times. But in those games, they came back with strong second quarters, putting up 71 points. TCU has managed to start better the last three games, beginning with the 14-point first quarter against BYU. The Frogs have 38 first-quarter points the past three weeks (and 34 more in the second quarter). Utah is almost the opposite. The Utes have scored in the first quarter of all but one game this season. They have 79 first-quarter points, but just 31 in the second quarter.
For TCU, they'd like to jump out early and keep their big crowd in the game. The Utes want to see if they can quiet the Frog fans with a good opening half.
5. Big-game pressure: Longtime sportswriter, novelist and TCU alum Dan Jenkins called Saturday's game the biggest at Amon G. Carter Stadium since 1955. That's a lot of pressure on a TCU team that has missed out on a BCS bowl a few times because of an unexpected loss.
TCU is the favorite in this game and they are at home. It's a sellout, a rarity at TCU, and expectations are high that this Frogs team can crash the BCS and maybe even make an argument to be in the national championship game. ESPN College GameDay is on campus, and TCU is wearing special uniforms designed by Nike. It's easy to see how they might be distracted.
The Frogs had a chance to play in BCS bowl last season, only to have Utah win 13-10 at home to stay undefeated and eventually beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. This is also a pressure game for the Utes, who want to defend their Mountain West Conference title.
Can TCU handle the crowd and the lofty expectations? Can Utah and its freshman quarterback deal with the challenges of playing on the road?
The winner of Saturday's game must shine in the spotlight.
Richard Durrett covers college sports for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.