March 31, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: TCU senior Andy Dalton.
• Typecasting. Dalton came in with an impressive head full of Shaun White-esque shag in 2006, and quickly established himself not only as the heir apparent to predecessor Jeff Ballard (18-2 as a starter in 2005-06, a school record for career winning percentage), but as basically the same quarterback. Like Ballard, Dalton is a fundamentally within-the-offense sort who's big enough, strong enough and athletic enough to do everything he needs to do in the Frogs' multiple, option-friendly system. But the most important part of his job has been and remains to execute the easy things and stay out of the way of the consistently dominant defense and running game.
As a result, even as the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, Dalton isn't always asked to do a lot. He averaged just over 23 passes per game during the Frogs' 12-0 regular season. Most of them were safe, high percentage throws and screens, and he didn't attempt 30 in any game prior to the bowl loss to Boise State. He was well-protected in the pocket and better than a credible threat as a runner, racking up 600 yards on the ground before sacks. The one-word book on Dalton is efficiency, in all respects: An essential, reliable cog in the machine when it's working, but ultimately lacking the spark to make it go if another piece is out of commission, as his three-interception debacle in the Fiesta Bowl made all too clear.
• At his best ... Of course, as offensive machines go, TCU's is about as well-oiled as they come. The Frogs thumped out nine 200-yard games on the ground last season, winding up as one of the elite rushing attacks in the country despite failing to produce a 100-yard rusher until the 10th game. Including Dalton, four TCU backs finished with at least 500 yards, none of them with more than 800.
Such consistent success in the running game slowed down the rush, opened up play-action and made Dalton's job fairly easy, a comfort zone that allowed him to minimize mistakes (just five interceptions through the regular season) and produce a steady stream of big plays (at least one completion covering 35 yards or longer in nine games, many a result of yards after catch, with 23 touchdowns). With his time, experience and savvy, Dalton finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency, combining with the running game to set defenses on fire. From roughly mid-October on, the Frogs scored at least 38 points — and won by at least four touchdowns — in each of their last seven regular season games, including merciless blowouts over fellow MWC heavies BYU (38-7) and Utah (55-28) that never resembled competitive games. Dalton had first-quarter touchdown passes that lit the fuse in both.
• At his worst ... The Fiesta Bowl loss against Boise State stands out from the rest of the season in a big way, notably in the fact that the Broncos completely shut down TCU on the ground (36 total yards), forcing Dalton to launch a season-high 44 passes and endure a pounding from the Boise pass rush, which sacked him twice, forced a fumble and left him flat on more than one occasion. The result was a three-interception debacle by Dalton and a 17-10 defeat, the end of the nation's longest winning streak after 14 games.
As un-Dalton-like as the performance was compared to the rest of 2009, it was very reminiscent of TCU's — and Dalton's, specifically — struggles against elite opponents in 2008:
If you're going to isolate a handful of bad games, that's pretty good company to have had them against, but there is a pattern. Just like Boise State in January, eventual top-five finishers Oklahoma and Utah overcame the Frogs in '08 by slowing the run. They forced Dalton to throw more often than he's accustomed to, hit him on a regular basis and took advantage of a couple big mistakes as a result. In all three of TCU's losses over the last two seasons, the formula for getting Dalton off-balance has been the same, and it always starts with stuffing the run to make him both the primary generator of the offense's success and the primary focus of the defense's malice.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Because players impersonating coaches is always always front-page news in these parts, here's Dalton adding his personal touch to the mythology of his coach, Gary "Pants-Action" Patterson:
See also: A brief moment with a few hundred friends after last year's blowout over Utah that he'll probably remember as one of the greatest moments of his life.
• What to Expect in '10. After 34 starts in three years, there aren't going to be any surprises from a fifth-year senior. And as formulas for failure go, Dalton's not going to be running against many top-five opponents with championship caliber defenses. Overwhelmingly, again, the offense should be fine, and the Frogs are likely to be favorites to win every game. Dalton will resume his place as the top quarterback in the Mountain West.
If the ambitions go beyond a return to the BCS, though, and extend to finishing the perfect season that narrowly eluded them last year, Dalton will have to find a way to come up bigger against the couple of elite defenses he'll see. Those defenses are 1) Willing and able to take the running game away and make the quarterback the focal point, and 2) Unlikely to respect his (or his receivers') ability to hurt them downfield. He may not even get a chance against that level of challenge in the regular season, but he will eventually, and when the time comes, the team's fate is likely to hinge more than any other factor on how he responds.