Will there be any lingering side effects from the last visit to Lubbock? Everybody knows that strange things happen in Lubbock. Maybe it's the rabid fans, the constant wind, the bad smells, some Bermuda Triangle-ish phenomenon. The Pirate may be gone now, but the uneasy feeling for Texas fans remains.
Last season, Blake Gideon, Earl Thomas, and Curtis Brown exorcised some of the demons from that fateful night in 2008 -- you know the one -- with strong performances against Tech in Austin and then on the road against Oklahoma State on what was essentially the anniversary of the loss in Lubbock, with all three players intercepting passes in the emphatic victory. Thomas is now off to the riches of the NFL, while Brown and Gideon remain important pieces of the Texas secondary.
To their credit, they have said all the right things this week and ever since their inability to put the game away late, paritcularly Blake Gideon, who has truly appeared to move past his droped interception.
To his credit,has always noted that there were a number of plays throughout the game that cost the Longhorns dearly.
The question is, how will those players, and the team as a whole, respond when they enter a similar environment, once again at night and once again in the not-so-friendly confines of Jones AT&T Stadium? Will they have some flashbacks, some nervousness? Some hesitation caused by fear? Some creeping doubt?
Which team will make the game-changing plays? In 2008, there a variety of game-changing plays, on both sides. The safety. The punt return for a touchdown by Jordan Shipley. The long touchdown catch by Malcolm Williams. Then the missed interception by Gideon. The infamous catch and run by Michael Crabtree.
Last season, game-changing plays defined the Texas defense and special teams units. Blocked punts, Returns for touchdowns, Interceptions, Fumbles, Sergio Kindle's sack of Taylor Potts in the game against Tech. This season, not so much for Texas. The would-be pick sixes against Rice were dropped. About three chances to block punts have resulted only in close calls. No forced fumbles or interceptions against Wyoming.
For the offense, Mack Brown has spoken for two weeks about the need for more explosive plays. In the running game, it's been Fozzy Whittaker's momentum-swinging run against Wyoming. And, well, that's it. In the passing game, Mike Davis and, well, the long completion to Malcolm Williams against Rice. Not much.
Texas Tech, on the other hand, has been getting turnovers from the defense, having forced seven in two games, good for seventh in the country. Five of those turnovers have come on interceptions created by a young secondary that has made more plays than the lauded, experienced group for Texas.
Offensively, the Red Raiders have been the polar opposite of the slow-starting Longhorns, scoring 28 combined points in the first quarter against three points for Texas.
How much has Texas really saved for this game? Against Rice, it was about running the football, even when Rice knew that Texas was going to run the football and probably which play they were going to run. Inside zone! Against Wyoming, it was more of a switch back to the shotgun, 11 personnel offense Texas fans became used to under Colt McCoy, albeit with the wrinkle of motioning the flanker closer to the slot receiver to open up the flat.
Nowhere to be found has been the H-back-heavy offense shown during spring practices and in the spring game. Only in short-yardage or goalline situations have the Longhorns even used an H-back at all. Will this be the game that Texas breaks out the power running game and maybe even whatever wrinkles would allow the tight ends to actually get involved in the passing game?
What about some variations of the jet sweep series that Texas is now running with Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin, instead of only DJ Monroe? The quarterback counter, perhaps? Or will the Longhorns even risk the season going up in flames with an injury to Garrett Gilbert? What about more drive blocking after staying primarily with the familiar zone-blocking schemes of years past?
Whatever the case, after holding back in the first two games, everything will be available and everything (presumably) will be used on Saturday night in Lubbock.
How will the offensive line and Garrett Gilbert deal with the new-look/blitzing Texas Tech defense? Under Ruffin McNeil, the Texas Tech defense was about as vanilla as the Texas offense has been through two weeks. In an effort to help the players properly align and execute their assignments, Tech stayed in their base 4-3 look a majority of the time and played a pattern-matching zone defense behind it, without a great variety of exotic blitzes or changing fronts to confuse offenses.
No more. Under Nick Saban disciple James Willis, who also worked with Will Muschamp for a time, the Tech defense now predominantly plays in a 3-4 defense with former middle linebacker Brian Duncan as the edge rusher extraordinnaire and will often shift into a 4-3 front. Like Muschamp and Saban, Willis prefers his secondary to play man-to-man to free up extra blitzers and will come from a vareity of angles and looks. The Tech defense now blitzes 43% of the time.
It could spell bad news for an offensive line that has protected Garrett Gilbert extremely well in the first two weeks as one of only a handful of teams in the country that hasn't allowed a sack. As a result, Gilbert has not turned the ball over. An aggressive, blitzing defense will be a major test of the line's ability to make the proper protection calls and pick up their correct assignments. Last season that was a major problem, with rushers coming free at the quarterback virtually every game on blown assignments.
It might result in more playing time than expected for Tre' Newton, by far the best back in pass protection and someone who will willingly and effectively take on defensive ends and hold his own. It will certainly result in Garrett Gilbert needing to be on the same page as his receivers to understood which players are "hot" in a given defensive look. Gilbert must also account for any blitzers coming free the protection scheme cannot block, as he was not able to do in the national championship game on the decisive fumble.
Can Texas make the Tech offense one-dimensional? It's been known for years that the Texas Tech offense is at it's most dangerous when there is some commitment made to the running game. Most particularly, it keeps the defense honest by forcing the defensive ends to commit to their assignments in the running game instead of getting upfield without concern of a running play.
Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to want to force Tech into passing the ball on virtually every down, but this group of running backs for Tech is talented and dangerous, with experienced and dangerous runners like Baron Batch. Stopping the running game could help force Tech into longer down-and-distance situations -- obvious passing downs that will could allow Muschamp to use some of his more exotic blitz packages in an effort to make Taylor Potts uncomfortable in the pocket.
Even if Texas doesn't end up showing a lot of blitzes -- the corner blitzes may not be the greatest idea a week after several Longhorn cornerbacks missed shots at the Wyoming quarterback -- stopping the runnin game, as mentioned earlier, will allow edge rushers like Sam Acho, Eddie Jones, and Jackson Jeffcoat to get after Taylor Potts, who isn't a particularly mobile quarterback and a player who often allows his mechanics to break down.
What will you be watching?