The quarterbacks come and go, the wide receivers come and go, even the offense's architect came and went, but the Texas Tech passing game just keeps on plugging in new faces everywhere and putting up monster numbers.
First-year starter Seth Doege hadn't started a football game since 2006 after losing his junior and senior seasons to knee injuries before starting the opener against Texas State and promptly throwing for nearly 350 yards and four touchdowns. And while the Red Raiders have never found a pass-catcher of the Michael Crabtree's caliber to replace the former standout, the ultimate impact on the offense is truly quite minimal.
Under Neal Brown, the new Texas Tech offensive coordinator, the old Air Raid run under Mike Leach is still mostly in place, with an increased emphasis on tempo and running the football, though the loss of top running back Eric Stephens to a torn ACL after a cheap hit from an Aggie defender knocked him out for the remainder of the season has resulted in a steady decrease in production on the ground.
The Tech offense isn't afraid to get vertical, but the greatest danger has always been its ability to hit both shallow and intermediate crossing routes and turn them into big gains. Sitting off in coverage or playing passive zone defenses can both be a recipe for giving up 400 or more yards through the air.
Likewise, the inability to disrupt the quarterback's rhythm early in the game can lead to similar results, with blitzing a limited option due to the efficiency of the Red Raider short passing game and high-risk nature of committing defenders needed in coverage to deal with running backs that often release out of the backfield, the wide receiver screen game, and the simple fact that the base offense employs four wide receivers on virtually every snap.
So those 211 blitzes from Manny Diaz at a roughly 50% rate that Kansas coaches noticed in preparing for Texas will almost certainly come at a much reduced clip against an offense well-equipped to take advantage of fewer defenders in coverage. Just as importantly, there are other less dangerous ways to get Doege out of rhythm that perhaps play into greater strengths of the Texas defense.
The tactic employed by Iowa State that has long been favored across the board by Duane Akina is playing press man coverage on the outside and forcing quarterbacks to make plays over the top, something Doege was unable to do against the Cyclones. It's a somewhat risky strategy, but one that has helped Akina win a lot of games over the years against the Red Raiders and every other conference opponent:
That's kind of been our history to all the way back when I first started here. We are a press team. We always have been. Since the `80s, that's our starting point. You kind of look at what the offense does. Who you're playing against, and you figure out what you need to do.
We are a press team. We're one of the few that do it quite a bit in the conference, and I think that gives you a chance to play against passing teams, where you can keep your guys close to them.
It's actually a preference for Akina that now goes back almost 30 years and has its roots in the NFL and has been paying dividends in multiple ways:
Early on our models were the early [Oakland] Raiders when they had what they called the "9-man defense." That was the model for us, and we went to it when the Raiders were playing it a lot. We found that it helped us in recruiting, and we found that you could recruit athletes to it and it's what the NFL looks for. It helps us across the board I think. It helps us schematically in recruiting, and it helps the kids for their future down the road.
As the Longhorns employ nickel and dime looks, the pressure will be on the Texas defensive backs, who surely won't be thinking about their NFL futures when they take the field early Saturday, but have the opportunity to flash for some NFL scouts with strong performances against a difficult offense to defend.
For Texas fans, the fact that versatile sophomore defensive back Adrian Phillips will be available to put some quality play on film is encouraging after he missed the Kansas game with a shoulder injury. Capable of playing both safety and cornerback, Phillips will be a crucial part of the defensive gameplan.
Carrington Byndom's rise to an all-conference level will be of similar importance, even though he won't need to shadow one specific receiver in the way that he did Justin Blackmon in limiting the sure-fire All-American to five catches on 12 targets.
The top players in coverage, including Kenny Vaccaro and Quandre Diggs, who is hitting his stride after some difficult moments against the Oklahoma schools, likely won't be the issue. Since the parts are essentially interchangeable in the Texas Tech offense, stopping the fourth-best receiver is normally just as difficult as stopping the best receiver and the difference is typically minimal in non-Michael Crabtree years.
It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on secondary depth, forcing safeties to play well in coverage and testing the fourth and fifth cornerbacks. In other words, the biggest concern is Tech being able to isolate Christian Scott or Blake Gideon one-on-one in coverage, situations Akina and Diaz will have to scheme to avoid. Another cornerback will also need to step up, likely Josh Turner or AJ White, though it's conceivable that the rangy but equally inexperienced Mykkele Thompson could see some time after spot action against Kansas.
Wide splits in the Tech offensive line make edge pressure more difficult and unless the Longhorns can take advantage of those gaps inside to take Doege out of rhythm, the only way to do so will be tight coverage in space that limits the easy completions that not only allow a quarterback to find a groove, but can also quickly turn into big plays, as Oklahoma discovered.
In all likelihood, if Duane Akina's charges can lock down the Tech receivers in coverage, there will be an as-yet unheralded hero emerging as the Longhorns seek that sixth win to gain bowl eligibility. Who wants to be the 2011 version of Ryan Palmer in 2006?