Texas-Texas Tech: Five keys to victory

Erich Schlegel

Where will the Thanksgiving showdown hinge?

For the first time, the Texas Tech Red Raiders are coming to Austin to go against the Texas Longhorns, having not won a game in DKR since 1997, the end of the John Mackovic era. If the Horns can follow these keys to victory, they should continue the streak.

Win the turnover margin -- Apologies for this being a no-brainer that applies to every game. Thing is, Tech is worse than most at turning the ball over, struggling in recent years to gain turnovers as well, with some bad luck recovering fumbles a partial culprit this season. This year, the Red Raiders are -12 in that category and were -13 last season, sitting at -4 in victories during the current campaign even.

For the Longhorns, the difference is +7 in wins and dead even in losses, so there's a correlation there that would be stronger if Case McCoy hadn't thrown two interceptions apiece in wins over TCU and Kansas. If McCoy throws two or more interceptions in this game against a Texas Tech offense that is averaging 37.5 points per game, winning gets a lot more difficult extremely quickly.

And that's not even mentioning the ability of Joe Bergeron to hold onto the football, too. Bergeron has three fumbles since the Iowa State game on only 22 carries -- dude needs to protect the pill.

Stop the quarterback run game -- Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury has been coy about which of this three quarterbacks will start, but the best bet seems to be walk-on Baker Mayfield, though the other Lake Travis product, Michael Brewer, could play as well because he can also run the football.

The assumption is that the Red Raiders have done enough advance scouting to realize that the Horns haven't found answers to the zone read and quarterback draw for long stretches of this season, so the ability to find answers when Tech motions a running back out of the backfield or calls a draw from a purely empty set could be the difference between getting the potent passing attack off the field and giving up a large number of points.

The unadjusted numbers aren't that great for Mayfield running the ball because he's been sacked 17 times. Make no mistake, though, he's more athletic than he got credit for coming out of high school and is a bit similar to Clint Chelf in that he's faster than he looks, having broken off a run of 10 or more yards in every game he's played in save the Texas State contest.

Establish the run -- Another no-brainer for the Longhorns offense at this point. Texas Tech has had more rushing attempts against them so far in conference play than any other Big 12 team and is giving up 4.85 yards per carry. With 24 rushing touchdowns allowed during that stretch, there are 96 teams in the country that have given up fewer rushing touchdowns on the entire season.

Back in a 3-4 defense this season, the defensive line for the Red Raiders is once again undersized after losing Michael Starts and Delvon Simmons before the season -- one-on-one the Horns offensive line should win their fair share of battles in the trenches and tight ends Geoff Swaim and Greg Daniels will surely continue their excellent blocking, still one of the more underrated aspects of the Texas season.

The question, as it has been for some time, is whether the Horns can still pick up positive yardage against loaded boxes and break off the type of explosive runs that have been hard to come by all season. Again, of the six Texas runs of 30 or more yards, Johnathan Gray had three of them, David Ash had one, and Jalen Overstreet another -- the fourth-down effort by Malcolm Brown against Kansas was the only other rushing play to break that far this season and that was a breakdown by the defense more than anything else.

Limit the exceptional Texas Tech offensive trio -- Coming into the game, Jace Amaro, Jakeem Grant, and Eric Ward are averaging more than 240 receiving yards per game, more than half the teams in the conference average per game. Between them, they constitute three of the top six receivers in the league and three of the top five when considering healthy players since Tevin Reese is out for Baylor.

The 6'5, 260-pound Amaro is a physical freak with the quickness and route-running ability of a much smaller player, making him deadly effective headed down the seam, on crossing routes, and in the red zone, among other places. Texas can't really hope to stop him without a linebacker who can run with him since the coaches clearly don't trust Peter Jinkens, leaving the task up to safety Adrian Phillips in all likelihood, a tough match up for any safety.

Ward is the longtime contributor with 2,600 career receiving yards. The Wichita Falls product isn't physically imposing at 6'0, 205 pounds, but he does have a knack for getting open down the sidelines and will provide a stiff test for cornerback Carrington Byndom.

As for Grant, he's a 5'6 spark plug from Mesquite Horn who was lightly recruited by BCS schools, but has fit perfectly in the Red Raider offense as a threat across the middle and on screens. While not the fastest player on the top end, Grant is exceptionally quick in short areas and can make defenses pay for losing track of him.

That's a lot of threats to deal with in the passing game. It's also not exactly uncommon when facing the Airraid passing attack of Texas Tech. And this team had plenty of experience going against prolific passing attacks last season, they just didn't have to face a team with three players of the quality of Amaro, Ward, and Grant.

Don't blow it on special teams -- Fortunately, the Red Raiders don't have a kickoff return for a touchdown this season. They are averaging 23 yards per return and will probably best that considering that the Horns are one of the worst teams in the country in allowing almost 26 yards per return.

With Daje Johnson out serving his suspension, Texas fans should be able to rest more easily on punt returns after some harrowing experiences with the mercurial sophomore over the last several games, though Jaxon Shipley has also dropped a punt this season.

Those concerns are about massive breakdowns, however, and not the type of slow bleeding and loss of field position that killed Texas against Oklahoma State -- this isn't an offense that can afford to face drives of 90 or more yards on a consistent basis and a defense that still isn't good enough against an explosive passing offense like Texas Tech to give up short fields and expect to have a margin for error to win this game.

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