Texas-Texas Tech: Five Important Questions

John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

Looking at five factors that will help determine which team emerges with a win on Saturday afternoon.

Horns_bullet_mediumCan David Ash recover from his poor performance against Kansas? Still the starting quarterback despite the fact that back up Case McCoy led the comeback against Kansas, Ash now has to prove that he can recover from a 2011-like performance after suffering relatively little adversity this season.

The good news is that he won't be playing in a cold, windy environment, as the Kansas game this year and the Missouri game last year now provide two data points that he doesn't fare well in those situations, especially when things don't go well early.

The latter part of the equation is the most concerning -- in high school, Ash had problems if he couldn't get into a rhythm early and didn't seem to have the ability to recover from poor starts. Against Kansas, it was his teammates who mostly contributed to the stalled drives on the four possessions following the initial score, but Ash wasn't able to help restore some flow by throwing his first interception when Texas was on the edge of the redzone and didn't help much on the possessions in the third quarter either, though the fumble and the second interception weren't completely on him.

The difficulties managing the play clock were, and they need to stop because the Kansas game wasn't the first time that had happened. As a result, the final drive of the game was executed with only one timeout, unnecessarily reducing the margin for error.

The follow-up question that goes hand-in-hand with this one is how much margin for error Ash has against Texas Tech. McCoy is in the perfect position as a potential late-game replacement because it minimizes his exposure. Consider the fact that he nearly threw an interception on his first attempt in the Kansas game and it becomes clear why that is necessary. If that isn't enough, recall the Baylor game and the spring game, his last three appearances that didn't come against Oklahoma's third-team defense.

As a result, the answer is that Ash should be allowed something of a leash -- he doesn't need to be pulled if he makes a mistake or two. If it's clear that he's still in the same funk that he was in last week, is throwing interceptions, and still having the same issues with the playclock (in other words, the same things that went wrong last week), than it might make sense to go to McCoy, at which point there would be a full-fledged quarterback controversy likely for the remainder of the regular season.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether Ash can be the quarterback that he's been most of the season or whether the Kansas game was a sign of regression. His teammates could certainly help answer that question in a positive way by catching passes and generally avoiding costly mistakes and/or penalties.

Horns_bullet_mediumHow does Texas choose to defend the Tech offense? There are few teams in the country better at scoring points on explosive drives than the Red Raiders, ranking ninth in the country in that metric. One thing the offense under Neal Brown does better than most other offenses is register plays of 10+ yards, where Tech is sixth nationally. Producing plays of more than 20 yards is more difficult, however, an area in which they only rank tied for 34th.

What the Red Raiders don't do, either because their offense is not suited for it or because they don't have to, is sustain long drives.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will be faced with a dilemma -- to sit back and try to limit explosive plays and force Texas Tech to drive down the field methodically or to go with a more high-risk, high-reward strategy of attempting to create negative plays with blitzes or games along the defensive line.

For the most part, the twists he's been running haven't been successful in creating plays behind the line of scrimmage, so as much as he may believe that the base defense can't create those needed stops, that may actually be the best bet for Texas.

Case in point -- the play after the 64-yard gain by Kansas running back James Sims that was a result of a twist along the defensive line, defensive tackle Ashton Dorsey steamed into the backfield to make a big stop in what appeared to be a base look.

With Mack Brown now more involved, the good news is that Diaz may be constrained in his ability to make those risky calls that he seems to prefer.

Horns_bullet_mediumWill the perimeter run game make an earlier appearance this week? Co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin defended his decision to spend the first three quarters setting up the jet sweep game before unleashing it on the first drive of the fourth with newly-inserted McCoy at quarterback, saying that he wanted to see how the Jayhawks would defend it and that he didn't want to risk a negative play or two early.

Okay, but that may not be advisable this week.

Unlike last season, when the undersized defensive tackles for Tech provided little resistance, co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Major Applewhite believes that the Red Raiders are improved in that area:

They have done a tremendous job on defense in general, but we have to have some things out on the perimeter to be able to give us some space. They do a good job inside.

Assuming that Applewhite isn't speaking out of turn and is on the same page as Harsin, it could be a sign that Texas will try to test the edges at the beginning of the game to move defenders out of the box, as most teams have been outnumbering the 'Horns with a near-box player who can help in run support to take away that element of the Texas attack.

In wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and hybrid players like DJ Monroe and Daje Johnson, the Longhorns have the athletes to deploy in space, but the "flow of the game" just has to be right. Apparently. Hopefully it is, because there's no question that Harsin's offense will have to create a number of chunk plays to hang with the productive Tech offense.

Horns_bullet_mediumWho will win the turnover battle? This is a key in every game, obviously, but one that will be more important this week because of the atmosphere on the road and the fact that Tech has not been particularly strong in that category this season.

Like most teams, losing the turnover battle leads to losses, and that's an area where Tommy Tuberville's team has not been strong this season, sitting at -4 overall, a number that is tied for 90th nationally. In losses, the Red Raiders are -5 overall, having forced only a single turnover. It's the same deal at home -- only one turnover gained, a recovered fumble. All seven interceptions have come on the road.

In contrast, Texas has done a good job for the most part in protecting the football, despite the three official turnovers against Kansas last week (the turnover on downs is a de facto giveaway). The defense is tied for 61st in the country with 14 turnovers gained, but it's the fact that the 'Horns that have given up only eight all season that allows for the +6 margin that is tied for 24th in the country.

Based on the pure numbers, Texas appears to have an advantage here entering the game, but everyone knows that odd things happen in Lubbock, they just haven't really happened yet this season there. It's not hard to imagine that this is the weekend that changes.

Horns_bullet_mediumCan Texas tackle in space? The answer to that question for most of the season has been a resounding no. With over 90 missed tackles, only three teams in the FBS have been worse in that regard. In some ways, it's shocking that any teams have been worse than the 'Horns. Actually, most ways.

A staple of Airraid offenses for years has been an emphasis on the quick passing game, especially wide receiver screens, so Tech will work to get the ball to playmakers in space as teams have done in nearly every game against Texas.

Throw in the shots downfield, particularly in what I like to call the "shot zone," the area right around a team's 40 yardline where they will look to score touchdowns by getting vertical in the passing game. Eric Ward and Darrin Moore are dangerous in those situations, so the Longhorns will have to be extra careful when the Red Raiders get into that part of the field.

One key could be the health of Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, a player I was high on coming out of high school, ranking him 10th in the state. His teammate Kenny Williams believes that he'll play this weekend, but there hasn't been any official news from the school on Amaro's status after the dynamic receiving target missed the Kansas State and TCU games with an injury he suffered against West Virginia.

Averaging more than 17 yards per reception, Amaro is the leader for the Red Raiders in that category, and has scored four touchdowns in the six games he's played.

Tech averages 77 plays per game, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Texas to miss tackles. In fact, it's almost a certainty that the Longhorns will miss more than 10 -- that's just how things have been this season. The determining factor for Texas may be whether those missed tackles lead directly to long touchdowns or not.

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