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Texas faces yet another tall test on the road vs. Texas Tech

Can the Longhorns offense continue to thrive and outpace a Red Raiders team likely without starting quarterback Alan Bowman?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference two weeks can make.

At this exact moment 14 days ago, the Texas Longhorns were the Big 12 headliners, sitting atop the conference at 6-1 (4-0) and No. 6 nationally. As we now know, for Texas, the difference two weeks can make is two losses, as the Longhorns have since suffered back-to-back shortcomings against Oklahoma State and No. 13 West Virginia, falling by a combined four points.

If Texas is to snap its first multiple-game skid since October 2017, the Horns will have to do so on the road against a Texas Tech Red Raiders team slogging through its own two-game losing slump — Texas Tech squandered its best start since 2015 by dropping close contests to Iowa State and No. 7 Oklahoma.

Between the rapidly regressing Texas Big 12 title hopes hanging in the balance and the Red Raiders once again spending their final weeks fighting for a bowl bid, which team will perform like it has more to lose once the tortillas are tossed?

The Red Raider team Texas is set to see on Saturday won’t quite be on par with what’s been put on film; this is largely due to a pair of crucial injuries.

The most impactful missing piece may very well be freshman gunslinger Alan Bowman, who will almost surely serve as a spectator on Saturday after re-aggravating a partially-collapsed lung in last Saturday’s loss to the Sooners.

Despite the freshman status, Bowman wasted little time showing signs of stardom — he’s spent his debut season orchestrating the nation’s second-most potent passing attack (375.6 YPG). Already a top 10 talent in terms of passing yards (2,638) and the lone freshman with a top 25 passer efficiency rating (150.1), Bowman’s emergence has been arguably the most essential piece to the latest high-powered product Kliff Kingsbury has put on the field, and now, without him behind center, Texas Tech avoiding its third consecutive loss becomes a much taller task.

In Bowman’s place will be sophomore Jett Duffey. Though he isn’t equipped with the accuracy or consistency that comes with Bowman orchestrating the offense, Duffey is a former Elite 11 prospect who’s serviceable, to say the least, as evident last week in leading Texas Tech to 15 fourth-quarter points in Bowman’s absence.

The more inaccurate option of the two, Duffey isn’t lacking arm strength, but his accuracy has been inconsistent throughout this season; hence his 60 percent (48-of-80) completion clip with as many interceptions (4) as touchdowns. To that end, there’s potentially good news for both Texas and Duffey, depending on how well — or poorly — Texas Tech’s offense performs.

Given that Duffey is completing passes nearly 10 percent less often than Bowman was (69.4%), the odds that Duffey’s passes will find their target is reduced, naturally meaning fewer opportunities for a host of tremendously talented receiving options. However, as evident by the Red Raiders ranking 98th in IsoPPP (1.11) and 81st in marginal explosiveness (0.03), Texas Tech’s offense hasn’t been heavily reliant upon beating opponents downfield. Rather, the Red Raiders have largely utilized the short and intermediate passing game, plenty of screens, and dump passes to running backs and simply trusting playmakers to do just that — make plays in space.

This offensive emphasis should afford Duffey the opportunity to settle into a rhythm, and if he can capitalize, he’ll enjoy a bevy of talented options to target.

The most notable name of the bunch is junior Antoine Wesley, whose 1,176 yards is the second-best effort nationally. Regardless of the quarterback, Wesley has been far-and-away the favorite target, as his 101 targets are nearly 40 more than any other receiver. At a towering 6’5, Wesley is a true possession receiver, and he’s been utilized as such this season, securing 70 receptions for seven scores, though he surprisingly didn’t cross pay-dirt in what capped as a 199-yard night against Oklahoma.

Lined up opposite of Wesley is another lanky option in 6’6 sophomore T.J. Vasher, whose length — when paired with Wesley — makes for the tallest duo the Texas secondary has seen this season. Though Vasher is just the team’s third-leading receiver with 34 receptions for 470 yards and five touchdowns, he’s plenty capable of stringing together his share of success, as is sixth-year senior and slot, Ja’Deion High, whose 47 receptions and 615 yards are each good for second on the team. Though he has only five receptions throughout the previous four weeks, freshman KeSean Carter (26 receptions, 238 yards) has been a contributor as well, and as noted, the running backs are often utilized as receivers.

Speedy freshman Ta’Zhawn Henry — a former high school teammate of Anthony Cook, D’Shawn Jamison, and Al’Vonte Woodard — leads the way to that end with 21 receptions for 143 yards and one score, and explosive sophomore Da’Leaon Ward isn’t far behind with 15 receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown, despite being plagued by injuries this season.

On Saturday, however, given Duffey’s inconsistencies through the air, the two will likely see a more significant role running the ball, along with senior Demarcus Felton. With Henry leading the way (85 carries, 346 yards, 8 touchdowns), the trio has collectively compiled nearly 800 yards on the ground, though this total could be considerably higher if it weren’t for the lack of explosive plays and an imposing offensive line.

For example, Texas Tech’s rushing attack ranks 74th in marginal efficiency (-6.9%) and only 91st in marginal explosiveness (0.13). As noted, the run blocking hasn’t helped much, as the Red Raiders rank 114th in opportunity rate (41%), which means the offensive line has only done its job (create five yards of running room) on fewer than half of all rush attempts, and the ball carrier has been brought down at or behind the line on 24.8 percent of attempts, making for a stuff rate that ranks 120th out of 125 teams.

All things considered, Texas Tech ranks 50th in rushing S&P+, an impressive number considering the significant issues with the running game.

Sacks excluded, Duffey has amassed 321 yards and four scores on the ground and his 6.8 yards per carry effort is good for the best on the team. Had Duffey enjoyed the starting role throughout the entire season, his stats would reveal that he’s far-and-away the most impactful rushing threat Texas Tech has in its arsenal, and that’s likely going to become quite apparent on Saturday now that he’s set for that starting role.

The defense, too, may very well be without an essential piece on Saturday as senior linebacker and leading tackler Dakota Allen works through not only a broken hand but a left knee injury as well. In fact, Viva The Matadors’ Jay Burrous noted that it’s been rumored that Allen may be done for the season, which if true, serves as a significant loss for a defense that, though improved, still ranks dead last in the Big 12 in total defense (452.6), ninth in scoring defense (30.7), and eighth in defensive S&P+ (88th nationally).

The issue isn’t exactly about talent, even without Allen, as Texas Tech features notable names throughout each level of the defense. Yet, despite a defense being headlined by names such as senior safety Vaughnte Dorsey (44 tackles, 3 INT), defensive tackle Tony Jones (28 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 8 run stuffs), linebackers Jordyn Brooks (46 tackles, 4.5 TFL) and Riko Jeffers (40 tackles, 3.5 TFL), and cornerbacks Damarcus Fields (32 tackles, 8 PBU) and Adrian Frye, whose 12 passes defended is fourth nationally and his four interceptions is tied atop the Big 12, Texas Tech has struggled in key areas; woes similar to what Texas has endured.

If everything starts up front with the big bodies such as Jones and Joseph Wallace (24 tackles, 2 TFL), the pass rush has been abysmal, beginning with Texas Tech’s ability — or the lack thereof — to apply pressure on the passer. The Red Raiders register sacks on passing downs just 4.4 percent of the time, which is bad enough for 116th nationally, and that effort hardly improves on blitz downs (first-and-18 or more, second-and-14 or more, and third-and-3 or more), as Texas Tech ranks 115th nationally with sacks coming at a mere 5.4 percent clip.

The rush defense hasn’t been much better, ranking 102nd in opportunity rate at 49.6 percent, which means the defensive line has allowed opposing offensive lines to carve out at least five yards of running room on essentially half of all attempts, and Texas Tech’s stuff rate is just 19.8 percent (57th).

When this inability to overwhelm the line of scrimmage is paired with a running game finding its footing, the results can be tremendously damaging, as seen last Saturday with Oklahoma rushing for 323 yards; 206 of which came from Trey Sermon. Fortunately for Texas Tech, the Longhorns aren’t exactly world-beaters running the ball, as Texas ranks just 98th in rushing S&P+, largely due to a lack of explosiveness — the Horns rank 130th in rushing marginal explosiveness, while the offense as a whole ranks 119th in marginal explosiveness and 113th in IsoPPP (1.06).

To that end, if there’s ever a time for the Texas offense to flash some offensive fireworks, it would be on Saturday against a Texas Tech defense that’s considerably susceptible to allowing explosive plays.

Though allowing big plays (20-plus yards) is to be expected at times in the Big 12, Texas Tech has been among the nation’s worst at limiting them. The Red Raiders are allowing explosive opportunities on 8.9 percent of plays, which is ranks 102nd nationally, and that effort hardly improves on blitz downs, as Texas Tech ranks 80th in allowing big plays 8.5 percent of the time. The Red Raiders are substantially worse when considering that they rank 120th in IsoPPP (1.33) and passing downs marginal explosiveness (0.35).

In simple terms, this means when Texas Tech gets beat, it’s often deep down the field for huge chunks of yardage, and those occurrences aren’t exactly few and far between.

Statistically speaking, Texas is far from an ‘explosive’ offense, but between a bevy of options such as Keaontay Ingram, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Collin Johnson, and Devin Duvernay, a Longhorns offense that’s enjoying it’s most successful two-game stretch of the Tom Herman era should have relatively little issue moving the ball on Saturday.

If Texas Tech were entirely healthy and had its freshman phenom gunslinger behind center and its star linebacker leading the way on the other end, picking against the Red Raiders, in Lubbock, at night, would be a much more difficult task. But the reality is the Red Raiders aren’t healthy at key positions.

As is, if the recent weeks are a sign of things to come, Texas is going to produce points, and possibly more than it has as of late against a defense that struggles in the trenches and is susceptible to allowing explosive opportunities. The question is, with the more inaccurate and inconsistent Duffey orchestrating Texas Tech’s offense, will he provide his host of offensive weapons with enough opportunities to ultimately outlast Texas?

Texas Tech will score its share of points, but it won’t be enough.

Prediction: Texas 41, Texas Tech 31