With high expectations heading into the 2019 season, it’s become a forgettable season for the Longhorns. After losing four of their last six games, head coach Tom Herman will look to avoid a three-game skid in an attempt to end the regular season on a high note of sorts.
Granted, the Red Raiders have had their own struggles this season. They’re in year one of the transition from former head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who’s now leading the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, to Matt Wells, who left his post as the head coach at Utah State to assume the same duties at Texas Tech exactly one year to the day of Friday’s key matchup.
The offensive fundamentals we’ve come to expect from Texas Tech are, to some extent, still intact. However, Wells’ spread offense in Lubbock is structured differently than Kingsbury’s, and the same could be said for former head coach Mike Leach’s famous “air raid” scheme.
Still, Texas Tech’s defense is amid an overhaul. It could be a few years before the Red Raiders are truly making noise in the Big 12 again. Come Saturday, that’ll be put to the test.
Previewing the Texas Tech offense
Gone from Lubbock is the air raid scheme that’s left a lasting impression around the Big 12, and college football, for a decade. And though that flavor of spread offense is still survived by programs across the nation, the style that’s currently being implemented under Wells is more similar to the 11-personnel base offense that Tom Herman leans on rather than the air raid scheme Leach and Kingsbury ran in Lubbock during their head coaching tenures.
Schemed by offensive coordinator David Yost, who loyally made the trip with Wells from Utah State last year, the current Red Raiders spread attack is one that often utilizes a blocking tight end, three wide receivers, and a downhill running scheme.
Overall, Wells’ and Yost’s first go around with this particular scheme at Texas Tech has yielded an offense that’s ranked second in total offense, and third in scoring, in the Big 12.
That said, we should note that Texas Tech’s 30.4 PPG scoring average sits just ahead of four other Big 12 teams – Texas, Oklahoma State, TCU, and Baylor – that have averaged 29 to 30 PPG in conference play. That’s likely due, in part, to the Red Raiders’ affinity for playing from behind this season. Even so, their offense ranks towards the conference’s top in passing yards, even with a backup quarterback for the majority of the season. In the Big 12, Tech’s 3,497 pass yards ranks second in the conference. Tech’s 1,724 rush yards ranks seventh.
Stepping up again for the second season in a row, backup quarterback Jet Duffey has been the starter for the Red Raiders after Alan Bowman went down with a shoulder injury in early September. (Since then, Bowman has elected to take a redshirt season.)
So far, Duffey has been a fairly decent signal-caller. Against Big 12 opponents, he’s tossed the second-most passing yards, posted the second-highest completion percentage, and compiled a 16-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio that has led to the fourth highest quarterback rating across the Big 12. At 6’1” and 195-pounds, surprisingly, Duffey hasn’t been a threat with his legs; he’s compiled just 226 yards rushing. Still, the junior quarterback is a capable runner and has deceptive quickness when his cleats hit the dirt.
As for his pass-catching weapons: On the outside, Duffey has thrown to a group of receivers, although his favorites have been 6’2”, 215-pound graduate transfer RJ Turner and 6’6, 210-pound junior T.J. Vasher, a relative of former Longhorns great Nathan Vasher.
Initially a two-star prospect out of Lousiana, Turner spent his first four years in academia at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, where he totaled 90 receptions for 1,662 yards and 10 touchdowns across three seasons of play. Since opting to transfer to Texas Tech, Turner has totaled 41 receptions for 619 yards and three scores. Three of those scores, as well as 257 of his total receiving yards, have come the last two games against TCU and Kansas State.
Meanwhile, Vasher has arguably been Duffey’s most consistent target. In eight games played this year, Vasher has caught at least five passes in six of them, and he’s found the end zone in five games. He also enters this game on a four-game touchdown streak.
Other notable receivers on the season include Eric Ezukanma, a 6’3”, 210-pound redshirt freshman who has 35 receptions for 529 yards and three scores; McLane Mannix, a junior transfer who has 24 receptions for 239 yards and three scores; and Dalton Rigdon, a 5’11”, 175-pound sophomore who has 33 receptions for 469 yards and five scores, though Rigdon recently experienced concussion-like symptoms and may be forced to miss Friday’s game.
Predominantly leading the way at running back has been 6’0”, 210-pound redshirt freshman Sarodorick Thompson. He’s rushed 143 times for 679 yards on the season, and his 11 touchdowns ranks third in the Big 12, behind Chuba Hubbard’s and Jalen Hurts’ 20 and 17 rushing touchdowns, respectively.
Sophomore running back Ta’Zhawn Henry could also be available after recently dealing with an undisclosed injury. Henry has rushed for 340 yards and three scores on 75 carries.
Senior running back Armand Shyne, who boasts a 5.8 YPC average and has rushed 65 times for 374 yards and three touchdowns, is out indefinitely while he recovers from broken ribs.
Both Thompson and Henry have also been involved in the passing game. The duo has combined for 57 receptions and 285 yards.
Though Texas Tech’s tight ends are more in the mold of big-bodied, 6’5”, 245-pound blockers, senior Donta Thompson and junior Travis Koontz do, occasionally, get flexed out as they run a route over the field’s middle seam. Texas Tech’s use of big tight ends as blockers and occasional pass-catchers out of their base 11-personnel is one of the key differences from the air raid spread – a Texas Tech offensive staple for at least a generation.
Previewing Texas Tech’s defense
Similar to the Longhorns, the Red Raiders base out of a three-down linemen set that can mix in nickel looks to add more coverage and defensive backs onto the field. But what’s also similar to the Longhorns is the fact that the Red Raiders have struggled to prevent big gash players this year, and often when it seems to matter the most. See third and 10 below:
But, it should be said, the Red Raiders defense is still arguably a unit that’s been challenged throughout the course of the 2019 season. To date, the defense ranks seventh in points allowed, and near the bottom in rushing and passing yards allowed among Big 12 teams.
Obviously there remains work to be done on the defensive side by coordinator Keith Patterson, who also loyally joined Wells in Lubbock from Utah State last year.
The Longhorns are in desperate need of a win. In fact, any sort of positive spin on what’s been a disappointing 2019 campaign would benefit for the Longhorns heading into 2020.
Texas Tech’s defense has issues of its own, which Texas will hope to exploit.
Come Saturday, that’ll be put to the test.