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Previewing Texas vs Texas Tech: Horns need to slow down Red Raiders rushing attack

Steve Sarkisian and the Horns open up conference play against the Red Raiders.

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

The Texas Longhorns (2-1) begin conference play against the undefeated Texas Tech Red Raiders (3-0) on Saturday at Darrel K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

The good news for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian is that usually the matchups between Texas and Tech produce low-scoring, low-stress, boring football games.

Oh, wait. It’s never like that!

Since 2015, every game except the Longhorns 49-24 victory in 2019 has ended in a one-score game. Texas has also scored at least 30 points in all but ONE GAME against Tech since 2012, including last year’s (thrilling?) 63-56 overtime victory in Lubbock.

This season, Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells has the Red Raiders 3-0 for the first time since 2017 with wins over Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and Florida International University.

None of those are overwhelming victories but remember this is Texas Tech, it’s an 11 a.m. Central kickoff, and none of these games are ever normal.

Through three games this year, the Texas defense has truly yet to face a quarterback that will challenge them with their arm. Until this week.

Oregon transfer and sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough currently leads the Big 12 with 804 passing yards and is one touchdown behind Spencer Rattler with six passing touchdowns.

Shough started in seven games for the Ducks in 2020 before being supplanted by Boston College transfer Anthony Brown in the Pac-12 title game and the Fiesta Bowl.

The Chandler, Arizona native decided to transfer to Lubbock and so far is thriving in Tech’s up-tempo, run-pass-option-heavy offense.

When Wells took over after the 2018 season, Tech averaged 353 passing yards per game and 130 rushing yards per game. Each year under Wells those numbers are starting to flip flop. In 2019, Tech threw for 325 yards per game and just 267 this past season. They ran for 150 yards per game in 2019 and upped that to 163 per game in 2020.

This season, they average 170 yards on the ground and 270 in the air. They’ll still throw the ball but they average more rushes per game than throws.

Texas will see a lot of RPOs, with quick passes thrown by Shough but he’s not afraid to launch it downfield.

His favorite target will be junior wideout Erik Ezukanma, who leads the Big 12 in receiving with 350 yards on 16 receptions. The 6’3, 220-pound target is powerful than most cornerbacks and can bully any secondary. In two games against Texas, Ezukanma has 14 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns.

He’s not the easiest human being to tackle but also possesses a strong pair of hands — just ask Jalen Green.

Will Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski elect to double team Ezukanma and possibly open up more running lanes for Tech? Or will he ride with D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson in man coverage?

The Longhorns are only allowing 182.7 passing yards per game (third best in the Big 12) but as stated above, they haven’t faced a passing attack like Tech’s this season nor a wideout like Ezukanma.

Outside of Ezukanma, Tech will use a lot of motion in their pre-snap. One of their favorite designs this season is this play:

They ran this play-action throw to the tight end against FIU twice and both resulted in an easy six points. Of course, they’ll run different variations of this play whether it be a handoff to the tailback or a throw to the wideout on a fade.

Every year it seems that Tech has a different running back that will soon gash the Longhorns. Last year it was Saroderick, you can call me Sir, Thompson who ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

This year the hot hand belongs to Tahj Brooks and Xavier White. Tech is going to run inside zone, inside zone, a little bit of inside zone, and some more inside zone.

Brooks is a strong and sturdy back that will dust off arm and ankle tackles and will test a Texas defense that struggled with missed tackles against Arkansas.

Brooks only has 35 carries (for comparison Bijan Robinson has 52) but is just 15 yards behind Bijan and averages 8.1 yards per carry. Xavier White only has 18 touches, but he averages just over seven yards per rush. White is a little bit more of a receiving threat than Brooks with one touchdown reception.

Even with Tech’s love to run inside the tackles, the blueprint for running against Texas is attacking the edges as Arkansas did. Will they adjust?

Keep an eye out for Tyler Shough read-option runs as well. You don’t expect him to keep it himself until he’s eight yards down the field after the defense keyed in on the running back.

His rushing stats are barely in the positives due to it including sacks which is a perfect segue to talk about the offensive line.

While they average a solid 5.5 yards per rush, I think Texas can do so damage in pass protection.

Shough has only been sacked three times this year, but Houston and SFA were able to force pressure, especially when they blitzed.

The Horns average about two sacks per game (seven total), but would like to see Kwiatkoski a bit more aggressive with the blitz this week.

Bottom line: I think it’s no secret that this game will be about how successful can Tech’s rushing attack be. The Texas defense allows 184 yards on the ground per game (only Kansas is worse in the Big 12). If Tech can run the ball when they please, as Arkansas did, then they’ll be able to put points on the board like they did last year.

Through three games, the defensive stats for Texas Tech are a bit interesting. Their rush defense has been outstanding, allowing just 1.7 yards per carry. FIU’s D’Vonte Price came into last week's game averaging almost 10 yards per rush and was held to 51 yards on 15 carries.

Sidebar: FIU’s previous competition was Long Island and Texas State.

Texas Tech defensive coordinator Keith Patterson likes to use three-down linemen but will usually rush more than that. Oh, and they will blitz. Especially if it’s third down.

Linebacker Colin Schooler (yes, he’s Brenden’s brother) leads the defense with 21 tackles and will be a part of the linebackers that will be smashing the middle.

I can imagine a lot of teams will follow Arkansas’s game plan of stacking the box and forcing the QB to make throws. Tech especially.

Did the Longhorns figure things out up front against the Owls? Or was it just... Rice? Either way, Texas can burn the blitz by attacking the edges with their speed. It will surely test the blocking ability of the Longhorns tailbacks but a counter can be wheel routes or screens (more on that later) out of the backfield.

We saw Sark put Whittington in the backfield a little bit against Rice and would LOVE to see more of the same against Tech.

Now, let’s talk about Tech’s passing defense.

It’s tied dead last in the Big 12 with Oklahoma. They allow about nine yards per completion and 236 yards per game. When you blitz as heavily as Tech does, it opens up opportunities to take advantage if you know how.

FIU didn’t. Stephen F. Austin did.

Trae Self tossed for 343 yards on 38 completions in their near upset victory, with the majority coming on screens.

Bubble screens, mid-screens for wide receivers, or running back slip screens, SFA ran them all.

In last year’s comeback victory against Tech, Tom Herman ran quite a few bubble screens for success.

If the Longhorns pass protection is struggling, look for Sark to start moving the ball to the outside with screens. Or, he can attack the middle with slants. I’m pretty sure SFA had two play designs: screens and slants. And they were eight yards away from pulling off the upset.

Bottom line: Attack the edges, get the ball to the Texas playmakers in space, and don’t be afraid to take a few shots down the field. I’m still unsure of the Texas offensive line but we’ll sure learn a lot about them this week.

You can do this with every team, but Tech could realistically be 1-2. In all three games, their opponent has led and forced the Red Raiders to come from behind.

Houston was in control, but Clayton Tune tossed three interceptions, including an awful pick-six that spurred a Tech comeback.

SFA had an incredible game-plan that honestly should’ve won them the game; control the time of possession.

The Lumberjacks finished with 40 minutes of possession while Tech only had 19. They dinked and dunked their way down the field and were aggressive on fourth downs (5-for-8 attempts on fourth-down conversions).

The Texas offense never seemed to get in a rhythm against Arkansas and as a result, didn’t really turn to an up-tempo style until Casey Thompson entered. With a struggling offensive line, up-tempo might be the way to go but it also leaves the risk of the game turning into a shootout like last year.

Final word: Texas-Texas Tech games are always wack. The Red Raiders might not be as good as their record, but they’re 3-0 and surely will be confident coming into this game. Who knows what the stadium will look like with an 11 a.m. kickoff, but it’s gonna fun either way.