The first road game of the season takes the No. 22 Texas Longhorns to Lubbock to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Jones AT&T Stadium on Saturday, which will have a capacity crowd of 60,454 for the the first time since the Longhorns visited in 2018.
“We know Saturday, we go play a heck of an opponent, Texas Tech, and Coach McGuire’s done a great job,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. “They’re a very strong team in all three phases. They move the football, they can throw it at a high level, they have the ability to run it, play really good defense, really good run defensive, got some pass rushers, and they play hard as a team, so we’ve got our work cut out for us heading into a hostile environment.”
Under first-year head coach Joey McGuire, Texas Tech enters the game at 2-1 with wins over Murray State and Houston and a loss to NC State last weekend. In ESPN’s SP+, the Red Raiders are ranked No. 47 nationally with the No. 46 offense and No. 56 defense.
The Longhorns haven’t lost in Lubbock since 2008, winning six straight games on the South Plains. In Big 12 openers on the road, Texas is 9-3. But the sellout crowd could make a difference in the game and Sarkisian is prepared for a raucous environment in his first trip to Jones AT&T Stadium.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us heading into a hostile environment, so we need a great week of preparation,” Sarkisian said.
McGuire initially planned on retaining Sonny Cumbie as the offensive coordinator, but Cumbie was hired as the head coach at Louisiana Tech in late November, prompting McGuire to tab Western Kentucky’s Zach Kittley for the role. Only 31 years old, Kittley is one of the rising offensive minds in college football after teaming with quarterback Bailey Zappe to produce high-powered offenses at Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky. A Texas Tech alum, Kittley got his start serving as Sonny Cumbie’s student assistant on Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching staff in 2013 before becoming a graduate assistant for the Red Raiders and rising quickly from there.
Kittley doesn’t refer to his scheme as the Air Raid, but it’s certainly Air Raid adjacent and is known for creating prolific passing numbers — last year, Zappe broke the FBS single-season passing yards record formerly held by Tech’s BJ Symons with 5,967 yards and Joe Burrow’s passing touchdowns record with 62 touchdowns. Like many of the old school Air Raid offenses, Kittley’s Hilltoppers offense skewed heavily to the passing game with 697 passing attempts and 349 rushing attempts, so Western Kentucky threw the ball two thirds of the time last season.
At Texas Tech, the offense has been slightly more balanced with a 42/58 run/pass split, but it’s still an offense designed to create and exploit one-on-one matchups in the vertical passing game. The problem for Kittley so far is that he doesn’t have a dynamic duo like Zappe and wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, who played for him at Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky — this year’s starter, Tyler Shough, injured his shoulder in the season opener, and last year’s leading receiver, Erik Ezukanma, is now in the NFL.
Shough’s backup, Donovan Smith, got off to a hot start going 12-of-14 passing for 221 yards and four touchdowns, but since then he’s put the ball in danger and the offensive line hasn’t been able to protect him. Against Houston, Smith threw three interceptions and was sacked six times and against NC State, Smith threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. Smith threw for 564 yards combined in those two games, but Kittley needs cleaner play from his quarterback and his line.
The Red Raiders are tied for No. 6 nationally with nine passing plays of 30 or more yards, so the offense does have the explosiveness in the passing game that Kittley desires with wide receiver Loic Fouonji leading the way at an average of 18.7 yards per catch.
On the ground, Texas Tech has been struggling despite having two solid running backs in Sa’Rodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks, averaging 3.1 yards per rushing attempt so far. Brooks is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but the Red Raiders have lost 78 yards on 10 sacks and 108 yards on 22 tackles for loss, so there are some serious issues with allowing negative plays.
After successfully turning around the Cal defense under Justin Wilcox, Texas Tech defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is in Lubbock after spending one season at Oregon. Arguably the best defensive mind the Red Raiders have employed in that position over the last two decades, DeRuyter is known for his ability to quickly rebuild faltering defenses.
So far, Texas Tech is performing well on defense allowing 22.3 points per game, but where the Red Raiders have really excelled is in run defense, ranking first in the Big 12 and No. 9 nationally with opponents averaging only 2.3 yards per carry. Tackles for loss have been a key part of the equation — Texas Tech is tied for 22nd in the country with 23 through three games — but they’ve also limited explosive plays. While opponents do have six runs of 10 yards or more, the Red Raiders haven’t allowed any runs of 20 or more yards.
In the middle, Jaylon Hutchings is a squat anchor at 6’0, 310 pounds who can be disruptive, producing 6.5 tackles for loss last season. Next to him at defensive tackle is Philip Blidi, who has 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks already this season. The star on the defensive line — and the best player on the entire Texas Tech team — is Texas A&M transfer edge Tyree Wilson, a potential first-round draft pick who leads the team in tackles (23), tackles for loss (6.5), and is tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks.
One of the best performances on Saturday among prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft was Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson. His length and power is terrifying. Threatens outside with the long arm to get the LT off balance before countering in with the swim and splitting the double for a sack. pic.twitter.com/rvBfLyHtKT— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) September 19, 2022
Texas may use jumbo tight end Andrej Karic at times to help on Wilson or chip him with a running back, but as the play above shows, double teaming Wilson isn’t enough to ensure that he won’t make plays.
At linebacker, Krishon Merriweather is undersized at 6’0, but the junior college product led the Red Raiders in tackles last season and has 19 tackles so far this season, as well as a forced fumble.
In the secondary, 6’3, 216-pound cornerback Malik Dunlap is a physical presence and mobile enough to break up four passes against NC State. Safety Marquis “Muddy” Waters missed the final eight games last season after a promising start following his transfer from Duke and is a dangerous blitzer with four quarterback hurries.
Beyond sacks and tackles for loss, the playmaking has been lacking for the Red Raiders with only one forced fumble and one interception through three games, contributing to a turnover margin of minus-six.
Texas Tech did have some special teams issues against NC State, including a muffed punt by the backup return man that led to a field goal and two shanked punts by Austin McNamara, one of which contributed to a touchdown by the Wolfpack. McNamara is typically solid, however, setting a school and conference record by averaging 48.2 yards per punt last season. The place kicking of Trey Wolff may be more questionable — Wolff was 20-of-22 as a freshman, making all 16 kicks short of 40 yards, but then went only 1-of-5 in 2020 before starting 2-of-3 this season.
And, on a kickoff return against NC State, there was a near disaster along the sideline.
The Texas Tech offense will test the Texas secondary, but Smith’s questionable decision making and the offensive line’s struggles creating running lanes and protecting the quarterback should give the Longhorns plenty of opportunities to make game-changing plays — it would be disappointing if Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense can’t come up with multiple turnovers in this game.
Meanwhile, the Texas Tech defense will provide a challenge to the Texas offense line. Not as significant a challenge as Alabama did, but a strong one nonetheless, so there may be increased pressure on quarterback Hudson Card to finally connect on some shot plays to wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this season.
And while it will be a hostile environment at Jones AT&T Stadium, Texas should win this game comfortably — ESPN’s FPI gives the Longhorns an 80.5 percent win probability and the line at DrafKings now slots Texas as 6.5-point favorites.*
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.