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No. 7 Texas vs. Texas Tech opponent preview: Longhorns look for revenge against the Red Raiders

To guarantee a berth in the Big 12 Championship game, Steve Sarkisian’s program needs to get payback for last year’s overtime loss in Lubbock.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Tech Austin American-Statesman-USA TODAY NETWORK

Steve Sarkisian and the No. 7 Texas Longhorns are one game away from greatness. After only three years as the head coach of the Longhorns, Sarkisian is one game away from the program’s first 11-1 season since 2009, and it all goes down at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Friday against the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

In the last game for the burnt orange and white as a member of the Big 12, it’s only fitting that it happens on the Forty Acres against the boys from Raider Land, the 70th and final matchup between the two Texas schools, a matchup that the Longhorns lead 52–17.

The Longhorns fell to the Red Raiders 37–34 in overtime last year on a game-winning field goal. This year, however, these two teams are on very different planes — Texas sits with only one loss on the season, and on the precipice of a Big 12 title and potential College Football Playoff bid. Texas Tech, on the other hand, has certainly regressed from last year’s eight-win season. Injuries and losing their best defender in the last 20 years to the NFL Draft have them sitting at 6–5 and 7th in the Big 12 standings.

However, there is no love lost for the Red Raiders. A win in DKR would send their in–state older brother out of the conference with a loss, and finish the season 7–5 with a respectable bowl appearance.

“I think Tech really had a tough start to the season.” Sarkisian said Monday. “They’ve strung together three in a row and now they’re playing really good defense. They’re running the football extremely well, kind of having changed philosophically that way. So we know we’re gonna get their best shot.”

The Air Raid Red Raiders of old have turned into a run-it-down-your-throat, defensively strong football club. This is not the high scoring, no defense Tech we know from the Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury days. Head coach Joey McGuire has changed the philosophy due to injury and scheme to change the face of the TRed Raiders this season.

Texas Tech has a history of spoiling potentially great Texas seasons — the name Michael Crabtree will forever live in infamy in Austin and honor in Lubbock. This year, if Sarkisian and the Longhorns wish to accomplish more than anyone could have ever expected for this program in three short years, the Longhorns can not afford to be complacent.

Offense

Lubbock native Zach Kittley enters his second year as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas Tech. After an incredibly impressive offensive season last year, injuries and road blocks have brought Kiitley’s offense back down to earth.

“I think Tech really had a tough start to the season,” Sarkisian said Monday. “I know we all go through it and you never know when injuries show up. But they were fighting that injury bug earlier in the year. And I think you know as you can see them getting themselves healthier and healthier.”

Quarterback

Sophomore quarterback Behren Morton took over the starting role from sixth-year senior Oregon transfer Tyler Shough after Shough’s season was cut short after breaking his left fibula against West Virginia in Week Four. Morton has not only stepped in, but secured his spot as the starter moving forward, as Shough entered the transfer portal after three years in a row of missing significant time as the starting quarterback of the Red Raiders.

Morton lacks the physical tools — or ideal health — to create a significant threat for this Texas defense. However, for a young quarterback he’s scrappy and likes to spread the ball around with 62.6 percent of his passes coming in the short game or behind the line of scrimmage.

Morton has only attempted 31 long balls, where he has converted on only 38.7 percent of passes over 20 yards. As the young quarterback continues to develop after being thrusted into the starting role, Kittley will likely keep his passes conservative and use the threat of the run game to open spaces in man and zone coverage.

Morton has only been awarded nine big-time throws on the season, meaning throws with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window. So basically, don’t expect Morton to wow anyone with incredible Patrick Mahomes-esque arm talent.

He’s done fine in protecting the football with only four interceptions in his eight games played and has been efficient with an adjusted completion percentage of 73.2 percent, totaling 1410 total passing yards for 12 touchdowns. He’s been serviceable for the Raiders this year, seeing improvement week to week, but certainly leans to the rushing attack that has been the main focus of this ball club.

Running back

Senior running back Tahj Brooks has been the heart and soul of this offense. Ranked the 18th-best running back in the nation, according to PFF, Brooks is currently the third-leading rusher in all of college football this season.

With 251 carries for 1,357 yards and nine touchdowns, Brooks has been the focal point for this offense as the lead back, dominating the backfield with 308 snaps compared to 40 from the next running back in the depth chart.

With great balance and strong legs, Brooks is often able to make something out of nothing on inside runs, as seen in the first quarter of the game against UCF where he came out of a congested pile for a 45-yard gain up the middle. Although he is not the fastest back in college football, Brooks is seemingly impossible to bring to the ground and able to gain tough yards for the Raiders.

With only 20 receptions for 70 yards, Brooks does not do much as a pass catcher out of the backfield

Wide receivers

This Texas Tech passing game does most of their work out of the slot, probably due to inefficiencies from their inexperienced second-string quarterback. As the offense is predicated on the running game behind Brooks, the play-action pass or run-pass option creates openings for their speedy slot receivers in the short game.

The Raiders spread the ball out a lot, not necessarily keying in on one receiver. So far, six receivers have brought in 20 or more receptions this year, although there are three top receivers that handle the bulk of the passing game for this offense.

Senior slot receiver Myles Price leads the team in touchdowns with five and receptions with 43 out of the slot, where he lines up 84.4 percent of the time. At 5’10 190 pounds, Price is not the tallest receiver, but uses his speed and quickness to get out of breaks well and create damage in the short and intermediate game. Drops have been an issue for Price as he leads the team with four.

Price sat out last week’s matchup against UCF with a shoulder injury, but is likely to get the go ahead against Texas this Friday.

Xavier White leads the team in receiving yards with 470 yards, also doing most of his work in the slot where he lines up 92.7 percent of the time. Standing at 6’0, 195 pounds, White is effective at creating space and making defenders miss in the open field, averaging 8.5 yards after catch this year for an average of 15.2 yards per reception on the year.

Jerand Bradley is the deep-threat option for the Raiders, lining up out wide on 82.1 percent of snaps. At 6’5, 220 pounds he is able to use his length to high-point balls and bring down contested catches over smaller defenders. He leads the team in contested targets with 10, securing eight of them. He’s built like a tight end, but is also fast on the outside, almost like a DK Metcalf-type of receiver. On the season he has totaled 36 receptions for 431 yards and four touchdowns.

Bradley is also used often in run blocking schemes, and can use his tall frames to block defensive backs and create holes. He lines up as a blocker on 39.3 percent of his snaps this season.

Offensive line

The Red raiders rely on their rushing game and get the ball out quickly on passes, leaving less margin for error for this offensive line. However, they have allowed 21 sacks this year — 1.8 per game and 1.7 in the last three games, making them the 60th team in the nation at protecting the quarterback.

Morton alone has been pressured 58 times and sacked 12 times in the eight games he has started. This is certainly not the most impressive offensive line in pass protection, however they have done enough to facilitate the run game and create gaps for Brooks.

The edges are handled by junior left tackle Monroe Mills (6’6, 315 pounds) and senior right tackle Caleb Rodgers (6’5, 310 pounds), who have played all 11 games this season.

Mills was given the highest pass-block grade on the line this year with a PFF score of 79.6. However, at times he struggles to stay in front of super athletic edge rushers, allowing one sack, 10 hurries, and 14 pressures this season while also struggling with penalties, leading the line with six so far on the season.

Rodgers is the most consistent run blocker on the offensive front, with the highest run-blocking grade of 66.7, but he is somewhat of a liability in pass protection, allowing three sacks, 13 pressures, and committing three penalties.

Senior center Rusty Staats (6’5, 320 pounds) mans the middle. He is an effective pass blocker, but struggles in dominating interior defensive linemen in the run game. So far on the season he has allowed three sacks, four hurries, and nine pressures.

The left guard is sophomore Jacoby Jackson (6’6, 320 pounds), who has been great for the Red Raiders this season, not allowing a single sack and only six pressures to register the second-highest pass-protection ranking on the team.

Senior right guard Dennis Wilburn (6’3, 325 pounds) rounds out the offensive line. While Wilburn missed the game against Oregon, he has been one of the more complete protectors on the team in run and pass protection with 1 sack allowed, six hurries, and 10 pressures.

Defense

Defensive Coordinator Tim DeRuyter enters his second season with the Red Raiders after an impressive 2022 campaign led by Tyree Wilson, who was taken with the seventh overall pick by the Las Vegas Raiders. Tech primarily runs hybrid 3-4, 3-3-5 scheme, highlighting their talented defensive secondary and linebackers.

The defense, more than anything, has been riddled with injuries, with five players showing up on this week’s injury report and two out for the season — senior defensive back Tyler Owens and senior linebacker Steve Linton.

Defensive line

DeRuyter and this defense use multiple rush schemes to get different positions to the quarterback. Therefore, the strength of this defensive line lies in their interior with seniors Tony Bradford and Jaylen Hutchings.

Bradford (6’1, 300 pounds) is the leader of this defensive front and the best pass rusher with 22 pressures, 4 sacks, 16 hurries — his big frame allows him to plug holes, but his speed allows him to affect the quarterback from the interior.

Bradford is flanked by Hutchings (6’0, 305 pounds), who has totaled 20 pressures, four sacks, and 14 hurries.

Linebackers

Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Roberts has been phenomenal for the Raiders despite his youth, leading the team in tackles with 87 and making 47 solo tackles, illustrating his ability to make tackles in the open field — PFF gave him a tackling grade of 90.4. He’s fast and hits hard with two forced fumbles on the season.

While the rest of the linebacking corps is relatively weak this season, mainly due to injury, the return of junior middle linebacker Jacob Rodriguez two weeks ago spurred improvement in the middle of this Red Raiders defense. Although Rodriguez was sidelined for the majority of the season with a sprained foot that he suffered in Week Two, he is the second-highest ranked defender for the Raiders and an impact player for this defense. He primarily lines up as a rush defender and is also effective plugging gaps in the run game with 15 tackles in the last two games.

Secondary

Senior safety Dadrion Taylor-Demerson is arguably the best overall player on this defense with the highest defensive rating by PFF on the team with 83.6. He leads the team with five pass deflections and four interceptions — he can be a ball hawk on the back end. Demerson primarily lines up as the free safety, but sometimes lines up covering the slot in single-high man coverages.

He is also an effective pass rush from the back of the secondary, recording one sack and seven pressure with a 91.4 pass rush grade. He can also make tackles in space as he leads the team in solo tackles with 48.

Demerson is flanked by junior safety C.J Baskerville, who lines up primarily in the slot, but seemingly plays anywhere on the field, moving from free safety to the box and even on the line as a pass rusher on occasion.

Like Demerson, Baskerville is great in the open field with 46 solo tackles on the year, only two missed tackles, and a PFF tackling grade of 91.1. He tends to get burned in coverage however, with opposing receivers bringing in 27-of-37 targets, a rate of 73 percent on the year.

Senior defensive back Malik Dunlap is the team’s best lockdown corner, allowing receptions to opposing receivers on only 55.3 percent of targets with four pass deflections and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a 56-yard touchdown. Dunlap lines up primarily on the opposing team’s best receiver, with 87.3 percent of his snaps lining up out wide on the corner.

Special teams

Overall, the special teams unit for the Raiders has been their best unit on the team with a PFF ranking of 86.1 — they have an electric return team that has one of the few kickoff returns for a touchdown in the nation. They are aggressive and like to return kicks that other programs would often leave to a fair catch or touchback.

Kicker

Senior place kicker Gino Garcia has handled the field goal duties for the Red Raiders and you might remember him trotting out on the field, because he is massive. The 6’2, 215-pound kicker has been perfect on point afters and has a boot with a long of 55 yards. He has also been automatic from within 40 yards this season, however has struggled on those longer than 40, going 4-of-9 on field goals of 40-plus yards.

Luckily for Texas fans, Garcia is not the kicker from last year who cashed the game-winning field goal in overtime last year.

Return

Drae McCray is the team’s kickoff return man and he has been phenomenal this year with 16 kick returns for 450 yards and a 102-yard kickoff return touchdown. PFF graded him with a 76.1 ranking for return ability, as he is lightning fast and aggressive at taking balls out of the end zone.

The punt return game is handled by Myles Price, which has been effective, but nothing too terribly spectacular. Price has returned 11 punts for 182 yards with a long of 43 and an average return of 16.5 yards. He has muffed a punt against West Virginia, but other than that has been the main punt return specialist for the team.

If Price isn’t able to go, look for White or Bradley to handle the punt-return duties.


Overall, Texas should have the upper hand in this matchup, however, Texas Tech not only always brings their A game against the Longhorns, but they have started to find a rhythm with their young quarterback, stringing together three straight wins against UCF, Kansas, and TCU.

The goal on defense for the Longhorns should be simple — to limit Brooks’ ability to run the ball. Their entire offensive philosophy this season has been predicated around the rushing attack, so if Texas can stop the run on first and second down, they can force the young quarterback Morton to make plays on third and long.

On offense Texas should have no issues protecting Quinn Ewers and creating holes for the running game. While Texas Tech’s ability to tackle in the open field has given them an ability to limit big plays, the Red Raiders have struggled in creating turnovers on the ground and in the air, so the Horns may test this injured Red Raider defense through the air and with creative plays for running back CJ Baxter. Try to dominate the time of possession and get the ball into the hands of your talented playmakers through the air.

Texas Tech will give everything they’ve got in this game, despite the disparity in talent between the two teams. With their ability to limit big plays, look for McGuire to keep this game in reach, albeit a long reach. Texas is favored by -14, so I’m laying the points. Texas Tech +14 and Texas ML.

The Longhorns are favored by 14 points, according to DraftKings.

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.