With praise coming all week from Arizona State coaches and players, there’s no doubt all eyes will be on Texas Tech junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Red Raiders' Air Raid offense Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU head coach Todd Graham has repeatedly stressed the skill set of Mahomes, who he compared to current Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum on Tuesday. On Wednesday, ASU defensive coordinator went as far to compare Mahomes to Magic Johnson and Brett Favre.
But despite all the comparisons and speculation, there’s really no telling what type of numbers the Texas Tech offense might put up against ASU under Mahomes and fourth-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
“It (the offense) goes really fast and they screen you from sideline to sideline,” Graham said. “Roll it this way, throw it back over here, it’s a very different type of football than from what you normally play. Even the different teams are different, but this team is more like Washington State, except I think more talented in the skill positions. This is definitely a formidable opponent for us, a challenge for us, because their strength is a challenge for us, but that’s what we do, rise to the challenge.”
In Texas Tech’s home opener against Stephen F. Austin, Mahomes went 30-for-43 for 483 yards and four touchdowns through the air and rushed for 57 yards and two touchdown scores. Last season, Mahomes led the nation in total offense with 393 yards per game and was fourth in passing, averaging 357.9 yards.
“He (Mahomes) is extremely hard to get down,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “He’s a 235-pound kid, very athletic, and just has that quarterback sense that he feels that pressure and somehow has a very unique ability to get back outside of containment and when he does, boy hold onto your hat.”
Patterson said Mahomes -- who had 10 rushing touchdowns in addition to nearly 500 yards last season -- possesses the ability to evade pressure, clear the pocket, and make plays on the run, which are talents most quarterbacks don’t have.
In their season opener against SFA, the Red Raiders torched the Lumberjacks with 758 yards of total offense -- 633 yards of which came through the air -- in a 69-17 victory. That marked the 17th consecutive game the Red Raiders have scored at least 25 points, the longest active streak in the country.
ASU sophomore safety Armand Perry made note of the 99 plays Texas Tech ran on Saturday and with the Red Raiders being an Air Raid team, most of those plays were quick screens and deep shots downfield.
Perry said the secondary knows and is prepared for the notion that most teams “are going to want to attack” ASU’s secondary with vertical shots this season because it was last in passing yards allowed last year.
“As a secondary, that’s what you want,” ASU freshman cornerback Robbie Robinson said. “Somebody to come in here and pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball. I mean we have a great secondary, really talented. I think we’re ready. It will be a good test. They will come into our home, our home base, so we will have home field advantage so it will be a good time. Get the opportunity to get some hands on some balls. Come down with some interceptions and show the world the 'Dark Side' is ready to prove it’s one of the best defensive groups.”
Against Air Raid teams in the past, like Washington State, ASU has often played in a base nickel defense. But this week, players are keeping their cards close to their chest.
Robinson, who earned the first-team nickel corner position, would be one of a small group of players whose playing time would increase from this type of schematic look.
“I mean it’s whatever the scheme is for the game,” Robinson said. “I’ll make the most out of my opportunities. Of course I love it. I get on the field more, but whatever they think is best that’s what we are going to do.”
Despite whatever defensive look the Sun Devils will try and use to defend the Air Raid, Patterson said Texas Tech “probably runs and execute screens as well as anybody else in the country.”
Comparing nuances of spread offenses, Patterson said Texas Tech will be similar to NAU in that it took about 1.5 seconds to get the ball out for the Lumberjacks, which is a time that should be the average for the Red Raiders.
Last season, Texas Tech actually ran the ball a fair amount with 464 of its 1,084 total plays being on the ground. The Red Raiders were No. 6 in the Big 12 in rushing, but second in rushing average behind Baylor with 5.4 yards per rush.
Then-senior DeAndre Washington carried the ball 233 times for 1,492 yards and 14 touchdowns. He finished second in the Big 12 in rushing and averaged 114.8 yards per game. He also caught an additional 41 passes for 385 yards.
While Texas Tech loses Washington, the Red Raiders still have junior running back Justin Stockton, who last season had 61 carries for 367 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 6.0 yards per rush.
“They definitely throw the ball to run it, to set up the run which is difficult, but it’s typical of spread offenses in this day, throw it and spread you from sideline to sideline and make you tackle in place,” Patterson said. “The thing that is misleading about their run game to me, every time they snap the ball and throw it to the perimeter, that's a run play for them. A lot of underneath bubble screens, hit screens, running back swing screens, things like that then they get you chasing the ball."
While all Air Raid offenses have slight wrinkles implemented by coaches, ASU senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said Texas Tech’s offense under Kingsbury is more of a five-wide spread team that throws the ball the majority of the time.
Despite 17 receivers recording a catch in the Red Raiders season opener against SFA, Texas Tech lost its top wide receiver last year, Jakeem Grant. Grant had 90 catches for 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Texas Tech does have two of its top wide receivers returning, senior Devin Lauderdale and junior Ian Sadler. Combined, they had 85 catches for 1,235 yards last season. Against SFA, Lauderdale had seven catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
“He (Mahomes)’s got really good receivers so we got to do a good job,” Graham said. “The biggest thing for us is just keeping it in front of us, making them earn it and don’t give up balls over the top so that’s going to be the challenge. And score.”
Along with Mahomes and his plethora of receivers, the Red Raiders' offensive line is also getting some attention. Texas Tech lost three of its offensive linemen from last season and has two redshirt tackles -- Terence Steele and Madison Akamnonu -- in starting roles on the line.
Patterson said Texas Tech has the biggest offensive linemen he has ever seen, and that the Red Raiders use a simple protection plan and know how to execute it to a tee. Add in a skilled and mobile quarterback like Mahomes, and really, the offensive line has a simple job.
“The thing is, just like always they recruit the largest human beings they can find and they teach them how to back up and then the ball comes out quick and you got to spend time running around them and they just look like any Washington State team I’ve ever seen, every Texas Tech team I’ve ever seen,” Patterson said.
Patterson said ASU won’t spend a lot of time looking at the Red Raiders' offensive line, but believes there are certain matchups that will go in the Sun Devils' favor if executed properly.
Texas Tech's defense
While Texas Tech’s offense will be in the spotlight on Saturday, its defense could also pose an intriguing challenge for ASU with a lot of turnover along its defensive line and in the linebacker corps.
Last year, Texas Tech’s defense as a whole was often the main cause of frustration among fans who saw the strength of the Red Raiders offense, but with so many new faces this year on defense, the pieces are just starting to come together.
“I think they’ve made a big step with their guys and they had some good players last year and had a good defense last year, but I think they got a good group this year as well, a good active group,” ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said.
Replacing four of its top five defensive linemen this season, Texas Tech added two grad transfers in Michigan transfer nose tackle Ondre Pipkins and Notre Dame defensive end transfer Kolin Hill. Pipkins had two tackles and a sack in his debut and Hill recorded five tackles against SFA.
“No. 9 from Michigan (Pipkins) is very physical and then the kid from Notre Dame (Hill) is very physical and those are two big additions for them,” Thomsen said. “And No. 4, (sophomore defensive lineman) Breiden Fehoko is a tough player and so you mix all those guys in and they got some other big strong bodies in there. They did a really good job in their first game, it will be a great challenge for us.”
Last season, the Red Raiders defense gave up 6.2 yards rushing per play and 280 rushing yards per game. Fehoko was one of Texas Tech’s key run stoppers on the inside, recording 19 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and one interception. On film, Texas Tech typically runs a 3-3-5, with three down linemen in the trenches.
“Very athletic defensive line, smart and disciplined,” senior defensive lineman Evan Goodman said regarding the defensive line. “They work hard, they finish, and they don’t take any plays off.”
Pipkins in particular will pose a challenge to ASU’s interior linemen, with junior A.J. McCollum potentially earning the start at center alongside sophomore Sam Jones and senior Stephon McCray as the guards.
“He (McCollum) has made a lot of progress and he played some in the first game and did really well with the reps that he got so we will figure out before game time who will really play at that position,” Thomsen said.
Goodman said he felt the entire offensive line worked together and did really well against NAU, crediting the conditioning work players put in during the offseason.
Looking at Texas Tech’s defense as a whole, ASU wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said it doesn’t do a lot of things schematically and instead tries to be sound in coverage and not give up big plays. Keeping that in mind, Norvell said ASU will have to execute and move the ball well to take advantage of their drives.
“They do play some coverage on first and second down and then when they go to third down you see a different personnel, you see more man more bump and run so our kids have studied hard,” Norvell said.
Novel said he believes ASU will be much better against Texas Tech after a lot of young players -- namely sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins and freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry -- just got their feet wet in ASU's home opener.
"It’s a team (Texas Tech) that I’m very familiar with, being in the Big 12 all these years and they are always fun to play,” Norvell said. “They are always wild games. They are very, very good offensively so it’s always affected their defense and because they try to get the ball back for their offense. We got to do a good job.”
Sophomore safety Jahshawn Johnson is one of the Red Raiders' top returning defensive players. As a freshman last year, he had 85 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four fumble recoveries, five passes defended and three pass breakups.
Joining Johnson in the secondary is safety Keenon Ward, who came up with a big interception against SFA in their season opener. Last year, Ward had 60 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and four passes defended.
When Texas Tech is in base nickel, its main hybrid player and base cornerback is senior defensive back Justin Nelson, who recorded 44 tackles and two interceptions last season. He is one of seven Red Raiders who had at least one interception last season.
Looking at the linebacker corps, ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said nothing specifically stands out to him as far as matchups go with ASU receivers and Texas Tech linebackers, but the Red Raiders' size could cause complications.
“To me they look kind of small, I mean not small, but not as big as I am I would say so that’s a benefit, but it’s also hard for leverage reasons and they can be faster and things like that,” Kohl said. “Not too special or crazy from them.”
Against SFA, Texas Tech forced three turnovers and recorded five sacks while allowing 17 points - its fewest points allowed since 2013.
“(They are) not really a big blitz team, but got some nice guys, got a couple true freshmen playing right now, got a couple returning starters,” junior running back Demario Richard said. “Disciplined defense, well-coached. Well coached defense. We are excited and can’t wait to play.”
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said the Red Raiders' defense was “athletic and fast” and improved from last season when the unit was near last in the nation in rushing yards allowed (280) and the defense gave up 46.8 points per game.
“They’re used to going against tempo I think every day, you can see that,” Lindsey said. “(Texas Tech defensive coordinator David) Gibbs does a great job. I’ve known him for awhile. He was at Auburn one time when I was growing up in the south and coaching in the south. Got a lot of respect for him. He’s been at the highest level so we are going to really have to play well and execute to score some points."