Expert Preview: ASU vs Texas Tech

Our comprehensive look at Arizona State vs Texas Tech provides perspective on the Red Raiders' offensive and defensive schemes and key personnel, as well as how the Sun Devils stack up, and a game prediction.

Texas Tech offensive scheme

One of the most prolific offenses in the country, Texas Tech has managed in the last several years to combine a potent Air Raid passing attack with a highly successful zone rushing offense which is enormously challenging for opponents to scheme against. Last season the Red Raiders finished 7-6 (4-5 in the Big-12) with a 45.1 scoring average, a league-leading 388.2 passing yards per game, and a second-place finish with 579.5 total yards per game.

While many Air Raid offenses have tended to throw the ball 70 or 80 percent of the time, the Red Raiders ran the football 43 percent of the time last season, and they weren't just doing it to keep defenses honest. Even out of base 10 and 20-personnel looks and with an absence of the tight end position, Texas Tech averaged 191.3 yards rushing per game and had a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, which was second in the Big-12 behind only Baylor.

As a senior last season, Deandre Washington had 1,492 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average. It was Washington's second 1,000-yard rushing season in a row. Those are better rushing numbers than any ASU running back in years, and the Sun Devils haven't had a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since Woody Green did it in the early 1970s. 

Fortunately for the Sun Devils, Washington has moved on to the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, and Texas Tech has been forced to replace three starters along an offensive front that helped enable that rushing success. There's already been a hint that Texas Tech's rushing attack may not be quite as potent in 2016, which would be at least some slight measure of relief for opposing defensive coordinators trying to figure out how to get enough players in the box to stop the run while also covering the myriad five-man route combinations the offense presents. 

The Red Raiders ran a remarkable 99 offensive plays -- a sign of their tremendous pace -- in their season-opening 69-17 thrashing of Stephen F. Austin last week. But only 28 of those plays were rushing attempts, a ratio that is much more in line with the types of Air Raid offenses ASU has faced in the Pac-12 against Washington State and especially Cal. 

In the days after that game, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said it doesn't matter to him how much his team runs the football as long as the offense continues to produce points at the same rate he's been accustomed to. This is still possible due to the prevalence of so-called run-replacement throws in the Air Raid scheme: passes that are shorter and have a very high completion percentage. 

A degraded run game capability would make things a little bit easier on opponents, however. It add more responsibility on the shoulders of junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is the leading returner in the Big-12 in total offense, at 393 yards of total offense per game. 

One of the challenges of facing Mahomes in the Air Raid offense is his play extension capability as both a passer and rusher. A lot of quarterbacks in this scheme tend to be less mobile and largely relegated to the pocket and as a result have to get the ball out more quickly. They often don't provide much, or any, run threat. Mahomes isn't like this at all. Texas Tech will intentionally work him outside the pocket to stress defenses or provide an additional passing capability, and he's also very improvisational. 

Defending this scheme is hard enough when there's a good quarterback operator and a capable rushing attack. But with Mahomes, it becomes much more challenging because he has to be accounted for in different ways, and there's a lot more potential for completions even after receivers have finished their routes. It's one thing for defensive backs to be successful for the initial route, but they'll then have to sustain that through a scramble phase with Mahomes that isn't an issue with other offenses like this. 

Texas Tech's wide receivers and offensive linemen aren't especially formidable (and 2015 top receiver Jakeem Grant is now with the Miami Dolphins). ASU's going to play equivalent or more athletic players most weeks in the Pac-12. But that's also part of the beauty of the Air Raid scheme. It is designed to offset a talent discrepancy much in the same way a triple-option rushing attack does, but at the far other end of the schematic spectrum. The strength of the Air Raid scheme isn't in how talented the linemen and receivers are. It's about how quickly the ball can be put in play, how fast the tempo is, how many routes a defense is forced to cover on an every-play basis, and how the offense maximizes spacing and coordination on the field among its route runners. 

As long as there is a really good quarterback and serviceable players at the rest of the positions who execute their assignments effectively, this is a challenging offense to face. 

Texas Tech key offensive personnel

Patrick Mahomes (No. 5) -- A 6-foot-3, 230 pound junior, Mahomes is one of the most productive returning quarterbacks in college football. Last season for the Red Raiders, Mahomes finished first in the Big-12 in total offense with 393 yards per game, first in passing yards with 357.9 per game (4,653 total), and tied for first in passing touchdowns with 36. He also rushed for 456 yards and 10 touchdowns, second on the team in both categories. Mahomes' ability to extend plays both to pass and run is elite, and when he becomes a rusher he does so at 230 pounds. He has to be licking his chops against an ASU defense that finished last nationally in 2015 in passing defense and 40-plus yard plays allowed. 

Justin Stockton (No. 4) --  At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Stockton is the type of versatile offensive piece the Red Raiders like to have at the running back position. As a junior he's stepping into a greater role because he's replacing Washington's huge numbers from the last two seasons. But Stockton has played a fair amount in his own right, and had 367 rushing yards and five touchdowns with a 6.0 yards-per-carry average last season and 22 catches for 341 yards and six touchdowns. ASU's going to be challenged to account for Stockton as a receiver out of the backfield as it's where he'll have the most opportunity to do damage. 

Devin Lauderdale (No. 6) -- Like a lot of Texas Tech receivers, Lauderdale is slightly put together at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds. The senior from Houston is very productive though, as last season he finished second on the team with 43 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns. Lauderdale is frequently used at the 'X' position, where he's a slant and fade specialist for the Red Raiders. Being small helps him win leverage working laterally and he does a good job of keeping press man coverage from getting hands on him, and getting an inside release even when cornerbacks are trying to prevent it. His 14.9 yards-per-catch average shows the big play capability exists, which makes him a tough cover. 

Ian Sadler (No. 12) -- A returning starter at the 'Y' position which is one of two slot roles in the 10 personnel base scheme, Sadler finished third on the team last year with 42 catches for 596 yards and three touchdowns, while managing an impressive 14.2 yards-per-play. He's technically one of the best route runners on an offense that had 17 players catch a pass in the team's season opener. Sadler isn't a speed player who is going to rip ASU at the seam but he's elusive in space. 

Reginald Davis (No. 2) -- One of Tech's most experienced players and best athletes, Davis is a 6-foot, 185-pound senior who plays outside at the 'Z' position. Last season he finished second on the team with eight touchdown receptions and had 538 receiving yards with 38 catches. Davis is one of the top big play perimeter threats on the offense, with good balance and precise route running. 

Texas Tech offensive line -- The Red Raiders start three new players including two redshirt freshmen offensive tackles, Terrence Steele (No. 78) at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds on the left side, and Madison Akamnonu, (No. 58) 6-foot-5, 310 pounds on the right side. ASU will test both from quick-pass rushes by junior Koron Crump and sophomore Joseph Wicker and also attempt to overload one side of the line as well with pass rushers. Baylen Brown (No. 65) is a 6-foot-5, 305-pounder who started at right tackle last year but is now left guard and Tony Morales (No. 51) is a 6-foot-3, 295-pound redshirt senior center. 

ASU defense against Texas Tech offense

One of the biggest challenges in this game for ASU coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is how to best account for Mahomes' mobility and improvisation while not sacrificing too much from a coverage standpoint. These coaches have said Texas Tech's version of the Air Raid is similar to Washington State, but the Cougars haven't a quarterback with nearly the run threat capability of Mahomes. 

What the Sun Devils have tended to do against this offense is play in a 4-2-5 with either a hybrid safety/linebacker at Spur like Laiu Moeakiola or with a dime defender on the field as well with only one true linebacker. They've tended to cover running backs releasing into routes with the WILL 'backer and use SAM backer Salamo Fiso as an underneath zone defender who often attempts to re-route receivers working into his area on shallow crossing routes. 

ASU won't have Fiso in this game and also very likely won't have WILL Christian Sam due to a right ankle injury. They'll also not have Spur Marcus Ball for the first half following a targeting disqualification against Northern Arizona. 

What we'll almost certainly see from ASU on a lot of base downs is what it calls its "Cheetah" package, an ultra-light personnel grouping usually reserved for third down and medium or long situations. This is essentially a dime (six defensive backs) defense. Up front, the Sun Devils are looking at pairing sophomore end Joseph Wicker and junior tackle Tashon Smallwood with junior Devil backer Koron Crump and junior Devil/end Alani Latu, with Latu playing inside in an effort to attack the interior gaps with speed to get into the backfield quickly. 

The Sun Devils will start D.J. Calhoun in an inside 'backer role and defensive back Tyler Whiley at Spur with Moeakiola as a strong safety playing in a lot of man coverages tight to the line of scrimmage. Behind this they'll have two cornerbacks, senior De'Chavon Hayes and sophomore Kareem Orr, and two back-line safeties, sophomore Armand Perry and Chad Adams

ASU will use a variety of defensive coverages depending on personnel grouping and down and distance tendencies. In the past they've played a lot of Cover 1 defense against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl loss and Washington State, with one safety over the top of a mix of man and zone underneath. We may see some less aggressive shells in this game, particularly if there is a struggle to handle man coverage assignments on the perimeter. ASU's tended to give up too many slants even when playing inside leverage with its cornerbacks, so that will be something important to watch in this game. 

There's been a struggle at times to handle running backs on routes and Calhoun's role in this regard is very important. When Texas Tech goes to 20-personnel ASU has to be careful about blitzing in a way that leaves it exposes to uncovered backs, particularly working across the formation, or in screen release elements working laterally or vertically. 

Overall there is an extreme risk vs. reward element to pressures against this defense. Overload blitzing with six players has not worked effectively and often led to big plays for Tech, Washington State and Cal. Spying Mahomes' vertical run threat with an underneath zone defender is important, particularly when ASU also has to cover running back routes that work into the flat. This will be a severe threat for Hayes, Orr, Moeakiola, Whiley, Adams, Perry, second-team safety J'Marcus Rhodes, and nickel corner Robbie Robinson who could see more action if Whiley or Moeakiola isn't performing effectively. 

Texas Tech defensive scheme

Defense is not what the Red Raiders are known for, particularly after a 2015 season that saw them yield 44 or more points in eight games and 55-plus points in five games. Oklahoma State scored 70, Baylor scored 63, Oklahoma State scored 60, LSU scored 56 and TCU scored 55. Any way you slice it, that's just bad defense, even when you have a team that puts a lot of pressure on its defense by its offensive style and ability to generate a lot of points and force tempo. 

Overall, Texas Tech's total defense and scoring defense were next-to-last in the Big-12 at 548.7 yards and 43.6 points, respectively. It was dead last in rushing defense at 280.5 yards allowed per game. 

Kingsbury hired former Houston coordinator David Gibbs prior to the 2015 season to try to turn things around for the Red Raiders but there was not much success in the first year of the transition. Gibbs has an extensive background as a coordinator and defensive backs coach and has been multiple with his scheme depending on where he's been and the type of personnel he's working with. 

At Houston, Gibbs used a lot of 4-3 but this Texas Tech defense has tended to be an odd-front defense that uses base 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks depending on opponent type and situation. At times last year against spread teams the Red Raiders even went to two down linemen in some ultra-light personnel groupings.

In the season opening 69-17 win over Stephen F. Austin the Red Raiders chose to go with a 3-3-5 base nickel grouping against a spread offense that used a lot of four wide receiver formations out of 10-personnel. Against ASU, and particularly in light of its struggles against the run last season, we'll perhaps see the 3-4 look with an extra linebacker in the game on base downs. 

The Red Raiders play a style of football on this side of the ball that is designed to pair well with their offensive approach. They tend to use a lot of conservative zone coverages and only rush four defenders, with cornerbacks that play off. You'll see a lot of eyes peering into the offensive backfield and reading the opposing quarterback, in this case sophomore Manny Wilkins for ASU. 

Gibbs' approach is about trying to generate turnovers by unforced quarterback errors. He wants opponents to have to thread the needle through zone defenders at multiple levels in their passing game. This approach did increase Texas Tech's takeaways last season, which is something Gibbs has tended to be able to do throughout his coaching career. Texas Tech generated 25 turnovers last season, which tied for fourth in the Big-12, including 15 interceptions. 

Only on third downs do we tend to see Gibbs bring his cornerbacks to the line of scrimmage to play bump and press techniques and occasionally ramp up some pressures, which usually include a so-called "rush" linebacker along with one of a few other linebackers or in-the-box defensive backs. 

What proved very limiting to Gibbs with his approach last season was the putrid run defense. Opponents frequently didn't have to take more chances in the passing game on first and second downs because they'd be on schedule throughout drives due to an ability to move the football with ease on the ground. Only if they can show improvement in that area in 2016 will the conservative coverage schemes lead to an even greater amount of turnovers as Gibbs' defenses have been able to do at times in the past. 

Knowing this, Texas Tech took two Division I defensive line transfers to attempt to shore up its capability at the point of attack. Nose guard Ondre Pipkins is a physical anchor at 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds who transferred from Michigan and has immediately become one of the team's best defensive pro prospects. Hybrid end/outside linebacker Kolin Hill is only 250 pounds at 6-foot-2, but the Notre Dame transfer played with his hand in the ground next to Pipkins in the opener and showed a good combination of stoutness and quickness. 

Gibbs will need these defensive interior players to hold up against ASU's interior runs, and then he'll need his defensive backs, and in particular two returning safety starters who are among the better defensive players, sophomore Jah'Shawn Johnson and senior Keenon Ward, to make plays on the back end. 

Texas Tech key defensive personnel

Ondre Pipkins (No. 9) -- Central to the Red Raiders' goal of being much-improved against the run this season, Pipkins is a stout, difficult to move nose guard. He's not going to make a lot of flash plays and that's not why he's in the lineup. Gibbs wants Pipkins to sit into double teams at the point of attack without yielding ground and be able to compress the pocket and mess with the rhythm and sync of ASU's inside running plays. If Pipkins is able to hold his ground and make it tougher for ASU's interior linemen to climb up to linebackers, he's done his job. If you see Texas Tech's linebackers coming downhill unmolested into the interior gaps, that's a problem for the Sun Devils. Pipkins tied for the team high with five tackles, one of which went for a loss in the opener. 

Kolin Hill (No. 13) -- A linebacker prospect out of high school who quickly dropped down from Notre Dame to Texas Tech, Hill gained 15 pounds in the last year in an effort to become a 3-point defensive end with enough athleticism and heft to be a full service player. Just a sophomore, he appears on the way to accomplishing this goal based on his performance in the opener against Stephen F. Austin, as he had a sack and yet was strong against the run. 

Breiden Fehoko (No. 4) -- A defensive tackle who earned honorable mention Big-12 honors last season as a true freshman, Fehoko started in all 13 games. That's really hard to do, but Fehoko is a naturally strong and physically mature player at 295 pounds and 6-foot-3. He's got a good motor and linear quickness with the ability to press into gaps and take advantage of well leveraged plays. There's not a lot of wiggle here or pass rush skill, so the key thing is top not get beaten off the snap by Fehoko. He's sort of like ASU's Viliami Latu. 

Jahshawn Johnson (No. 7) -- One of the best overall athletes on film for the Red Raiders, Johnson started all 13 games last season and finished third on the team with 85 tackles. At 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Johnson has a great blend of coverage ability in both man and zone looks, and physical toughness. He is a prototype player in Texas Tech's scheme which is turnover-focused, and not surprisingly Johnson was involved in a lot of takeaways. He had four recovered fumbles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. He also had a lot of passes defended for a safety. 

Keenon Ward (No. 15) -- Though undersized at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, Ward is a very solid all-around safety. His first-half interception against Stephen F. Austin was near the goal line and perhaps saved a touchdown. He started last season in seven games and had 60 tackles. A senior, Ward is a further along version of what ASU's hoping to get from junior Chad Adams in a similar role. 

Justis Nelson (No. 31) -- Nelson is relied upon in Tech's base 3-3-5 looks and in nickel situations. He's been a hit-or-miss player who will play an important role in this game as it's the same position on the field where Manny Wilkins threw an interception against Northern Arizona. At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Nelson is more of a coverage player than a physical presence and he could also be someone ASU tries to run at on base downs. 

ASU offense against Texas Tech defense

This game is going to be an important harbinger of ASU's season with regard to its run game. Even with Texas Tech's upgraded defense front with Pipkins and Hill, it's a defense the Sun Devils should be able to run on, and must be able to run on in order to provide confidence about its rushing attack heading into Pac-12 play. 

Texas Tech is going to present six man defensive boxes that will provide ASU with a numbers advantage to run the football. With the strength of ASU's offense being junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, and because of the need to take more pressure off Wilkins and maintain dimensionality, the Sun Devils are going to need better performance from its offensive line. 

In particular we'll be watching how ASU performs with its interior offensive linemen, and especially at center, where junior A.J. McCollum may get his first start. Whether it's McCollum or senior Stephon McCray, the Sun Devils need to be able to control the line of scrimmage better in the run game. McCollum, McCray and sophomore left guard Sam Jones could form the interior, especially if redshirt freshman right tackle Zach Robertson isn't able to play due to an ankle injury. These guys need to show that they're not just position blockers, but have the ability to use brute force to manipulate defensive linemen, and in particular Pipkins in the A-gap. 

Having a strong rushing attack can help the Sun Devils take some air out of the football and keep their defense off the field and limit the number of snaps Texas Tech is able to pile up on offense. Controlling the pace of the game is important and actually incumbent upon ASU's offense just as much as its defense. Being able to successfully run the ball also will allow ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey more play-calling options and help him to not expose Wilkins to increased danger. 

Wilkins has to make sure he's accounting for underneath zone defenders and not making jeopardy throws. He's had a tendency to not identify likely zone players pre-snap, and then lock onto his desired receiver post-snap. Texas Tech has the ability to take advantage of this via its coverage scheme and overall ethos. 

Ultimately, ASU may need to show more of a big play capability in this game to stay in step with Texas Tech's offense. Showing some ability to compete the ball down the field, even against a conservative zone on early downs, may become a reality if ASU gets behind by a couple touchdowns. 

Prediction

If this game was played after ASU had an easier Air Raid opponent like Cal, it would be easier to pick the Sun Devils, particularly if the team was at full strength with Sam, Fiso and Ball all available and Moeakiola at full strength. That isn't the case though in either regard and Wilkins has had but one start, with Lindsey shrinking things down for him in that game. 

Texas Tech has the ability to score the ball at a good clip even against pretty solid defenses but the Sun Devils struggled last year defensively against the pass and haven't proven they're ready to be significantly improved in that regard this season, just yet. Until they do, it's tough to pick them in this type of game. I think Texas Tech wins by about a touchdown-and-a-half, 44-33. 


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