Seeing Red: Pack and Raiders Share Same Challenges

TSW special contributor, Brett Wetsell, did a little checking and found that Texas Tech and NC State are on similar paths in their effort to reach the top. Saturday, one will show who has traveled the furthest.

When NC State and Texas Tech square off this Saturday in Lubbock, TX, each might as well be looking in the mirror. Certainly, on the surface the similarities are obvious:
  • both teams wear red,
  • each has as its principal rival a liberal arts school obsessed with itself and the trendy town it resides in
  • each can lay claim to a basketball coach with a reputation for wild, unrestrained tantrums on and off the court.
But beyond team colors or the shared traits of Austin and Chapel Hill, Texas Tech and NC State prove to have even more in common on the football field. Since 1997, Texas Tech and NC State have accumulated records of 33-26 and 34-25, respectively. Both are starting over at running back after losing a 4-year starter. Both hired new coaches in 2000, and both coaches have taken their squads to bowl games in each of their first two years. Both offenses pass the ball prolifically, and both feature talented quarterbacks in their third season as starter. Both teams need to win saturday to prove they can beat quality out-of-conference competition.

Programs On the Rise
Coach Mike Leach arrived at Texas Tech with big expectations, for his team and from the fans. After transforming Oklahoma's #101-ranked offense to #11 in the nation in just one year, Leach was tabbed as the successor to 13-year head coach Spike Dykes. Over the past decade Texas Tech has fielded competitive teams in one of the country's toughest football conferences. But Leach has greater plans, hoping to have Texas Tech mentioned in the same breath as Big 12 BCS hopefuls Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Texas Tech faithful hope Leach's pass-first offense can lead the way. Last year the Red Raiders had the best passing offense in the Big 12, and this year are ranked 7th in the nation in passing yds/game.

Chuck Amato was also hired away from a conference powerhouse, ACC bully Florida State. Unlike Leach, Amato came from the defensive side of the ball. He has wasted no time turning around NC State, and fans hope 2002 could be the year Amato's vision of NC State as a national contender begins to be realized. Amato's staff, including offensive coordinator Marty Galbraith, have engineered a highly potent offense, with the Pack averaging 41.3 points per game this year, albeit against poor competition. Make no mistake, though, the Pack's offense is a far cry from the pass-happy Red Raiders. Whereas NC State is known to line up with four wide receivers, Texas Tech starts four wide receivers.

When Your Back Isn't Back
Texas Tech's Ricky Williams was a former Heisman Candidate and one of the most dangerous runners in the country. Ray Robinson was 1999 ACC Rookie of the Year and one of the league's most elusive runners out of the backfield. Now, both schools have had to fill the voids their backs left, and both haven chosen to do so with a running back-by-committee approach. Texas Tech rotates two primary backs, junior Foy Munlin and redshirt freshman Taurean Henderson, while NC State rotates its trio of Greg Golden, T.A. McLendon and Josh Brown.

Looking at the Raiders' penchant for airing it out, it might seem that the Raiders would not suffer too greatly from the loss of Williams. After all, last year Texas Tech only averaged 81.9 rushing yards per game. But so far the loss has been felt, as the Raiders' rushing average has dropped to just 61.3 ypg. NC State, on the other hand, hasn't lost a step, its rotation matching Robinson's 3.5 yards per carry with 3.6 this year, and Robinson's 111.6 ypg with a 146.0, again with the asterisk of NC State's easy early schedule..

The offenses of both teams utilize their tailbacks in similar ways within the passing game, often calling flares and sweep passes near the line of scrimmage instead of directly handing off the ball. This was evident in receiving totals for both backs, as each led his team in receptions. Texas Tech, however, passed to its back with far greater frequency, last year completing 92 passes to Williams, as opposed to the 52 catches made by Robinson. After rushing for 143.8 ypg and making only 18 receptions in 1998 under Coach Dykes (he missed 1999 with a knee injury), Williams appeared to have little trouble adjusting to Leach's new offense, catching 42 more balls than the nearest teammate.

This year NC State's backs have caught 2.75 passes per game and averaged 31.5 receiving ypg, close to Robinson's average of 34.2, but nearly half his 4.73 receptions per game. On the other hand, Texas Tech's backs have been unable to match any of Ricky Williams' eye-popping stats, so far making 5.3 grabs per game and averaging 39.0 receiving ypg, compared to Willams' numbers of 8.36 and 56.1.

Both offenses have clearly been affected by the loss of their starting tailback, but NC State would seem to be transitioning to its new backfield easier than Texas Tech. Of course, in all fairness, NC State didn't have to replace Williams, and perhaps had the easier task.

Passing Expectations
Both Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and NC State's Philip Rivers drive the most powerful passing attack in their conferences. Rivers, a 6-5/236 junior, was 2000 ACC Rookie of the Year, and is tied for the NCAA lead in touchdowns scored this year. Kingsbury, a 6-4/210 senior, recently moved past Major Applewhite for most career yards passing in the Big 12, and moved past Eric Crouch into second for most total yards. Neither is exactly a threat to run, but both are extremely accurate passers. Last year Kingsbury tossed only 9 ints and earned a passing rating of 136.8, and Rivers threw only 7 ints and earned a rating of 134.8.

Both QB's are would-be Heisman hopefuls, and might make more noise in the race if their teams can achieve the level of success schools like Miami and Florida did last year. Leach's offense made candidates out of Josh Heupel at Oklahoma and Tim Couch at Kentucky, and might do the same for Kingsbury. Saturday's out of conference matchup will be a chance for both QB's to compete for the exposure that neither has received outside of his school's region.

A Special Game
Surprisingly, the game just might hinge on the performance of special teams, another shared strength of both programs. Each coach has made a specific effort for his team to play especially strong on what Leach terms the "third side of the ball," and this emphasis has paid off for both.

NC State excels in stopping the kicking game, and is led by Terrence Holt, who already has blocked two kicks this year. Texas Tech's greatest special teams strength is its kicking game. Punter Clinton Greathouse was named Big 12 Co-Special Teams Player of the Week after booming five punts for an average of 51.6 yards, and pinning all but one of those kicks inside the 6-yard line. The Raiders feature a dangerous return game as well, as 5-9 junior speedster Wes Welker returned a punt 71 yards for a TD last week against Ole Miss.

Including this game, NC State will have played a team from Texas each of the last five seasons. The Pack kicked off the Texas tour with that infamous 1998 loss to Baylor one week after upsetting Florida State. Road games at SMU, Baylor, and against a poor 1999 Texas team have all given NC State tough matches in the past. Though the Pack lost only one of them, it will face its first test against true Lone Star State football this weekend.

Like NC State, Texas Tech is a football program loaded with talent and on the rise. Unlike NC State, Texas Tech plays in the Big 12. Unlike Texas Tech, NC State is ranked. The Red Raiders need this game to prove they are better than a ranked team from a historically weaker conference, and NC State needs this game to prove it is good enough to win against big-time competition on the road. Saturday, two teams like in direction and style will reflect the same opportunity to each.

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