The Red Raiders were sweating the opening exams of the season perhaps more than any team in America. And that's because there was so much uncertainty going in. To begin with, Tech entered with a brand new, 34-year-old coach who had never been a head coach at any level. The Red Raiders were breaking in an almost entirely new coaching staff, including a new defensive coordinator. And perhaps most worrisome of all, Tech was led into the game by a true freshman walk-on quarterback. It is believed that Baker Mayfield's start in that capacity is a first among BCS conference programs.
And you thought that ISQS test was rough.
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield was a smash hit. He completed 72 percent of his passes for 413 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and he rushed for another score. Mayfield showed strong command of the offense from the very first drive, and improved considerably as the game progressed. He was decisive, knew where he wanted to go with the football, demonstrated a very quick release and a strong arm. Mayfield also showed real touch when the play called for it. He threw perhaps three or four bad passes all game. His only significant errors were holding onto the ball too long on a couple of occasions, which resulted in a pair of fumbles. Still, he dealt with the pass rush reasonably well.
Running Backs: As expected, the only backs to get carries were Kenny Williams and Deandre Washington. And to tell the truth, it was not an impressive outing by supposedly one of Tech's strongest positions. Williams ran as if through wet cement, and he was tentative as well. Washington showed some spark on his four carries, but still averaged only a bit over two yards per tote. He also dropped a screen pass on Tech's first offensive series. To be fair, Tech's line didn't do Williams and Washington many favors, but then the best backs have the ability to make something out of nothing. Williams and Washington didn't do that.
Receivers: This group put forth a pretty dominating performance despite doing without Jace "Z-28" Amaro in the first half. But the beginning wasn't entirely auspicious. Jordan Davis was guilty of an illegal shift and a dropped pass on Tech's first drive. That drop may have been the difference between a field goal and a touchdown. Then an Eric Ward hold negated Baker Mayfield's touchdown keeper. (Ward would have another hold later in the game.) But Davis and Ward made up for their mistakes in a big way. Davis hauled in Tech's first touchdown of the season and Ward owned the second half of the game, finishing with 13 receptions for 150 yards. It was an All Conference start for Ward. Bradley Marquez quietly had a very good game, and Jakeem Grant did a bit of everything, including blocking and running from a backfield set. Amaro was a presence on one of Tech's second half drives.
Offensive Line: There were concerns about this group going into the game, and the concerns remain. Run blocking, particularly off-tackle, was almost nonexistent. Le'Raven Clark, Tech's All American candidate at left tackle, gave up a sack, and the other tackle, Rashad Fortenberry, had his troubles as well. A modestly talented and experienced SMU defensive line managed to put considerable pressure on the slippery Mayfield, and the Mustangs put him on the deck four times. That is not acceptable. As for the positives, the line showed some improvement as the game wore on, and run blocking by the interior of the line was decent at times. Furthermore, James Polk did a very good job for Beau Carpenter, who left the game with an injury in the second half.
Defensive Line: Outside of the ubiquitous Kerry Hyder, Tech's defensive linemen didn't make an obvious splash. Hyder was his customary disruptive self, and was probably the best defensive player on the field. But otherwise, not too much action for the line. Dartwan Bush seemed to be in the backfield a lot, but was credited with no quarterback pressures and only one assisted tackle. Dennell Wesley got no tackles, but did bat down a pair of passes. But far more important, the defensive line as a unit largely controlled the line of scrimmage and freed up Tech's linebackers to have a very big night. The line played bigger than its stat line.
Linebackers: Going into the season I had an inkling that the linebackers might be Tech's surprise unit, and the performance against SMU suggests I was right. This group, and in particular Will Smith, Pete Robertson and Micah Awe, did an excellent job of coming on delayed blitzes. They played havoc with SMU's passing game, and were a huge factor in Tech's five sacks. Battening on solid line play, the linebackers combined for 46 tackles, although a few of those came on special teams. Terrance Bullitt got burned on coverage a few times, but otherwise played well, and he came through without injury. As a unit, the linebacker really ran to the ball, and played with enthusiasm. And Robertson was a good, physical presence.
Secondary: At first blush, it might appear that the secondary had a bad game. Garrett Gilbert completed a very high percentage of his passes, the secondary broke up only one pass and got zero interceptions. And while it's true that Tech's defensive backs were not terrific, they basically did what they had to do. Their coverage was tight enough to prevent much yardage after the catch; they tackled well and didn't give up explosive plays. It is significant that SMU didn't score a touchdown through the air.
Special Teams: What stood out here was punt and kickoff coverage. The Red Raiders simply blanketed and stuffed SMU's return men. The Mustangs averaged four yards per punt return and 17 yards on kickoff returns. That is flat out getting it done. Another positive was Ryan Bustin answering some questions by knocking home a pair of field goals, one from 43 yards out. Ryan Erxleben's punts were inconsistent, but he wound up averaging 43 yards on six boots. Tech allowing the Mustangs to recover an on-sides kick in garbage time detracts from an otherwise outstanding performance. So do a muffed punt and a couple of penalties