Tech Defense Turns the Tables on Sorry Script

A rested and feisty Texas Tech defense answered the bell Monday against a prolific Arizona State offense and is a major reason why the Red Raiders pulled off the 37-23 upset in the Holiday Bowl. Senior linebacker Will Smith (pictured) was named Defensive MVP after tallying 14 tackles, two for loss.

Admit it, Red Raider fans. You were cringing behind the coffee table, waiting for the inevitable collapse. Like the mutt that had been beaten too much, or Damocles with the rapier poised above his head, you were wondering when the Tech defense, inevitably, would come undone and break your heart yet again.

There were certainly signs enough that it would happen. With 7:52 remaining in the first half, Arizona State running back D. J. Foster sashayed into the end zone, pretty as you please, and cut Tech's 21-point lead to 14. It was beginning to look like old times.

Then the Sun Devils got the ball back and proceeded to ram it down the field. Just like Oklahoma State. Just Like Kansas State and Baylor. Just like Texas. Fortunately, ASU botched the drive with a bad snap and some horrendous clock management, but the seed was planted. The Red Raider defense looked like it was relapsing and collapsing.

Arizona State would possess the ball first in the second half. What fearful thing would we witness?

Well, it was every bit as bad as our tortured psyches could imagine. The Sun Devils required a mere six plays and 1:47 to march 78 yards for a threatening touchdown. Quarterback Taylor Kelly, who will not soon be compared to Robert Griffin III, strolled 44 yards for the TD that brought ASU to within a touchdown of Tech. And almost the whole of the second half remained.

It was like déjà vu all over again. Who among us dared imagine that the Red Raider defense would somehow find itself again and hold the Sun Devils to a paltry field goal over the remaining 28 minutes of football? A more likely scenario seemed to be the Baylor game in which Tech jumped out to a 20-0 lead but was ultimately mashed like a toad on a farm-to-market road.

But the amazing, the almost unimaginable did happen. The Red Raider defense, perhaps spurred on by Reginald Davis' 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, found rejuvenation. Without—it must be said—much second-half help from the Tech offense, the defense again and again blunted ASU stabs at the Red Raider jugular.

Sure, the Sun Devils dropped a touchdown pass, but without 10 points gifted to Arizona State via Tech special teams blunders, that dropped pass would have meant nothing. Nope, the best thing to do is to doff your chapeau to Matt Wallerstedt and the beleaguered Red Raider defense. They simply did one hell of a job.

The question is why? How did a defense that couldn't stop an offense comprised of sick kittens over the last five games of the season, stymie a potent ASU attack that averaged 41 points per game?

The simplest explanation is depth. Early in the season, when the Red Raiders were fully healthy, and backups were not pressed into undue reps, Tech's defense looked very good. But late in the season, as key players began dropping like flies, those backups were asked to do more than they reasonably could. They were put into situations that were beyond them. The result was wide-scale ugliness.

In the long run up to the Holiday Bowl, most of Tech's ailing defenders regained their health, which meant that those raw second- and third-stringers would not be pressed into prime duty against Arizona State. And the difference was dramatic.

If this explanation is accurate, building a quality Tech defense may simply be a matter of developing a level of depth that can absorb the shock of inevitable late-season injuries. The starting talent is fine. The schemes are fine. The coaching is fine. The depth is what needs improving. And there is real hope in that.

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