Ray of Light in the Mine Shaft

Can Texas Tech rally around its late-game heroics in El Paso?

The Texas Tech Red Raiders struggled in the season-opener against lightly regarded Central Arkansas, but there was never any genuine feeling that the Big 12 program would lose to the FCS visitors. That was most certainly not the case in Tech’s harrowing 30-26 road win over UTEP.

For the second week in a row, the Red Raiders played to the level of the competition, but this time their backs were squarely to the wall late in the fourth quarter, and a potentially devastating loss seemed not merely a possibility but a likelihood. Without being melodramatic, Tech’s season was in danger of caving in on week two.

The situation was thus. With 5:05 to play before a modest but frenzied crowd of 35,000 Miner partisans, Aaron Jones scooted nine yards around the disoriented Red Raider defense to give UTEP a 25-23 lead. The extra point made it 26-23 and Tech was faced with do-or-die.

As had been the case all evening, the Miner kickoff was too deep to return and the Red Raiders set up shop at their 25 yard line. Tech’s first two plays, a Deandre Washington run and a Jakeem Grant catch, netted only nine yards and the Red Raiders were faced with 3rd-and-1. After a UTEP timeout Davis Webb pranced 10 yards on a naked bootleg (a brilliant call, by the way), and Tech was on its way.

Freshman projectile Justin Stockton ripped off runs of 20 and 24 yards, Washington tacked on three more, Webb then delivered a nine-yard strike to Bradley Marquez in the end zone, and bada boom, bada bing, the Red Raiders were ahead once more. Moreover, their four-point lead (30-26) looked quite secure with only 2:42 to play.

But this being Texas Tech football, nothing is ever easy. And so it was on this cloudy Trans-Pecos night.

Miner return man Autrey Golden fielded Taylor Symmank’s kickoff several yards deep and sallied forth, finding a large crease, veering to his left, and lancing down the sideline to the Red Raider 48 where Symmank wrestled him to the turf with the help of Golden’s facemask. The infraction moved the ball to the Tech 33 and UTEP had 2:23 to work over a Tech defense that had looked whipped only moments ago. Circumstances did not appear propitious for the visitors.

But rather than keep the ball on the ground where the Miners had flayed the Red Raiders all evening, UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers took to the air. Tech’s defense, however, read the screen play like a comic book and Showers’ pass fell harmlessly to the turf. Showers next gained only two yards on a keeper before Branden Jackson and Sam Eguavoen stonewalled him. Facing 3rd-and-8, Showers attempted a quarterback draw, a play that has bedeviled Tech for years, but Jackson diagnosed the subterfuge, peeled back from his blocker and dropped Showers after another two-yard gain. Now staring at 4th-and-6, Showers dropped back to pass but was hounded yet again by Jackson, and lobbed an ineffectual ball that had no chance of completion.

The Red Raiders had escaped.

Now clearly this was not the performance Kliff Kingsbury, the team and Red Raider fans were hoping for. The same old problems continued to confound Tech, and nearly cost them the game. The Red Raiders committed 10 penalties for 90 yards, allowed 277 yards rushing, and lost the turnover battle zero to one. Whether Tech showed any improvement over their showing against Central Arkansas is debatable. But nevertheless, within the pall of another underwhelming performance against marshmallow competition, there may be a beacon of hope.

"I think, once again, they are disappointed in the way they played, but they found a way to win," Kingsbury said following the game. "You got to take that and build off of it. We haven't come close to playing our best game. We've got to get a lot better very quickly for next week."

The honest truth is that the Red Raiders looked the best they have this season in their final offensive and defensive series against the Miners. Once Webb converted the 3rd-and-1 with the keeper, Tech made it look easy against the UTEP defense. Stockton jetted through large gaps on successive runs to set the Red Raiders up for the kill. And Webb then put the ball right on the money for the winning score.

On the final defensive series, the Miners never really looked like they had a chance at a first down, let alone a touchdown. Branden Jackson played up to and beyond his hype, and the secondary plastered UTEP’s receivers on two pass plays. This was the defense we all hoped to see.

It is possible, just possible, that the very real threat of losing a game they had no business losing, shook something loose with the Red Raiders. Perhaps they matured, wised up and gelled as a team in the waning moments in El Paso. If so, Texas Tech will look very different against Arkansas than they did against CAU and UTEP.

"I feel like we're a scrappy team so far and that can change from week-to-week, but as long as we get out with a W, that's all that really matters," Said Webb after the game. "We got to step up up our game for Arkansas, because they are a really good team. Just day-to-day we have to get better."

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