It is an index of how bad Texas Tech’s defense has been that, on a night when they gave up 45 points and 528 yards, they actually looked far better than they have all season.
Credit is due to new interim defensive coordinator Mike Smith. In a mere 10 days he took a defense that was soft, lethargic and inept, and turned it into a unit that played with some fire, some physicality, and without the riot of embarrassing missed tackles that had previously defined it.
Not that there isn’t still a huge amount of work to be done. The Red Raiders (2-2, 0-1 in the Big 12), justifiably fearing the sort of ground attacks that had abused them in three previous games, loaded up on the run against Oklahoma State (3-1, 1-0 in the Big 12), with one result being the gratuitous victimization of Tech’s young secondary. Justis Nelson, in particular, was exposed, as backup QB Daxx Garman tossed for 370 yards and four touchdowns, while Marcel Ateman caught six passes for 130 yards. But Nelson wasn’t entirely to blame as safety J.J. Gaines rarely slid over to help out when he was in a position to do so.
But here is the good news from the secondary: they are an incredibly young group and will only get better. The aforementioned Nelson is a sophomore, Tevin Madison at field corner is a true freshman, and apparent third and fourth corners, Jah’Shawn Johnson and Nigel Bethel, are also true freshmen. Safety Keenon Ward is a sophomore, and Josh Keys, who does see significant snaps, is a new JUCO transfer.
"I thought the first half they (the defense) made plenty of plays and gave us the ball a bunch of times, where we could have got out and gotten some separation and we just kept fumbling around as an offense," Kingsbury said. "In the second half, defensively, we just gave them too many big plays. I think the guys were in position to make plays and not making them and you have to give their kids credit they made a bunch of plays-went up and got the ball."
As Tech squeezes the run, those young defensive backs will come under fire and they will take some hits. But within a few weeks the improvement should be noticeable.
But while the future of the secondary provides some reason for hope on down the road, the play of the front seven against the Cowboys means that Tech’s defense should be competitive immediately. Whereas the Red Raiders surrendered 438 rushing yards to Arkansas in one of the sorriest defensive displays ever seen in Jones Stadium, they held Oklahoma State to 158 rushing yards and 3.8 yards per carry, which is below their season average of 4.2 yards per tote.
The front seven also managed to put a good deal of heat on OSU’s Garman, sacking him a couple of times, and pressuring him on several other occasions. Sometimes the rush came with a blitz, but at other times it did not.
All in all, however, this version of the Tech defense simply passed the eye test. They arguably won the line of scrimmage against OSU, and the front seven missed few tackles.
Now clearly, this was just one game. Coach Smith will need to build on this effort against a tough Kansas State squad on the road, while simultaneously getting the secondary up to speed. And now that Smith has a game under his belt, there is a bit of a track record for Kansas State’s offensive coordinator to go on. But by the same token, Smith’s players will be one game better versed in what their coordinator expects from them.
The battle in Manhattan will certainly be interesting. But if there’s one constant in Texas Tech football it is that it is rarely dull.
Texas Tech Shows a Glimmer of Hope on Defense
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