Ground Game under the Microscope in Midland

Texas Tech's spring game is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Grande Communications Stadium in Midland.

In an otherwise dismal season, the Texas Tech running attack made real strides in 2014. Thanks to an offensive line and a backfield headed up by Lee Hays and Mike Jinks respectively, and in particular to an exceptional effort from running back Deandre Washington, the Tech ground game became the offense’s bell-cow. And as we all know at this point, Washington became the first Tech back to rush for 1,000 yards since Ricky Williams in 1998.

Not to say that the 2014 Red Raiders were the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Still, Tech rushed for 153 yards per game (No. 82 nationally), and averaged 5.17 yards per carry (No. 26 nationally). Statistical research back through the 2008 season shows that those numbers are Tech’s best in at least six seasons.

Unfortunately, and despite the comparatively strong ground game, the Red Raiders rushed for only 3,114 total yards (No. 123 nationally), and tallied only eight rushing touchdowns, which was better than only four other college football teams, Vanderbilt, Kent State, Wake Forest and Washington State. Clearly, something was amiss. It seems that Tech had a potent weapon, which it failed to exploit to the full.

But your humble scribe is not the only one to note the incongruity and the need to square it. No less an eminence than Kliff Kingsbury has vowed to lean on the ground game. To wit, "We're going to run it. With DeAndre coming back--he had such a tremendous year, Justin Stockton, Demarcus Felton, Q. White is a guy who continues to impress me, bringing in Corey, one of the fastest kids in the country--we're going to keep handing it off."

These are strong words, and as such, they bear watching. For words, no matter their emotional and semantic charge, are base metal. Before, and indeed from Kingsbury’s predecessor, we’ve heard similar. At Tommy Tuberville’s opening press conference he declared that, even though passing the football is Tech’s football identity, if you want to win and win big, you also have to run it. Tuberville assured one and all that he would compliment the Air Raid with a beefed up running attack. Well, as one can see from the above statistical research, it never happened. The Red Raiders ran the ball better under Kliff Kingsbury than they ever did under Tommy Tuberville.

But it is also certain that Tech didn’t run the football as much as they should have. DeAndre Washington had a big year; he should have had a monster year. And Tech’s rushing touchdown total should have been roughly triple what it was.

Come Saturday morning in Midland, Texas, we shall begin to see whether Kingsbury and company are genuinely committed to ensuring that the ground game’s productivity is commensurate with the skill of the team’s backs and linemen.

Doing so will mean, to a certain extent, altering Tech’s football identity. And that will require a certain amount of courage. Tech has been a passing program since at least 2000, when Mike Leach appeared on the scene. Generally speaking, moreover, Tech’s fan-base continues to love the passing game. But as a 4-8 season socked the Tech program in the gut, people began to realize that slinging the pigskin all over the yard is not so much fun when you receive a mud-hole in the caboose for your efforts. Winning, even with the running game, might just be preferable to what happened in 2014.

So, although departing from Tech’s usual script may trigger a certain amount of apprehension all around, a general fan rebellion is unlikely, particularly if the wins mount up.

The logic behind such a move is there. The players and talent are there. And we have a statement from the mount. Now…let the heavy battalions roll.

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