Photo By Steven Chapman

Reality Slaps Red Raiders in the Face

Texas Tech won its season opener Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium but the 59-45 final result over Sam Houston State may have prompted more questions than answers for the 2015 season.

Given Washington State’s loss to Portland State in week one, now might not seem an appropriate to quote from the Book of Leach, but we’ll do it anyway. One of the Pirate’s maxims was that “you never get too high after a win, and you don’t get too low after a loss.” 

There’s certainly plenty of wisdom in that philosophy, but by the same token a subpar performance early in the season should very much inculcate a heightened sense of purpose and seriousness. And that is Texas Tech’s situation following what can only be termed a frustrating 59-45 win over Sam Houston State in steamy Jones AT&T Stadium.

In fall camp both receiver Dylan Cantrell and linebacker Sam Atoe conveyed to me their belief that the Red Raiders would not start the season slowly again as they did in 2014 against Central Arkansas. According to Cantrell and Atoe, the current Red Raiders are a more experienced and tightly knit team, and that would obviate many of the difficulties Tech experienced last season.

But after the shaky showing against the Bearkats, the jury is still out, and the question marks are manifold. There is, however, no need to panic. Not yet, anyway.

The Red Raiders flashed some talent and displayed some strong suits. 

To begin with, they won the turnover battle 4-1, which is a point of emphasis, and likely spelled the difference in this game. If the Red Raiders can consistently do this well in turnover margin, they will be in the thick of many games.

The offense, in particular the passing game, looked dangerous. Patrick Mahomes is a special talent who combines accuracy and mobility in equal proportion. And he will only get better.

Playing without Cantrell, who reportedly had the best fall camp of any receiver, Tech’s wideouts still scorched the Sam Houston State secondary. Devin Lauderdale cemented his status as the team’s primary deep threat, Jakeem Grant looked like the great Grant of 2013 rather than the mediocre Grant of 2014, Ian Sadler reeled in a pair of touchdowns, and JaDeion High was a pleasant surprise as a first-time starter.

The offensive line kept Mahomes upright and gave him an excellent pocket from which to throw. Sam Houston defensive end P.J. Hall, who terrorized the Southland Conference as a freshman, was utterly nullified by tackles Le'Raven Clark and Baylen Brown. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Micah Awe J.J. Gaines and Tevin Madison all turned in outstanding performances. But more important, the unit as a whole shut out the Bearkats in the third quarter after having surrendered 31 first-half points. The Red Raiders won this game by virtue of how they played coming out of the halftime locker room.

But against these bright spots—to which we should add Grant’s kickoff return for a touchdown and Taylor Symmank’s punting—can be amassed a body of weaknesses that should serve as an ice-water bath for this team. 

Photo By Steven Chapman

Despite playing very well in the third quarter, the Tech defense still gave up 351 rushing yards and allowed the Bearkats to average 6.9 yards per carry. Given Tech’s historical weakness against the run, such a performance against an FCS offense should send shivers up the spine of Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator David Gibbs. 

On offense, dropped passes were abundant. Lauderdale, Tony Brown and Reginald Davis all dropped balls, and Justin Stockton let a certain touchdown go through his mitts. Tech will have to outscore some teams in 2015, and they won’t be able to if they’re dropping seven or eight passes per game. 

Also, the Red Raider running game was fairly anemic, Deandre Washington managed to fight his way for 74 yards, but he frankly didn’t get a great deal of help from his line; Washington manufactured those yards himself.

And speaking more generally, Tech turned in a lethargic almost disinterested fourth quarter, allowing the Bearkats to score a pair of touchdowns while not denting the scoreboard themselves. Instead of maintaining the intensity and focus they showed in the third quarter, the Red Raiders slipped into a listless trance, turning an apparent blowout into a two-score win.

Kingsbury described the malaise very well: “That’s something we talked about, finishing games. It’s 59-31, like I said, we had the ball, you’ve got a chance to go score, it’s in the third quarter, you’ve got a chance to go really put it away and you just let them linger and kind of flounder around and everybody is just okay with it, and we’ve got to get past that. It’s not good enough.”

It most certainly isn’t. At this point the Red Raiders aren’t good enough to lift off of the accelerator against anybody. Players can’t always eliminate their own mistakes—talent is a factor in that—but they can control their own effort. And if they aren’t going to play hard every snap, the coaches need to find players who will. Right now. 

It is too early to contemplate leaping off the Tallahatchee Bridge, but it is never too soon to begin developing the habits of a winning football team. Kingsbury and his staff need to hammer home that point in the upcoming week in no uncertain terms.  

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