On September 22, 2007 a 3-0 Texas Tech football team took the field against a 1-2 Oklahoma State outfit in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Although the Red Raiders were undefeated, their wins were over patsies UTEP, Rice and SMU. Worrisomely, Tech had given up a combined 55 points to UTEP and Rice in the two games immediately preceding the clash with Oklahoma State.
But matters looked grimmer for the home team. In losses to Georgia and Troy the Cowboys had scored a combined 37 points. OSU, which would finish the season 7-6, was hardly an offensive juggernaut.
But on this day Oklahoma State could do no wrong offensively. The Cowboys rolled up 610 total yards and 366 rushing yards, with quarterback Zac Robinson and running backs Kendall Hunter and Dantrell Savage all rushing for over 100 yards. It was the only time in Oklahoma State history that three Cowboys rushed for triple digits in a game.
OSU’s dominant ground game was enough to spoil Graham Harrell’s 646 passing yards—fourth most in college football history at the time—and Texas Tech’s 718 yards of total offense, which was the most a Cowboy defense had ever given up. In other words, Harrell and the Red Raider offense produced at a historically high level and it wasn’t enough to produce a win over a mediocre team that had just lost to Troy.
Unsurprisingly, Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach was livid following the 49-45 loss. He obviously had good reason to be. And the person who bore the direct brunt of Leach’s wrath was defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich, who had ineffectually directed the Red Raider defense since 2003. Shortly after the final whistle in Stillwater, Setencich was a defensive coordinator no more, and linebackers coach Ruffin McNeill was promoted to replace him.
The results were immediate and well nigh dramatic. In Texas Tech’s next game the Red Raider defense allowed seven points as the Red Raiders annihilated Northwestern State 75-7. And by the end of the season Tech was No. 1 in the Big 12 in pass defense and No. 4 in scoring defense. A defense that was once one of the nation’s worst finished as one of the better units in the Big 12.
This trip down memory lane was necessary to show that there is a precedent for a Texas Tech football coach dismissing his defensive coordinator in mid-season, and to show that such drastic measures can produce good results.
All of this is germane to Texas Tech football today because the Red Raiders (3-4, 1-3 in Big 12) are yet again an offensive machine and a defensive punching bag. Kliff Kingsbury’s attack force hung 55 points and 612 yards of total offense on Arizona State on the road and Tech still managed to lose the game by 13 points.
The very next week the Red Raiders put 59 on Louisiana Tech in a winning effort, but the Red Raider defense still gave up 572 yards and 45 points to the C-USA school in Lubbock.
And most recently, Texas Tech rolled up 854 total yards and stacked 59 points against a talented Oklahoma defense, yet still managed to lose by a touchdown at home. Those 59 points are the most scored against the Sooners since November 11, 1997 when Nebraska scalded John Blake’s defense to the tune of 69 points in a 62-point victory.
Following the loss to OU the usually bright-eyed Kingsbury was visibly deflated, although he refrained from lashing out at his defense. In fact, he chose to credit Oklahoma’s offense rather than place the onus on Tech’s defense.
“They're really good offensively. When they get hot like that and don't turn the ball over. If you look at their season they've scored a lot of points and we didn't turn them over and that's the result.”
Indeed, the Sooners have scored a great deal this season. They are No. 7 nationally in scoring offense. Still, it is also true that Houston held OU to 23 points, and even lowly Louisiana-Monroe managed to hold Oklahoma to less than 60 points.
Perhaps when Kingsbury peruses FBS football’s updated defensive statistics he will appreciate the frightening reality that is the Red Raider defense. Hence, seven weeks into the season Texas Tech’s defense is ranked No. 127 in scoring defense, 109 in rushing defense, 123 in yards per carry defense, 125 in passing defense, 122 in pass efficiency defense, 127 in yards per play allowed, 127 in total defense, 91 in third down-conversion defense, and 100 in opponents’ red zone touchdown percentage.
What’s more, that dolorous litany of numbers is not a function of a murderous schedule. The Red Raiders have played FCS school Stephen F. Austin, Pac 12 also-ran Arizona State, Louisiana Tech of C-USA, perennial Big 12 doormat Kansas, Kansas State and its Paleolithic offense, and West Virginia’s solid but unspectacular offense. The only true offensive powerhouse Tech has faced is Oklahoma, and we saw the horrendous outcome of that confrontation. With Oklahoma State and Baylor waiting in the wings, Tech’s defensive stats may only get worse, if that’s possible.
Kliff Kingsbury thus seems to be at a crossroads of sorts. In his fourth season as Texas Tech’s head coach, it is readily apparent that the football program is not where it was expected to be when Kirby Hocutt hired Texas Tech’s prodigal son. And it is entirely possible that Hocutt has communicated his displeasure and waning patience to Kingsbury.
Furthermore, Kingsbury is blessed to be coaching quite possibly the best college football player in America in quarterback Pat Mahomes, and in a season in which the Big 12 is ripe for the taking from an upstart team such as Texas Tech. If the Red Raider defense were merely mediocre, Texas Tech would now be the odds-on favorite to win the Big 12 title.
But the Big 12 won’t stay down for long, and Mahomes may well jump to the NFL next season, all of which heightens the pressure on Kingsbury to win right now.
Texas Tech has the offense to win big, and a special teams unit that is subpar but not disastrously so. Defensive ineptitude, however, is more than capable of dragging the Red Raiders down to a 3-9 season, which in theory could even precipitate Kingsbury’s dismissal.
The young coach therefore has a decision to make. Does he stand pat with second-year defensive coordinator David Gibbs in the hope that the lights suddenly come on, or does he pull a Mike Leach, switching defensive horses in midstream, hoping that a coach such as Zac Spavital could pull a Ruffin McNeill, handing Kingsbury a massive reprieve in the process?
Only Kingsbury knows what is going through his mind, but his ratiocination had better produce a positive solution to Tech’s dreadful defensive performance. Failure to make the correct decision now could spell doom for his coaching tenure in Raiderland.