As the icy hand of defeat slowly encircled the necks of the Red Raiders last night, they must have known they were not in Kansas any more. But the game did resemble a similarly dispiriting loss to the Kansas Jayhawks back in 2001.
In both games, Tech lost two key players to injury. Against Kansas, quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury and middle linebacker, Lawrence Flugence succumbed to on-field hurts. Against the Lobos, Tech lost receiver Nehemiah Glover and outside linebacker John Saldi to injury.
The losses to Kansas and New Mexico both came in the first half of the season, and were decided late in the game; the Kansas game went to overtime, while New Mexico defeated the Raiders with a last second field goal.
In both contests, Tech was a prohibitive favorite, certainly in the minds of Raider fans, if not necessarily according to the book-makers of Las Vegas. Kansas was a perennial Big Twelve north division doormat where football was considered a mere speed bump en route to hoops season, while the Lobos were perpetual patsies for the Raiders who play in something called the "Mountain West Conference." Suffice it to say that actual defeat was not something most Tech fans contemplated seriously in either contest.
Unfortunately, contemplation and reality diverged sharply in both cases, and now all associated with the Tech football program have returned abruptly to earth. Upset losses to habitual also-rans will do that to a body.
But for the Red Raiders Version 2004, the worrisome indicators go beyond a single loss to a team they theoretically should have beaten handily. Anomalous losses can happen to the best of them after all. Just ask the Oklahoma Sooners about Oklahoma State, or Kansas State about Fresno State for confirmation of that fact. In the case of this years' Raiders however, the loss to the Lobos looks for all the world like the fatal realization of certain disturbing symptoms that cropped up in the season opener against SMU a week ago. Therefore, it represents a trend rather than an aberration.
Most obvious of these, of course, is the maddening inability to convert scoring opportunities into actual scores. In both gamesUNM and SMUthe Raiders spent much of the game bivouacked deep in enemy territory, and far more often than not, came away with no points. And on multiple occasions, the offense squandered opportunities stemming from turnovers produced by the Raider defense. As a result, Tech has scored fewer than thirty points against mediocre to poor competition, no less back-to-back for the first time since the opening two games of the 2002 season against Ohio State and SMU.
Equally clear are the reasons for the scoring ineptitude. The kicking game has been nothing short of atrocious. Kickers Keith Toogood and Alex Trlica have thus far gone 1-4 on field goals, including Toogoods miss of a 34-yard chippy, as well as a missed extra point. The absence of a credible kicking game adds tremendous pressure to the offense to score touchdowns in every instance.
Adding to the offense's woes is the dismal ground game. Thus far, Taurean Henderson, who has been touted as an All-American candidate, and Johnnie Mack, generally considered a starting-quality backup, have been supremely ineffective both as runners and as receivers. Neither back has shown the ability to break tackles, which is necessary to produce big plays in the ground game. Consequently, opposing defenses feel that they can shut down the Tech ground attack with three or four defenders in the box, which allows them to flood passing lanes with defenders, making life difficult for Sonny Cumbie and his receivers in the process.
Speaking of Cumbie and the wideouts, neither are they blameless. In the opener against SMU, Joel Filani and Jarrett Hicks, among others, dropped numerous passes that could easily have resulted in points on the scoreboard. In last nights dirge of a performance, the receivers did yeoman work, but Cumbie frequently missed open receivers and threw a killing interception in the end zone on a third-and-goal situation from the five yard line.
So, in short, Techs red zone offense has been about as effective as organic deodorant on a rancher bailing hay on a July afternoon in Texas. Now given that TCU, whose defense yesterday blanked SMU is coming to town next Saturday, is it time for any sort of a shake-up on the offensive side of the ball? If Mike Leach's comments following the loss to New Mexico are any indication, the answer is no: "I thought we had pretty good momentum the whole game. I just think we need to capitalize. I thought as a team we really had good effort, but we made some mistakes, and New Mexico had a lot to do with that."
Good momentum presumably means marching the ball up and down the field without producing points. Unfortunately, that sort of "momentum" leads to defeat more often than not. And incidentally, the last time Tech lost to New Mexico (1984) the Raiders finished out the season 4-7. Mike Leach's ability to disperse his offense's red zone doldrums against TCU will go a long way in determining whether or not history repeats itself.
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