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Defensive Improvement: Perception or Reality

Not two months ago senior weak-side linebacker <b>Mike Smith</b> promised the 2004 Red Raider defense to be "10 times" better than last year's squad...<p>

Before Saturday's game against the University of Texas I might have agreed with him. Now, I'm not so sure.

During Coach Lyle Setencich's first year as defensive coordinator at Tech in 2003, the Red Raider defense not only struggled, but often stumbled against strong offensive teams. Tech faithful still have nightmares of Missouri quarterback Brad Smith gallivanting all over the field for over 300 yards rushing or UT great Roy Williams somehow slipping past every defensive back on the field to score the last minute winning touchdown in Austin a year ago.

Is it just me, or was the Texas Tech defense on everybody else's highlight reel last season?

This season was supposed to be different. The seniors were supposed to step up and take ownership of a team that was destined to improve. Coach Mike Leach agrees.

"(The Seniors) need to take accountability. I'm tired of going out there and seeing everybody react as a herd," said Leach at Monday's press conference. "Some of the cows in the herd need to be bigger than the other ones, and right now we're battling for that in a big way, I think."

Last season in consecutive weeks against Oklahoma State and Missouri the defense gave up 352 yards and 469 yards rushing, respectively. Saturday at Jones SBC Stadium the nightmare was relived as Texas Tech's inability to stop the run reared it's ugly head again.

Longhorn quarterback Vincent Young seemed to run the ball when he wanted and where he wanted. When all was said and done, Young accumulated 158 yards on the ground and 4 touchdowns. This in not to mention Young's 10 of 15 passing for 142 yards and another Longhorn touchdown.

The Red Raiders made it a point over the past two weeks to stop the nation's second leading rusher Cedric Benson. They didn't do that either. Benson ended the game with 168 yards and a touchdown.

So, how much did the bye week effect Tech?

"I think that with open weeks there's a danger of breaking momentum," said Leach. "I don't really think it's the open week. I think that as a team we lost our focus and as a team we're not tough enough to deal with positive reinforcement. We need to be a more mentally tough team and as coaches we need be able to force those players to step up and make that happen."

Now, I'm not naïve enough to believe Saturday's loss can be completely placed on the defense. Sonny Cumbie and company again surpassed the 400 yard mark through the air, but with a mere 21 points to show for it, does it really matter?

The offense came out on fire with two quick touchdowns only to be followed by Young racking up two of his own. At this point Tech fans were starting to hold on to their seats for the usual shootout between these two clubs. Then, unexpectedly, the "Air Raid" offense seemed to fall off the face of the planet. They couldn't pass, they couldn't run (-17 yards rushing on the day), and they most certainly couldn't get first downs even when Cumbie seemed to have an eternity to find someone open.

Quickly, things spiraled out of control and before long nearly half of the 55,413 record breaking crowd were headed home to a night of frustration and what might have beens.

Mental toughness is an area Leach plans to focus in on this week as the Red Raiders head to Manhattan, Kansas for a battle against last year's Big 12 champion Kansas State.

"As we improve, we need to quit learning the same lessons over again," Leach said. "The problem is players and coaches both. As coaches we have to have the ability to get it out of them. As players, they have to be willing to step up and change the environment of complacency."

This week against Kansas State, Tech will again be facing a team with a very unbalanced offensive scheme. Unfortunately, the Kansas State team is very similar to the Longhorns in terms of their offensive scheme; therefore the defense is going to have to make drastic changes from Saturday's loss to the Longhorns.

"They'll run similar plays, they'll do similar things - run the quarterback, run the running back," said Leach. "If you don't like those plays, stop them. Get three and outs. That will get you off the field."

If there has been a hump game all season, this is it. This week Tech will have to go into Manhattan and face an underachieving Wildcat team that has the ability to run the ball quite well if it desires. Either the defense gets things together or Tech comes home a .500 team that will struggle to get into the Fort Worth Bowl.

Saturday's game against Kansas State will be televised on Fox Sports Net. at 6 pm.

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