While Texas has gotten the best of the Red Raiders more often than not over the course of their 60 year rivalry, the Longhorns enter this weekend's matchup with more questions than they have in quite sometime. Right now the horns are a mystery. Inconsistent play defensively and tackling, a front seven on defense that is getting gashed by opposing running backs worse than any team in the Big 12, and a quarterback that is a turnover away from being replaced.
The scary part about Texas right now, in my opinion, is the fear that at any moment the team full of blue chips and five stars will suddenly put it all together and turn in a good performance. While that fear certainly exists, there is the reality that Texas is giving up nearly 150 yards more per game than the Red Raiders.
Quarterback Seth Doege may have said it best when sizing up the Longhorn defense:
"I think there are times where Texas looks like worldly on defense, and there are times that they're not so good on defense. I expect them to come in here, get geared up and ready to roll since it's a rival game. They'll be excited to play, we'll be excited to play and I expect their best on Saturday."
Most important matchup: Running game. Texas Tech must establish the ground game with Kenny Williams, Eric Stephens and Sadale Foster to set up everything else. Texas is last in the Big 12 by 25 yards per game in rushing yards allowed per contest. The horns are attributing this to many, many missed tackles, but the truth may be they just aren't that talented in the front 7. Damien Williams, Joseph Randle and Andrew Buie have all had field days against the Longhorn defense, so the blueprint is there until Texas can stop it. When and if Texas doesn stop the Tech run game, the hope would be for the horns commit so much personnel to the run, it makes them more vulnerable to play action.
The key in running the ball is accounting forTexas safety Kenny Vaccaro. The horns have had to play Vaccaro on run support, expecially when they are in nickel and dime situations. When Vaccaro plays up or run first, it makes the horns very beatable in the play action pass game. Amaro would have been huge here. I don't think he'll play, but I've been wrong before.
Passing game: When Vaccaro does have to play run, the Red Raiders have to win their one-on-one matchups. The other member of the secondary that is playing at a high level is Quandre Diggs. I look for Texas to matchup Diggs to Eric Ward in single coverage and Tech fans can watch the battle ensue, similar to what OU did with Aaron Colvin. That means that another member of the Red Raider receiving corps has to step up and play well. Again, don't know who it will be in Amaro's perceived absence, but there are winnable matchups. Texas is within one sack of the Big 12 lead, but is playing without Jackson Jeffcoat. The horns also have twice as many credited quarterback pressures. The play-action game will help here as well.
"It's going to be a big week for us to execute and then work on winning man-to-man routes and protecting and running the football, working in the run game," said Doege.
On defense, stopping the run is obviously imperative as Texas is collecting 5-star running backs like they collect February National Championship trophies. Johnathan Gray has been moved to first string this week fresh off of his 100 yard performance against Kansas. A move perceived by some as a bit dramatic, but could prove to be a challenge to the entire backfield. I still remember Joe Bergeron running for 195 yards a year ago. Even after a subpar performance last week, I'd look for Bergeron to get an opportunity to bounce back.
Pass defense: If I'm Texas, I attack Tech on the perimeter, like Oklahoma did. This takes the biggest strength away from the Tech defense, the interior line, and put the speed and quickness at receiver into good matchups. If this is what Texas does, it's imperative to play assignment football and tackle at the point of attack. The Red Raider secondary did a good job when West Virginia tried to go to the edges and Dana Holgerson eventually went away from it, which led to a lot of the Mountaineers' frustration. Texas went to their screen game late against Kansas to win it, and offensive coordinator Brian Harsin is a product of the Boise State program, where screens and reverses are the norm.
For some reason, I'm getting a feeling that special teams will be a factor this week. Momentum will change on an onside kick or big return. D.J. Monroe averages nearly 30 yards per kick return, and Diggs, brother of NFL veterain Quentin Jammer returns punts and have to be accounted for in the kicking game. Tech has to respond after a subpar special teams performance against K-State.
It's a big game for bowl positioning and Lone Star Pride (obviously). The Red Raiders play as a favorite in this series for the first time in recent memory. We'll see how they respond.