From Inside the Red Raiders
Texas Tech is scheduled to open Big 12 play Saturday at home against Texas. While the game and atmosphere will look very different presentation-wise, the fact the Red Raiders are playing at all, given the circumstances, is a major victory. As of Wednesday morning, Texas Tech (1-0) was listed as an 18-point underdog to No. 8 Texas, which opened the season with a 59-3 shellacking of UTEP on Sept. 12 in Austin.
Yes, the Red Raiders are heavy underdogs this week. In fact, this is the most Texas has ever been favored over Texas Tech in Lubbock in the history of the series. That being said, there have been some major upsets in this series before and it’s 2020 which has proven anything is possible. Toward that end, there are some facets of the game I’ll be watching which I view to be major keys for the Red Raiders if they’re going to spring the upset over the Longhorns.
No. 8 Texas at Texas Tech
Records: UT: 1-0; TTU: 1-0
When: 2:30 p.m. (CT) Saturday
Where: Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, TX
TV: FOX (Stream: FOX Sports GO)
Radio: Texas Tech Sports Network (Satellite Radio: Sirius 98 / XM 200)
Texas senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger is a Heisman candidate on a top 10 Longhorns squad which has aspirations of winning the Big 12 and going to the College Football Playoffs. Whether this edition of Texas football has the goods to reach those lofty goals or will go down as another overrated squad in Longhorn lore remains to be seen. What doesn’t in my mind is if Ehlinger has the goods to take them to the promised land.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Ehlinger is a true dual-threat quarterback who is equally capable of lighting up your secondary for 400 yards passing, like he did in Texas’ whipping of UTEP in the opener when he threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns, or being utilized as a battering ram of a runner like he was in the Longhorn’s 49-24 victory over the Red Raiders last year in the season finale when he rushed for 83 yards and a score.
The combination of Ehlinger coming to Lubbock and Texas Tech’s terrible performance in terms of defending the pass in the opener when the Red Raiders allowed 567 yards to Houston Baptist, an FCS school, points to a rough afternoon for the defense on Saturday. Turnovers are a great equalizer in football. Texas Tech has failed to force a turnover against Ehlinger and the Longhorns in each of the past two matchups–both losses, but in Tech’s 27-23 victory in Austin in 2017 the Red Raiders came up with four takeaways, including two interceptions of Ehlinger.
Ehlinger was just a freshman then, so he has come a long way in terms of ball security. Texas Tech is going to have to force him into mistakes. In Tech’s case that means the front six have to pressure Ehlinger and when they get an opportunity to hit him they must not let him out of their grasp. They must either sack him or force him to speed up his timing and make mistakes. Defensive linemen such as Eli Howard, Tony Bradford, Nelson Mbanasor and Jaylon Hutchings (if he plays) all have to have really good games and linebackers such as Riko Jeffers, Brandon Bouyer-Randle, Krishon Merriweather, Jacob Morgenstern and Colin Schooler (if he’s available) all have to get home when they blitz or rush. To me this is the No. 1 factor or key to the game in terms of whether the Red Raiders will be able to make this a competitive game or not.
Distribute the ball to playmakers
Texas Tech has a bevy of quality receivers for quarterback Alan Bowman to distribute the ball to for explosive plays, which is going to be another big key to the game. Assuming the offensive line can protect him and Bowman’s timing is on, the Red Raiders must get the ball to their top playmakers, many of whom have enjoyed some of the best games of their careers against the Longhorns.
Senior wideout T.J. Vasher caught eight passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns in the 2018 matchup and had five grabs for 127 yards and a score in 2017 as a redshirt freshman. Vasher opened this season with eight catches for 79 yards, but said earlier this week he is ready to open it up more.
“I feel good. I felt fluid (in the opener), felt like we were a working machine,” Vasher said. “I’m ready for us to stretch the ball more and start making those big plays, those explosives that we look for.”
KeSean Carter is another top receiving target who has enjoyed some success against Texas. Carter turned in career-highs of 11 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown last season against Texas. He used that performance as a catalyst for a quality offseason and good beginning to this season in which he caught six balls for 86 yards and a score against Houston Baptist.
Erik Ezukanma, a sophomore starting wideout everyone expects to blow up into one of the better receivers in the conference enjoyed what he recently described as his best performance as a Red Raider last season against Texas. Ezukanma hauled in seven passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in that one and opened this season with four receptions for 66 yards and a score.
If this trio is distributed the ball early and often, on time where they can make explosive plays, it will go a long way toward Texas Tech putting a lot of points on the board.
Get off to a fast start
This one is pretty simple to me. I don’t think the Red Raiders can afford to dig a deep hole and claw their way out, but if they can jump out to an early lead perhaps they can trade shots and pull off the big upset late in another case of anything being possible in 2020.
One thing that became clear in the postgame press conference following Texas Tech’s 35-33 victory over Houston Baptist in the opener is the team’s confidence might be a little fragile right now as head coach Matt Wells and quarterback Alan Bowman both mentioned it as a factor. That’s why it’s so important for the Red Raiders to start fast, build confidence and go from there. A fast start doesn’t guarantee the outcome Tech wants as last season’s matchup proves, but it will at least get them in the fight.