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Kicking the Tires: Texas Tech Red Raiders

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It’s not quite now or never for K-State, but it’s getting close. The Wildcats travel to Lubbock to face Texas Tech.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Midnight hasn’t quite struck on this season yet, but the clock is inching closer and K-State needs a couple more wins to go bowling. At 4-4, K-State travels to Lubbock this weekend for an 11 a.m. kickoff with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are also 4-4 and need a couple more wins for a bowl that is probably the minimum standard for Kliff Kingsbury to keep his job.

K-State won a closer-than-expected game against KU last week that may or may not have been a disaster, as wins go. Starting quarterback Alex Delton started strongly, but a fumble and turnover on downs killed two scoring opportunities, and then Delton was knocked out of the game in the second quarter after taking a hit to the head.

The Wildcat defense gave up tons of yards and was more prone to breakdowns than you’d like, but ultimately limited the damage. That will be less likely against Tech this weekend, so the mental and assignment errors that struck last week need to disappear this weekend.

We know generally what kind of program Texas Tech has under Kingsbury, but what does the 2017 iteration look like? Let’s dive in.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Alex Delton, 29-55-1, 418 yards, 7.6 yards/attempt, 1 TD, 83.6 yards/game

Jesse Ertz, 55-100-3, 930 yards, 9.3 yards/attempt, 7 TDs, 186.0 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 92 carries, 542 yards, 5.9 yards/carry, 5 TDs, 67.8 yards/game

Receiving: Byron Pringle, 15 receptions, 416 yards, 27.7 yards/reception, 1 TD, 59.4 yards/game

Texas Tech

Passing: Nick Shimonek, 195-275-5, 2,341 yards, 8.5 yards/attempt, 18 TDs, 334.4 yards/game

Rushing: Justin Stockton, 76 carries, 495 yards, 6.5 yards/carry, 4 TDs, 70.7 yards/game

Receiving: Keke Coutee, 53 receptions, 744 yards, 14.0 yards/reception, 6 TDs, 106.3 yards/game

So this isn’t the best Texas Tech offense we’ve seen over the years, but it’s still plenty potent. And unlike previous years, the Red Raiders at least attempt some semblance of balance. K-State’s defensive line may not get much pressure on Shimonek, but they must at least kill the Tech run game to free the linebackers and secondary to blanket the field against Tech’s four-receiver patterns.

K-State’s offensive situation is up in the air. Jesse Ertz hasn’t played since the Texas game and wasn’t even suited up last week at KU. Delton played well early against KU before leaving with an injury. Third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson looks the part of the quarterback of the future. Unfortunately, the future is 2018, not tomorrow.

Defensive back (!) Jah’Shawn Johnson leads the way for Texas Tech with 57 total tackles, with 1.5 tackles for loss and four pass breakups thrown in for good measure.* Sophomore linebackers Jordyn Brooks and Dakota Allen are a solid tandem in the middle, and Allen has 3.0 TFL and two interceptions.

*Johnson is suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game after a targeting ejection in the second half of last week’s loss to Oklahoma.

Advanced Stats

K-State Offense vs. Texas Tech Defense

K-State’s offensive effectiveness relies largely on who is playing quarterback this Saturday. If it’s Ertz or Delton, and they’re not limited due to lingering injury, then the Wildcats may have enough at their disposal to stay in this game. Again, nothing against Thompson, but he’s a redshirt freshman thrust into action due to injury and will need game reps to get up to speed.

Assuming Delton can go, then the Wildcats should load up on bigger personnel than Tech’s defense is used to seeing in Big 12 play. The Wildcats have found success out of 12/21/20 personnel packages that mix up quarterback power and leads, with running back reads, and a solid play-action passing game once the run is established. If the coaches ditch the edge runs for Barnes, or give Dalvin Warmack a shot if they want to attack the perimeter, then the offense could even look … good?

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. But if Delton is OK, the personnel packages make sense, and the players hold onto the ball, then there’s some reason for optimism.

Tech’s defense isn’t great on a down-to-down basis against the run, but they’re not horrible, and they’re above average at limiting big plays. K-State has gouged Texas Tech on the ground in the past, and that must continue. There’s some evidence that Tech’s early defensive renaissance, err, at least moderate improvement may be evaporating. If that’s the case, then K-State has a chance to score enough to stay in this game.

Tech’s pass defense is the inverse of K-State’s pass offense, and closely resembles K-State’s own defensive bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. The Red Raiders are among the worst nationally by Pass Defense Success Rate, but top 20 in Pass Defense IsoPPP. K-State probably won’t sustain drives with ball-control passing, but if they can use run-pass conflict to grab 20 or 30 yards (or more) off Tech’s secondary, that’s a huge win.

Notably, Tech is 111th nationally at preventing points on scoring opportunities. Their bend-but-don’t-break defense doesn’t stiffen up very well once offenses generate scoring opportunities.

K-State Defense vs. Texas Tech Offense

If K-State does one thing consistently well defensively, it’s take away the ground game. The Wildcats rank among the top 50 in both Defensive Rushing Success Rate and IsoPPP. By their standards, Tech has been surprisingly good this year, featuring a top-15 ranking in Rushing Success Rate. Watch the matchup between K-State’s front four plus Trent Tanking and Tech’s running game.

As we’ve discussed at length this week, K-State’s defense is doing more breaking than previous iterations. In an email exchange with CT-K-Stater (yes, I do reply to email), he perfectly encapsulated the defense’s issues this year:

“Top that with our nickel spot emerging as a defensive cavity, a safety learning his new role, two steady but not very athletic linebackers, plus a lack of consistent pass rush and it's not surprising that we sometimes give up some explosive plays.”

The predicate issue he mentioned was having two short cornerbacks, which can create matchup problems outside. Tech’s top four receivers go 5’11”, 6’3”, 5’9” and 6’4”, so that issue could arise again. At least as significantly, we need to see the mental errors against simple twins alignments and busts against pattern switches cleaned up. You can bet Kingsbury and offensive coordinator Eric Morris will test those concepts early.

Finally, remember last week when I mentioned special teams? DJ Reed took advantage of KU’s inability to kick touchbacks, and apparent unwillingness to kick short. Tech’s kickers only kick touchbacks about half the time, so either Reed will get another chance or two, or K-State should have excellent field position like it did last week against KU.

Conclusion

Here are your questions/matchups to watch in this one:

  • Who plays at quarterback for K-State, and how hurt are they playing?
  • If the quarterback is Delton, can K-State run the ball out of 21/12/20 personnel to set up big passing plays? And can they hit those passing plays against a Tech secondary that takes them away?
  • Can K-State’s defensive line and Tanking make Tech one-dimensional and put the game on Shimonek’s shoulders?
  • Are the mental errors and coverage bust issues cleaned up?

Time is running out for this team and coaching staff to show that they can do consistently well the things they’ve shown they can do occasionally well. At its disciplined best, K-State is better than Texas Tech has been and can win this game. But coaching decisions and player execution have not been up to the level of consistency required for K-State to win games this year.

Will that change in Lubbock? Your guess is as good as mine. This is one of those games where I truly have no idea what to expect. Perhaps Delton is fine and K-State is able to run the ball and the offense hums along, while the defense at least holds its own, special teams contributes, and K-State wins a low-scoring shootout. Or maybe the quarterback situation is still an injured jumble, the offense can’t do anything, and the defensive issues aren’t fixable without reps, and K-State gets run off the field like in 2015.

Neither outcome would surprise me. So I guess we’ll be optimistic.

Wildcats 38, Red Raiders 35