AMES, Iowa — Tommy Tuberville must have felt right at home Saturday night. With his team ahead 14-13 to start the fourth quarter, Tuberville finally had a defense and a running attack he could trust to close out a close game.
Getting both at the same time might be a first in his three years at Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders finished off a 24-13 conquest of Iowa State, repaying bad losses to the Cyclones each of the last two years. Compared to the 70-63 shootout Saturday afternoon between West Virginia and Baylor, what Tech did on a picture-postcard fall evening in Iowa was bound to draw scant attention.
Not that it mattered to Tuberville. With his team at 4-0, he was in no mood to complain. The Red Raiders played with more toughness than they did a year ago. They were up 14-13 because, just a couple of times, their really fast skill guys got free.
Given that one-point lead to protect, the Tech defense came up with three turnovers in the last 12 minutes. Down the stretch, 220-pound running back Kenny Williams slammed into the Cyclones for 10- and 11-yard runs.
Same way Tuberville used to win games in the Southeastern Conference.
No wonder he all but snarled when we suggested the Red Raiders had won one the ugly way.
“That wasn’t an ugly game,” he said. “That was a true win right there.”
Now, again, the Red Raiders probably won’t finish the year with the No. 1 defense in the nation. But as long as they go nowhere near their old neighborhood of No. 114, they can keep the team in a lot of games. They can even win some as long as they play with the pride and purpose that slipped away in the second half of 2011.
That part, they’ve recaptured. You could have caught only the fourth quarter Saturday and discerned that.
Tech limited Iowa State to 189 yards, yet the hustle outshined any number on the stat sheet.
Take the fourth quarter alone. Linebacker Terrance Bullitt hurdled a guy while chasing the quarterback. Safety D.J. Johnson decked a big tight end right after a pass arrived, his hit leading to a Cornelius Douglas interception. Defensive tackle Kerry Hyder doggedly chased Steele Jantz so that, when the ball squirted out of the quarterback’s hand, Hyder was there to jump on the fumble. And later, when Jantz heaved one into the end zone, the secondary that so seldom made plays a year ago got another interception from safety Cody Davis.
No doubt, the Red Raiders are playing hard on defense. Now the question is how the talent measures up. The meager yield of fewer than 168 yards per game figures to swell once Tech goes through a stretch of five ranked teams in the next five weeks.
On the other hand, maybe Tuberville is building a team that can win in more ways. That defense was asked to play only 58 snaps Saturday, because the offense, for as much as it misfired, held the ball for more than 34 minutes.
The aforementioned Kenny Williams knocked out 80 yards on the ground, continuing to emerge as a key part of the future. On a 23-yard rumble in the first half, the big sophomore demonstrated again that a defense had better really want to tackle the guy to bring him down. While Williams was bringing the thunder, quick-strike guys Jakeem Grant and Javon Bell supplied a couple of lightning strikes the offense needs.
All those elements combined quieted a loud crowd of more than 54,000.
That wasn’t the SEC.
But had Tommy Tuberville squinted late Saturday, he might have been able to see it from here.