With only one game under its belt, it’s already clear to see Texas Tech has two ways to attack in the red zone that weren’t necessarily part of the arsenal last year: two- and three-back formations to help shove it across or, if that fails, kicker Ryan Bustin.
Both worked in the Red Raiders’ 44-6 conquest of Northwestern State in the season opener Saturday night at Jones AT&T Stadium.
In the first half, Tech got three short touchdown runs, two from Eric Stephens in his comeback from a major knee injury, and one from Kenny Williams. Later on, Bustin made all three field-goal attempts in his Tech debut.
Throughout his tenure, Tech coach Tommy Tuberville has harped on the need to run the ball more effectively, both to build a more reliable offense and to keep elite pass rushers from putting too much heat on quarterback Seth Doege.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball a little bit more consistent,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “I thought we showed flashes. We were really, really conservative tonight. I called the game a lot with those two guards (redshirt freshmen Alfredo Morales and Le’Raven Clark) in mind. I didn’t want to put a whole lot of pressure on them game one. We’ll open up the playbook a little bit more.”
Stephens had fullback Omar Ontiveros in the backfield with him on a 4-yard touchdown, then was in a full house with Ontiveros and Williams when he went in from 2 yards. The Red Raiders used that look numerous times, not only in short yardage but also around midfield.
It looked very much like what the Red Raiders worked on during four intrasquad scrimmages in August.
“It looked good,” Tuberville said. “We had some downhill stuff I thought worked good.”
Not that the Red Raiders won’t still throw it. Flanker Marcus Kennard caught 12- and 3-yard touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and had a 6-yard TD in the first quarter overturned by a replay showing he came down out of bounds.
Doege, after throwing an interception on the first series, finished 23 of 34 for 199 yards.
Bustin bears a resemblance to the kicker he succeeds, being left-footed like Donnie Carona and wearing No. 48 as Carona wore No. 49. He was close to perfect in spring practice, then made 15 of 20 field goals in August scrimmages. With an announced crowd of 50,236 looking on Saturday, Bustin was good from 31, 36 and 37 yards.
Tuberville said at the beginning of the week that 10 or 12 carries would be a lot for Stephens in his first game back from major knee surgery. Even before halftime, though, the Raiders were feeding him the ball a lot. He wound up with 19 touches — 16 carries and three receptions.
Asked if he sensed that workload was coming, Stephens said, “Absolutely not.”
“I was hoping for it, but I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I’m not complaining at all, but I didn’t expect it.”
Though Williams led the rushers with 74 yards, for Tech coaches and players to see Stephens back in the mix might have been a bigger relief.
“It was overwhelming,” Stephens said. “Having a late game, it made me even more suspenseful. I had to wait all day to play. When I first got out there, I think I was dancing around a little bit, trying to make something happen, trying to make a big play. That’s just from not playing in a while. I just want to get back out there and show I’m OK. Once that first series and my first couple of carries passed, I settled down a little bit.”