AMES, Iowa — Kerry Hyder is one of a handful of Texas Tech defensive players who could only shake their heads in frustration the last two seasons, when they were lit up by Iowa State en route to a pair of lopsided defeats.
On Saturday, though, it might have been Tech fans shaking their heads — in awe rather than disappointment — when they watched Hyder and company lead the way to a 24-13 victory inside Jack Trice Stadium, a triumph that pushes Tech to 4-0 with No. 17 Oklahoma headed to Lubbock this weekend.
After all, aren’t these mostly the same players who finished 114th in total defense each of the last two seasons? The same guys who ranked dead last against the run a year ago?
Of Tech’s defensive starters on Saturday, only a handful didn’t play a significant role on the team last season. So if the personnel hasn’t changed, what has?
“It’s really the whole defensive coaching staff,” said Hyder, who had two sacks and a fumble recovery during the win. “They’re doing a great job of putting guys in the right places and helping them succeed.”
Therein lies the success, thus far, of new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s approach during his first season in Lubbock. Against the Cyclones, the Red Raiders once again limited big plays. Running back James White broke a 36-yard run up the middle, and Steele Jantz was able to scramble for 21 yards when he couldn’t find a receiver, but other than those instances, the Cyclones were rarely able to move the ball more than a few yards at a time.
Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said after the win that the team’s technique on defense is a night-and-day difference from a season ago. With players placing a greater focus on their own responsibilities, he said, others don’t have to be out of position to provide helps as often.
“We felt like we could rush the passer with four and five guys,” Tuberville said. “When you do that, and you’re not taking chances, then you’re not giving up big plays, and you’re going to be able to play the run. If you’re out there gambling, like we had to do the last couple of years, you’re going to give up big plays.”
Missed tackles, an Achilles' heel for Tech a season ago, have been few and far between for the Red Raiders in 2012. The team's defensive backs have five interceptions through four games. Last year they had three — the whole season.
A key play in the fourth quarter demonstrated Tech’s improved ability to be in the right place at the right time. Jantz delivered a pass just over the outstretched hand of Jarvis Phillips and into the arms of tight end Ernst Brun. But safety D.J. Johnson arrived over the top on time and levied a crushing blow on Brun, who couldn’t hold onto the ball. Cornelius Douglas alertly picked it out of midair — “a present,” he called the interception — and promptly returned it 40 yards to set up the clinching score.
“Coach (Kaufman) keeps telling us to run hard and run to the ball,” Douglas said. “We need to do our key things. If we do our key things, we are going to win ball games.”
Jantz made life easy on the Red Raiders, at times. Outside of a well-placed touchdown pass to Brun in the third quarter, he was off target most of the night — he threw for only 73 yards and was picked off three times — and his non-contact fumble torpedoed his team’s chances of a late comeback.
And if the 133-point, 1,500-plus-yard output poured on by Baylor and West Virginia on Saturday is any indication, the Tech defense will face plenty of challenges before the season ends. Hyder said Saturday the Red Raiders had to immediately turn their attention to the Sooners.
That’s not to say Tech, which has allowed only three offensive touchdowns through four games, isn’t going to enjoy the distinction of being the nation’s No. 1 defense for at least one more week.
“Seeing the results on the field,” Hyder said, “it feels a lot better for the defense this year.”
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