Count Mack Brown among those who are impressed by the improvements made this season by the Texas Tech defense.
“They’ve probably got the best turnaround on defense I’ve ever seen,” said the Texas coach, whose team will face the Red Raiders at 2:30 p.m. Saturday inside Jones AT&T Stadium. “They’re doing things I haven’t seen Texas Tech do in many, many years.”
Despite surrendering 108 points in its last two games, Tech ranks No. 12 in total defense at an even 300 yards per game. With only one-third of the season remaining, it is firmly established that the unit’s rise from 114th in defense — its spot each of the last two years — is no fluke.
For all its strides, though, the defense believes one important aspect is missing.
“Right now it seems like we’re the best defense with no turnovers,” Tech safety D.J. Johnson said. “We haven’t (forced) many turnovers, and that’s a battle you have to win.”
Tech ranks eighth in the Big 12 Conference in turnover margin, and its 10 takeaways are tied for the second fewest in the league.
The Red Raiders (6-2, 3-2) have seen how effective their defense can be when it does cause opponents to cough up the ball. Tech forced four turnovers in the conference opener against Iowa State, as the defense led the way in a hard-fought, 24-13 road victory. But that defense has only four takeaways in the last four games, including a goose egg in Saturday’s 55-24 loss at Kansas State.
Tech has lost the turnover battle by a six-to-one margin in its two losses and has a nine-to-eight edge in its six wins.
So how do the Red Raiders go about handing the ball back to its offense more often?
“We have to make sure we go out there and tug on the ball,” Johnson said. “We’re aggressive making tackles and aggressive going towards the ball, but we’re not aggressive when we’re at the ball.”
Fellow safety Cody Davis agrees with Johnson’s assessment. The defense has largely been in the right position at the right time, Davis said, but forcing turnovers will require an extra level of attention.
“I think we just have to maintain our focus on turnovers,” he said. “Sometimes teams are good at not making mistakes like Kansas State was — coming into and during our game — so we’ve got to work on getting strips, and the interceptions will come as long as we keep up the good coverage.”
Texas (6-2, 3-2) has protected the ball well this season. Its eight turnovers are the third fewest in the Big 12 behind Kansas State (4) and West Virginia (5).
Given the way the Longhorns ran over Tech last season, the Tech defense may settle for consistently forcing punts on Saturday. Texas amassed 439 rushing yards in Austin last season, throwing the ball only nine times in a 55-20 win against the Red Raiders.
With the Big 12’s third-ranked rushing offense at about 198 yards per game, Tech coach Tommy Tuberville believes the Longhorns could pose a similar challenge this time around.
“Last year it was a debacle,” Tuberville said. “We never slowed them down, never made them punt. I’m sure they’re going to test us pretty good and see if we can stop them. We’ll see if we’re up to the challenge. We’re a better defense than we were. Are we good enough to get that done? We’ll just have to wait and see.”
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