Texas Tech goes into its first open week of the season in a somewhat desirable position: Opponents have made Tech’s shortcomings clear in the first month, but they haven’t cost the Red Raiders a game yet.
After a 33-7 home victory Saturday against Texas State, Tech is 4-0 with a week it can devote to looking at its uncertain quarterback situation and the related issues of offensive line play with a punchless running game.
Tech doesn’t play again until Oct. 5 at Kansas, but this isn’t a week to take it easy.
“It’s huge,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We’ve got to get better, especially with some young players at certain positions. We’ve got to use that to improve our team and keep it rolling.
“We’re excited to be 4-0 at this point. Especially with the last two weeks, not playing very well on offense, it says a lot about our team and the other sides of the ball rising up when we need them to.”
On Sunday, Tech moved up to No. 24 in The Associated Press Top 25 and moved into the USA Today coaches poll at No. 25. The constants so far have been a solid defense, one that ranks tied for 15th in the nation in scoring defense, and special teams play that’s included nine field goals from Ryan Bustin and good coverage units that have helped the defense with field position.
Another plus: Junior receivers Jace Amaro and Bradley Marquez are showing signs of breakout seasons, Amaro with team highs of 29 receptions for 367 yards and Marquez with a touchdown catch in every game so far.
However, Tech will arrive at October with its quarterback situation more uncertain perhaps that at any time since preseason practice started. The line between Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb has blurred with Mayfield throwing four interceptions the last two weeks and having fumbled four times in the first four games, though Tech has recovered all four.
Webb has been about as vulnerable to freshman mistakes, throwing two interceptions on Saturday, when he played 10 series to Mayfield’s five.
Publicly, Kingsbury hasn’t been particularly harsh on either, saying some errors come with the territory of playing true freshmen at quarterback. His biggest knock on both seems to be a tendency to bail from the pocket early and not protect the football.
Sophomore Michael Brewer is expected to return to practice during preparation for Kansas, though it remains to be seen how long he’ll need to get back in sync with the offense and be game ready.
Meanwhile, a run game that ranks No. 103 has done little to take pressure off the quarterbacks. On Saturday, Kingsbury seemed to put that struggle more on the offensive line.
“We had way too many times where we had (the) numbers (advantage) in the run game and weren’t able to produce the yards,” Kingsbury said. “And we’ve just got to keep getting better, because those backs are good players and a lot of times there’s nowhere to go.”
In week three, the defense stole the show in Tech’s 20-10 victory against TCU, playing well start to finish. On Saturday, the defense kept denying Texas State until the Tech offense got untracked in the second half.
There were four good examples in the first half alone.
Twice, the Red Raiders turned away the Bobcats in situations of first-and-goal from the 1. In the first instance, middle linebacker Sam Eguavoen dropped quarterback Tyler Arndt for a 2-yard loss, and then outside linebacker Pete Robertson intercepted a pass on the next play.
In the second first-and-goal situation, Tech turned away the Bobcats on downs with linebacker Will Smith leading the goal-line stand by getting in on three tackles in four plays.
A little earlier, Smith picked up a fumble that defensive tackle Kerry Hyder caused and ran it in for a touchdown.
And Texas State was also threatening late in the first quarter after a sudden change situation. But on first down from the Tech 26, cornerback Bruce Jones caused a fumble that linebacker Terrance Bullitt recovered.
Kingsbury was grateful for that. He took some of the blame for the offense’s slow start on himself.
“I think the defense played great again,” he said, “and I think offensively we had two turnovers and two fourth-down stops in the first half and just didn’t get a rhythm for the second week in a row. I’ve got to do a better job of game planning and getting those guys ready to go.”
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