Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury entered the 2017 season on one of the hottest seats in college football. The former Red Raiders quarterback guided the team to just two bowl games in his first four seasons on the sidelines, and has yet to post more than eight wins in a single campaign. With one of the most explosive offenses in the country, but also the worst defense, statistically speaking, Tech won just five games in 2016.
Facing an arguably more difficult schedule this year than last, and with the daunting task of replacing quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft, most expected Tech to struggle to post a .500 record. However, following a perfect 3-0 run through non-conference play and a near miss in the Big 12 opener against a ranked Oklahoma State squad, the improvement is noticeable in Lubbock. Kingsbury should not only survive the season, but the Red Raiders also look like a surefire bowl team and a potential factor in the league title race.
Scoring points is rarely an issue at Texas Tech. New quarterback Nic Shimonek has completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 1,578 yards and 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions across his first four starts behind center. Five receivers have already surpassed 100 receiving yards this season, led by Keke Coutee’s 499 yards on 31 receptions. Coutee, who also leads the team with four TD catches, is one of seven players to haul in a scoring strike. Also, three players have already run for 100 yards, led by Justin Stockton, who has gained 224 yards on 42 carries and has scored a team-high three touchdowns on the ground.
Instead, defense has always been the question mark during Kingsbury’s tenure. In 2016, Tech ranked dead last nationally in total defense (554.3 ypg) and scoring defense (43.5 ppg), ranked No. 126 in yards allowed per play (7.05), 125th in pass defense (315.8 ypg) and 116th in rush defense (238.6 ypg). There’s still work to do, but this year’s squad has made great strides in all four major statistical categories. In non-conference play, Tech held its opponents to an average of 26.3 points and 407 yards per game, as well as 5.01 yards per play. After last week’s 41-34 loss to Oklahoma State, the Red Raiders have surrendered 30.0 points per contest, 454.8 yards, including 145.0 rushing yards and 309.8 passing, and 5.65 yards per play.
The Red Raiders allowed a season-high 597 yards to the Cowboys, including 397 passing, but Tech largely kept the lid on one of the nation’s best aerial attacks. Oklahoma State didn’t record a play longer than 37 yards against Texas Tech, and dynamic wide receiver James Washington — who hauled in passes that went at least 66 yards in three of his first four games — was held to a long of 30 and a season low 14.1 yards per catch. By limiting the big plays that plagued the unit last season, the Red Raiders' defense kept Tech in the game until the end. The offense even had the ball with a chance to take the lead with fewer than three minutes left to play.
Numbers tell one story, but as the saying goes, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie: Texas Tech also looks more competent defensively. The Red Raiders have been surer tacklers in David Gibbs’ third season as defensive coordinator, and the unit has stepped up to make big plays as well. For example, the Red Raiders scored on a 95-yard interception after picking off Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph in the first quarter last week. The pick-six was one of three red zone stops in the contest.
Unfortunately for the Red Raiders, the Tech defense couldn’t keep the Cowboys out of the end zone when it mattered most. Rudolph capped a 79-yard, fourth-quarter drive with a 16-yard TD run to give his team a lead with less than a minute on the clock. Nevertheless, the improved performance the defense showed during the first 59 minutes of the game — as well as the three-game non-conference winning streak to open the season — is evidence Kingsbury has the Red Raiders heading in the right direction.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributors Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.