October 29, 2007

What is the problem with these Red Raiders?

It has been said that nothing generates resentment more powerfully than gratification denied. When one is promised something desirable or even led to expect such a thing and then has it taken away, the aggrieved party then turns upon the entity that reneged.

This phenomenon explains much of the fury the Texas Tech fanbase is currently directing toward the program it loves.

Hence, the Red Raiders started the season 6-1 and concluded that stretch with a resounding thumping of the much-loathed Texas A&M Aggies. Moreover, Mike Leach replaced the generally unloved Lyle Setencich with Ruffin McNeill as interim defensive coordinator and suddenly it looked as though the Red Raiders finally had a legitimate defense.

In other words, the future appeared so incandescent that one was forced to don Ray-Bans.

A team that went into the season with generally low expectations-at least from outside the program-looked poised to far exceed those expectations. In what was to be a rebuilding year, the Red Raiders seemed on the verge of contending for a Big 12 championship and with a very young team at that.

And this "reality" set mouths to salivating over 2008 when virtually the entire roster would return and a few key blue chip type recruits would arrive to dulcify the mix even further.

The euphoria was palpable.

But then an avalanche fell upon the team from the flatlands.

The Red Raiders traveled to Missouri for a nationally-televised clash that would seemingly determine which of the two programs would vault to the next echelon in college football's pecking order, and which would decline to pretender status.

Not only did Texas Tech lose this crucial game, they were annihilated. The Red Raiders managed only 10 points against a Tiger defense that just this week allowed the pathetic Iowa State Cyclones to score 28. Hmmmmm…

But all was not lost. Tech was returning to the friendly confines of Jones/AT&T stadium where they would surely ruff up the Buffs of Colorado. The Buffaloes sported an anemic, turnover-prone offense, and the Red Raider Air Raid would surely return to historic form, hanging half-a-hunnert on CU in the process.

Didn't happen. Not even close.

Texas Tech turned into a turnover machine, the defense played serviceably at best, and Colorado punctured the Red Raiders before a lethargic crowd of 49,000.

Now the great plus of this season has morphed into a minus. Rather than challenging strongly for that Big 12 title, Texas Tech faces the very real possibility of a 7-5 mark and a fifth place finish in the Big 12 South. The tempting t-bone has been ripped from the muzzle of the slavering, ravening Doberman only to be replaced by a boot in the chops. No wonder folks are chapped!

That explains the mood in Raiderland. What it does not explain is the team's apparent collapse. Why does a team that looked so promising less than a month ago now appear to be so faulty?

There are several answers to that question, some general, others more specific.

Starting with the general, the level of competition has obviously risen a notch or two. None of Tech's non-conference opponents, upon which the Air Raid feasted and fattened its statistical line, are worthy of respect.

Furthermore, Tech's two Big 12 victims are not exactly gridiron colossi. The aforementioned Cyclones of Iowa State will vie with Nebraska for the North cellar, while Texas A&M, cursed by the spirit of Rodney Allison, cannot defeat the Red Raiders, and certainly not in Lubbock.

That leaves Oklahoma State, Missouri and Colorado, quite possibly the three best teams Tech has faced this season and the dealers of Tech's three defeats. Missouri is a potential BCS team, while Oklahoma State has a talented offense and Colorado an excellent defense. The latter two are one-armed teams, but they were good enough to beat the Red Raiders, and that's a bit frightening.

Another general factor is Tech's youth. The Red Raiders start only one senior on offense and three on defense. The offensive line is manned by four sophomores; a freshman is the offense's premiere player; another freshman started the Colorado game at running back, and freshmen start at nose tackle and strong-side linebacker.

That is an extremely raw lineup.

And all things being equal, experienced teams are better than inexperienced ones. They are more mentally and physically mature, they are more confident in what they are doing, they are more cohesive, and they execute better.

Young teams, on the other hand, commit more errors and frequently panic when confronted with adversity. This makes a difference in the won/lost column, and make no mistake.

But there are a couple of more specific problems as well. And both of them are on the offensive side of the football.

To begin with, Graham Harrell is obviously having problems. He is forcing the ball into coverage, relying too heavily on Michael Crabtree, is not going through his progressions, and throws to the right side of the field too often. Harrell is also doing a poor job of getting rid of the ball before pressure arrives, and is exhibiting an obliviousness to pocket conditions, which results in sacks. As often as not, Harrell's sacks are his own doing, not the offensive line's.

But there's another problem that is equally the fault Harrell and Mike Leach. In short, the Red Raiders have totally abandoned the running game. In the losses to Missouri and Colorado, Tech running backs carried the ball a grand total of 14 times while Harrell threw the ball 131 times. That is one rush for every 9.4 passes.

Conversely, Red Raider running backs carried the ball 24 times in Tech's only impressive win of the season (A&M), while Harrell threw only 37 times. That is one run for every 1.5 passes.

Leach and Harrell must come to terms with the fact that the running game is a passing quarterback's best friend. By keeping the defense honest and forcing it to actually defend the line of scrimmage the running game complicates the life of safeties and linebackers, and prevents defensive linemen from pinning their ears back on every single play. It also increases completion percentages and reduces the likelihood of interceptions. Against the Aggies, Harrell completed 30 of 37 passes and threw no picks. I do not think this is coincidental.

The Red Raiders can do nothing about their youthfulness and the competition only gets tougher. But they can run the ball more frequently. Will they though?

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