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October 9, 2011

Wolf Diamonds Wrap: Texas A&M

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Texas Tech fell to in-state rival Texas A&M 45-40 on Saturday night. The Red Raiders kept it close for most of the night, but were never able to close the gap.

THREE THINGS WE LEARNED

1. The Red Raiders' defense is improving week-by-week. Believe it or not -- and I'm sure this will come as little consolation to fans at this point -- but Texas Tech's defense is getting better.

Before I go any further, the Red Raiders' defense is clearly not where anyone -- players, coaches, fans -- would like it to be at this point. The statistics over the last three weeks have not been pretty, and the opponents are just going to get tougher as the season progresses.

"Our expectation is to go out and play perfect, and we're not going to settle for anything less than that," defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow said. "And we're going to continue to strive for that. Will we ever reach perfection? I don't know, but it's not okay to go lose a football game."

Still, among the ugly stats, there are encouraging signs of progress.

Tech's defense over the last three games, despite facing more difficult opponents each week, has consistently improved its numbers in key areas. The Red Raiders have gone from allowing 562 yards against Nevada (eight per play) to 478 yards against Kansas (6.5 per play) to 393 yards against Texas A&M (5.5 yards per play). Tech forced as many punts Saturday against the Aggies as they had against the Wolf Pack and Jayhawks combined (5). Those numbers are far from elite, to be sure, but Glasgow's defense is posting the kind of improvement week-to-week that one would expect out of such a young group.

There's still room for improvement, of course. The Red Raiders can do a better job of taking advantage of its opportunities in key situations -- whether you want to call these missed tackles, execution mistakes or just being a step too late. This hurt them early against Kansas, but Jayhawk turnovers lessened their impact. Saturday, the Aggies didn't lose a fumble or throw an interception, made Tech's margin for error razor thin.

For example, Tech allowed two third-and-long conversions Saturday that led to Aggie touchdowns -- a 40-yard pass on 3rd and 14 on A&M's opening drive and a 35-yard pass on 3rd and 9 in the second quarter. Those two conversions, considering the outcome of both drives, sting. But, even still, improvement can be seen here as well. The Red Raiders had the Aggies facing 3rd and 7-plus seven times on Saturday -- A&M converted two -- after forcing just eight similar situations in the last two games combined.

Tech's defense will need to post similar improvement in the coming weeks, as the team's offense took a major hit Saturday with the loss of Eric Stephens to injury.

2. Aaron Crawford, other running backs will have to step up in Stephens' absence. Everyone at Jones Stadium last night immediately recognized how serious Stephens' injury was as the play happened in real time. The air was sucked out of the stadium and there was a collective gasp in the press box. Stephens has been the Red Raiders' best and most consistent offensive player this season, and his loss could be disastrous for Tech's offense.

Ultimately, Seth Doege will have to shoulder the heaviest burden moving forward -- more on that below -- but Tech's other available running backs will have to step up in a big way moving forward. Aaron Crawford is arguably the team's most complete back at this point and, based on the way snaps were divided last night, clearly ahead of the others in blitz pickup and pass protection. DeAndre Washington has more attempts (22) and yards (107) of any of the other running backs, but is he ready for 20-plus carries a game? Kenny Williams probably fits the mold of an every-down back better than Washington, but he has struggled in his limited carries up to this point in the season.

Stephens' loss raises several questions about the offense that may not be answered until next Saturday or beyond. Does Ben McRoy or start getting reps at running back? Will Tech shift to more of a committee approach or invest most of the reps on one guy? The Red Raiders have turned to the Wildcat formation in several key situations this season, will they scrap that formation without Stephens or turn to Washington or another player?

3. Smith picked up right where he left off. Welcome back, Scott Smith. Following a 12-game suspension, Smith made his season debut Saturday against Texas A&M and, frankly, made a bigger impact than I expected going into the weekend. He finished with four solo tackles, two TFL, a sack and a forced fumble, which is pretty consistent with his pre-suspension numbers from last season.

OBSCENELY OBLIGATORY OVERREACTION

BIG 12 POWER RANKINGS
1. Oklahoma -Sooners made a 60-minute statement in Dallas and have now won back-to-back games against Texas for the first time since 2003-04.
2. Okla. State - Cowboys led Kansas 56-7 at halftime. Granted, KU is terrible, but still... wow.
3. Kansas State - Wildcats aren't winning big and don't have a true superstar, but they keep winning.
4. Texas A&M - Aggies get off the schneid and head to the SEC with scoreboard over the Red Raiders.
5. Baylor - Bears bounce back from loss to Kansas State with a big win over Iowa State.
6. Texas Tech - Red Raiders looked to be improved from previous two weeks, but wasn't enough to get the win.
7. Texas - Longhorns' offense was outscored by the Sooners' defense. Next.
8. Missouri - Tigers are below .500 for the first time in seven seasons.
9. Iowa State - Cyclones need three more wins to reach a bowl, will probably only be favored in one of their final seven games.
10. Kansas - Terribad
Doege has played well up to this point in the season. He's put up great numbers, hasn't made costly mistakes and hasn't shown a tendency to panic or get flustered when pressured.

He will have to be even better moving forward.

In the next four weeks, the Red Raiders will face three top 30 defenses. They'll place two undefeated teams. They'll play Oklahoma and Texas on the road. They'll face three of the Big 12's four best scoring defenses. They'll face three opponents that each beat them by double-digits in 2010.

Doege will have to put the offense on his back. He's passed every test he has faced up to this point in the season, but the tests have just increased in difficulty several-fold.

Darrin Moore's return next week should help Doege and boost a Tech passing attack that hasn't missed much of a beat in his absence. Eric Ward has continued to develop into a consistent weapon, and Alex Torres is as reliable as ever.

WEEKEND SUPERLATIVES

Most Likely To Be Hypochondriacs - I can only assume that the Texas A&M football program has an abnormally large number of hypochondriacs on its roster, because I have a hard time believing that Aggies -- who, remember, don't lie, cheat or steal -- would fake injuries in order to interrupt their opponent's momentum.

Best Troll - Bill Byrne wins the prize for the most successful troll of the weekend. Byrne's tweet that the A&M buses had been "vandalized" with excrement and "spray painted vulgarities." In reality, there was some dog feces in one bus and the others had been defaced with -- wait for it -- shoe-polish. Unsurprisingly, regional and national media jumped on Byrne's tweet and helped propagate the notion that Tech fans broke into Aggie buses and left them standing on cinderblocks.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

I wonder if Mack Brown looked around the locker room Saturday following Texas' 55-17 loss to Oklahoma and said, "Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast." Oklahoma scored three defensive touchdowns in a single game for the first time in its history -- OU's defense also outscored the Longhorn offense -- and Landry Jones torched UT for 367 yards and three touchdowns.

Baylor beat Iowa State in the Bounceback Bowl, and now heads to a key game against Texas A&M in College Station. The Aggies opened as 9.5-point favorites, which seems a little high given how A&M's defense has struggled this season. Either way, the over/under on that game should start out at 85.

Brandon Weeden (33.2), Seth Doege (32.4) and Landry Jones (28.4) lead the Big 12 in completions per game. Weeden also leads the league in passing yards (1,880) and completion percentage (75.8); Jones is tops in yards per attempt (8.85) and yards per completion (12.77); Doege leads in touchdowns (17) and fewest interceptions (1).

Kansas State is 5-0 for the first time since 2000 -- the Wildcats started 6-0 that season -- but have won four of their five games by a combined 15 points. Bill Snyder's crew got after Kent State 37-0, but the other four games have been decided by seven (Missouri), one (Baylor), four (Miami) and three (Eastern Kentucky) points.

Missouri is off to its worst start (2-3) since Gary Pinkel's first Tiger team in 2001; MU finished 4-7 that season. Pinkel's program is also under .500 for the first time since being 4-5 on Nov. 6, 2004 after a loss to Kansas State.

Baylor's Kendall Wright and Tech's Eric Ward lead the country in touchdown receptions (8).



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