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October 20, 2008
Signals from the static
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MYSTERIES OF THE DEFENSE: One of the football axioms you'll sometimes hear is that "you can't just flip the switch." Meaning, if a team - or a defense - is playing poorly it cannot simply decide to begin playing well and then do so. Or, in other words, the way a team plays at the beginning of a game is more or less the way it will play the entire game. Thankfully for the Texas Tech defense, this particular bit of football wisdom is not a cast iron law.
The first half of the game against Texas A&M was the poorest half of football played by the Tech defense since Ruffin McNeill took over as defensive coordinator early in the 2007 season. Heck, for sheer awfulness, it rivaled the horrendous performances against North Carolina State and T. A. McClendon, Missouri and Brad Smith, and Oklahoma State and Tatum Bell.
But as dreadful as that first half was, the second half was equally good. Thirty-two total yards and five first downs for the Aggies in the second half? After that nightmare of a first half? Are you kidding me? No. And truth is stranger than fiction.
There is no easy explanation for the defensive turnaround. I'm not sure there's a logical one. Still, we can point to a couple of things.
First, Tech's pass rush, good in the first half, was withering in the second. Three of Tech's four sacks came in the second half. Brandon Williams, unsurprisingly, had one of them. But the other two were by Daniel Howard and Brandon Sharpe. McKinner Dixon had been totally and surprisingly ineffective in the first half (I suspect he was playing hurt), and Howard/Sharpe teamed up to supply that needed secondary pass rusher. Consequently, A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson was made uncomfortable.
A second factor is that the Red Raider offense possessed the ball 23 of 30 minutes in the second half. Tech had drives of seven and four minutes which, by Air Raid standards, are positively epic. So, ironically enough, the Air Raid played a bit of ball control, keeping the A&M offense off the field and giving the Tech defense a blow.
I suspect we will see Mike Leach adopt this strategy more readily in the future if the situation calls for it, and I think Ruffin McNeill will pay extra heed to the importance of having two dangerous pass rushers on the field at all times.
NOT A NEBRASKA REDUX: As the Aggie offense was shredding Tech's defense in the first half, many observers were doubtless flashing back to the second half of the Nebraska game where the Huskers did basically the same thing. But there was a huge difference between the two halves: against Nebraska the Red Raiders forced the Huskers to execute perfectly, and to Nebraska's credit, they did so. Against A&M, on the other hand, the Aggies were not even required to execute. Rather, Tech's defensive back seven were out of position, blowing coverages, missing tackles, and making it easy for the likes of Ryan Tannehill to make like Wes Welker. It really was a total defensive meltdown for the linebackers and secondary.
RUPTURED TRAMAIN: Despite the complete defensive collapse, the Red Raiders came close to putting the game away before halftime. Leading 20-16, Graham Harrell dropped back to pass and hit Tramain Swindall with a 40-yard bomb over the middle. Swindall was force to slow down for the pass, and as he was twisted to the turf, lost control of the ball. The Aggies recovered.
This play produced a 14-point swing and it is not all on Swindall's slender shoulders. Yes, Swindall's fumble resulted in an Aggie touchdown, giving them a 23-20 halftime lead. But had Harrell hit Swindall in stride, there would have been no fumble, and it is probable that Swindall would have taken it to the house, resulting in a 27-16 Red Raider lead.
Swindall needs to gain upper body strength. No doubt about it. This will help him with ball security, and also with sustaining effective blocks. But Harrell needs to lead his receivers better on fades and flies, too.
THIRD DOWN HITS: Tech's defense has taken pride in getting off the field on third down. Coming into the A&M contest, they were among the nation's elite in this area, allowing third down conversions at roughly a 25% clip. The Aggies, however, were six of 14 on third down conversions. The Red Raiders will need to improve here against Kansas this Saturday.
OFFICIATING FIASCO: The officiating did not affect the ultimate outcome of the game, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it was among the worst I've ever seen. Just a few of the botched calls: 1.) In the first quarter Tech defensive tackle Richard Jones was clipped flagrantly while pursuing Jerrod Johnson, but there was no call. Jones may well have been injured on the play. 2.) Later in the first quarter, Colby Whitlock has obviously held on an incomplete pass. No call. 3.) Early in the second quarter a Tech defender (Bront Bird, Daniel Howard or Daniel Charbonnet) was tripped coming off the edge. An Aggie lineman grabbed his ankle and upended him. No call. 4.) Later in the second quarter Shannon Woods was herded out of bounds on an intermediate wheel route, directly in front of an official. No pass interference call was forthcoming.
PERRY POWER: Chris Perry saw his first extended action of the season and looked like a hoss. He was not credited with a tackle, but was in the Aggie backfield creating chaos on a couple of occasions.
GRAHAM WOOFING: The television cameras caught Graham Harrell egging on the Aggie crowd after a touchdown pass and then carrying on an animated conversation with A&M supporters on the sideline behind Tech's bench. This is a double-edged sword, I suppose. On the one hand, it's nice to have a fiery and confident quarterback. On the other, one fears a quarterback who is distracted and loses his poise. Ideally, it seems, a quarterback blocks out the road crowd abuse and vituperation, difficult as that may be. Harrell, however, seems to enjoy the dialogue, with both road crowd and home.
PLAY ACTION PARADE: The Air Raid used play action against A&M more than in any game of recent vintage. Quite effective it was, too. This is something you can do when you've got a running game that strikes fear in the heart of a defense.