Red Raiders have a lot of work to do heading into Big 12 play

With the dawn of a new work week, Texas Tech football fans are quickly turning their attention to this week’s Big 12 opener at West Virginia. While Saturday’s victory over Tarleton State was a nice reprieve from the consternation that had defined the first two weeks of the season, it isn’t one worth celebrating or spending too much time on.

Now, the opportunity to make some real waves has arrived in the form of a Big 12 conference that is rather unsettled, especially in the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, there is no denying that Texas and Oklahoma have been the class of the conference thus far as they are the only teams in the league that are ranked this week.

Texas has looked the part of one of the best teams in the nation and their win at Alabama in week two was arguably the biggest win any college football team has secured thus far.  However, they were not impressive in week one by beating Rice 37-10 and in this past weekend’s 31-10 triumph over Wyoming, they were actually tied with the Cowboys at 10-10 in the 4th quarter.

What’s more, after a sloppy 17-3 win at South Florida this weekend, it is looking like this version of the Crimson Tide might be the worst of the Nick Saban era.  So is Texas really a national title contender?  Big 12 play will tell us quite a bit about whether or not they are.

OU is also far from being worthy of getting the benefit of the doubt as a factor on the national scene.  Throttling Arkansas State and Tulsa is nothing worth scheduling a parade for and the Sooners were less than dominant in week two’s 28-11 home win over SMU.

Still, those two soon-to-be-ex-Big 12 programs sit atop the conference’s hierarchy heading into week four.  The rest of the conference…well…it’s a mess.

The gooey middle of the Big 12 is about as jumbled as one could ever expect.  What we do know is that Houston, Baylor, Iowa State, Cincy, and Oklahoma State all look to be fatally flawed, if not downright awful.  What’s more, the group consisting of Tech, West Virginia, Kansas, BYU, UCF, TCU, and Kansas State all appear to be uncertain bets from week to week at best.

Therefore, there still remain plenty of questions for every Big 12 team to answer.  That’s absolutely true of the Red Raiders who sit at just 1-2 this year.

What we saw against Tarleton did little to assuage any concerns about this team and, in some ways, the 41-3 win actually raised more questions than we had heading into the game.  So, let’s take a look at what we still don’t know about Joey McGuire’s team as we look toward Big 12 play.

Who is the right player to be QB1 for Texas Tech?

Steven Sheffield vs. Taylor Potts.  Davis Webb vs. Baker Mayfield.  Pat Mahomes vs. Davis Webb.  Those are some of the more memorable QB controversies this program has lived through in the modern era.

Now, we could be on the verge of adding Tyler Shough vs. Behren Morton to that list.  While the coaching staff doesn’t seem inclined to participate in any QB debate, the fan base certainly is and the noise is only growing louder after Morton played virtually the entire second half against Tarleton.

It wasn’t just that Morton played, it was that he took over after Shough was less than impressive for a third straight week.  What’s more, Morton also looked sharper and more dynamic than Shough.  Now, the fan base is clambering for a change at the position.

Thus, it is fair to wonder whether or not this program actually has put its trust in the correct QB this season.  That’s not where anyone wants the Red Raiders to stand on the eve of Big 12 play.

Shough will get the start against West Virginia.  It will be the most important game of his career.

If he plays well he will silence his critics.  If he struggles, though, the pressure for McGuire to make a change might force the head coach’s hand.

So far, West Virginia is giving up only 214.6 yards per game through the air.  Now, it must be noted that none of the three teams they have played (Penn State, Duquense, and Pitt) are known for having elite passing attacks.  On the other hand, it also isn’t fair to label Tech’s passing game as top-notch either given what we’ve seen thus far.

This week’s road test in Morgantown will tell us quite a bit about Shough as a competitor and as a player.  It is his opportunity to put to rest a brewing QB controversy and reaffirm his hold on the QB1 job.  If he can’t do that, we will go even deeper into the season wondering if the coaching staff is misguided in its trust in Shough.

Is this offensive line good enough?

While many of Shough’s mistakes and turnovers lie at his own feet, his offensive line has not done him too many favors either.  That’s why many still question whether or not this line is capable of holding up against Big 12 teams.

Sure, the line has faced Oregon and the Ducks have maybe the best defensive line that Tech will see this year.  In that game, the offense did manage 30 points.

However, that was in spite of the line’s performance, not because of it.  That night, Tech gave up four sacks and five tackles for loss as it was obvious that the Ducks’ defensive front was better than Tech’s line.

Many of Tech’s O-line flaws were exposed that night.  Monroe Mills was called for three penalties at the left tackle position.  (What’s more, he was flagged for a holding penalty against Tarleton but the Texans declined that foul.)

Meanwhile, center Rusty Staats was routinely beaten by the Oregon defensive tackles, including on the game-deciding pick-six where his man abused him on the way to hitting Shough and causing the interception that would spell Tech’s ultimate doom.

The line was better against Tarleton but that was to be expected.  However, the Texans still managed to collect three sacks against the starting Red Raider O-line.

Fortunately, WVU is not a great pass-rushing defense.  With only five sacks on the season, the Mountaineers rank tied for last in the Big 12 with OU and BYU.  Of course, that stat also could be attributed to the fact that WVU has not faced any pass-heavy teams thus far thus limiting their opportunities to get after opposing QBs.

Tech has massive questions to answer along the rebuilt O-line and how that group performs against the Mountaineers will be anyone’s guess.  That’s not what any team wants to have to deal with when conference play arrives.

Can the Texas Tech defense generate enough turnovers?

Texas Tech generated three turnovers against Tarleton…sort of.  The reality is that both of the INTs that Malik Dunlap came away with were just the result of awful throws by the Texans’ QB.

Meanwhile, Dadrion Taylor-Demerson’s INT came on a wounded duck that floated his way after reserve DE Harvey Dyson managed to hit the passer.  While that was a great play by Dyson, it is hard to envision him seeing much (if any) action in a competitive game given how far down the depth chart he is.

Also, keep in mind that one of the turnovers Tech forced against Wyoming in game one was the direct result of a terrific individual play by linebacker Jacob Rodriguez, who is out for at least a few more weeks with a foot injury.  Thus, it is again fair to wonder whether or not the key players currently available to this defense can create enough havoc to force turnovers at a rate that is needed to win in the Big 12.

So far, WVU has a turnover margin of +2 on the season.  What’s more, they have yet to throw a pick this year as all three of their giveaways in 2023 have been lost fumbles.

Keep in mind, though, that the Mountaineers have also attempted the fewest passes of any Big 12 team this year, 70.  Maybe Tech can jump out to a sizeable early lead on Saturday and force them to rely on the passing game to catch up which could lead to an interception or two.

The Red Raiders relied on taking the ball away in 2022.  Their 19 turnovers gained was 5th in the Big 12 and 58th in the NCAA.

This year, their turnover stats have been padded by what they did against this past week’s FCS opponent.  They won’t see another team of that poor caliber again this season.  When taking on high-quality teams, can they manage to take the ball away with enough regularity to win games?  That’s yet to be seen.

Can the Texas Tech pass rush become more impactful?

To win games in the Big 12, teams must impact the opposing passer.  There’s reason for questioning whether this Texas Tech team can do that with any regularity.

So far, Tech has managed just two sacks per game, good for only 9th in the conference.  However, half of the six sacks this team has on the season came against Tarleton.

Against Oregon, Tech got only one sack and that is concerning because that’s the caliber of team that the Red Raiders will face in Big 12 play.  On the other hand, maybe a better showing from a key pass rusher this past weekend will be the start of something positive.

Leading the team with two sacks against the Texans, defensive end Myles Cole finally made the type of impact that fans and coaches alike have been waiting for him to make.  Hopefully, that will carry into conference play.

Tech also needs outside LB Steve Linton and defensive end Joseph Adedire to get fully healthy as both are dealing with nagging injuries that have impacted their effectiveness.  Is it realistic to expect them to heal during the rigors of conference play, though?  That’s usually when players tend to suffer more ailments rather than returning to health.

The Red Raiders need someone to become a consistent pass rush force though.  It is too bad that promising redshirt sophomore Isaac Smith is out for the year after he showed promise at the end of last season when All-Big 12 DE Tyree Wilson was lost with a foot injury.

Against Tarleton, true freshman, Dylan Spencer made his Red Raider debut and he flashed with a pair of tackles.  However, it is tough to expect him to be an instant pass-rush menace in his first year as a collegiate despite the fact that he was a 4-star recruit in the class of 2023.

If the pass rush is going to improve, it is going to be the veterans who will have to take their game to the next level.  However, what we’ve seen from this year’s defensive line isn’t all that encouraging in that area.