A disastrous defeat for Texas Tech

Unfortunately, it was the same song just another verse for the Texas Tech football program in its series against Kansas State on Saturday night. Suffering their eighth straight loss to the Wildcats, Tech might have lost more than just the game, though, in the 38-21 defeat at Jones Stadium.

Starting quarterback Behren Morton was unable to complete the game after aggravating a right shoulder injury that he has been playing through since the West Virginia game.  With Morton not available after halftime, true freshman Jake Strong was forced into action for the first time as a collegiate, and a cavalcade of mistakes from the youngster ultimately spelled doom for the Red Raiders.

Let’s break down what happened in this frustrating loss with some rapid reactions.  And we have to start by asking the question that every Red Raider is probably asking tonight.

Is the Texas Tech football program cursed?

Each year, we keep thinking that the Red Raiders will finally have a season with good fortune at the QB position.  But time and again, devastating injuries at the game’s most critical position seem to befall this program.

This has been a problem since the start of the Kingsbury era in 2013 when he had to juggle between Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb all season as both dealt with nagging injuries all season.  Don’t forget though, that those two freshmen only played because Michael Brewer, the anticipated starter that year, hurt his back in a wakeboarding incident prior to the season and missed the entire year.

Outside of Pat Mahomes (who only got to start as a freshman because of an injury to Webb in 2014) no Red Raider QB has started every game of a season since Seth Doege in 2012.  Tech has lost its week-one starter to injury in 2014, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

What’s more, in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022, Tech has had three different players start a game at QB.  Unless Morton makes a remarkable recovery this week, it seems like 2023 will be added to that list next Saturday in Provo, Utah.

There really is no explanation for this run of awful luck at QB.  At some point, one would have to think that the law of averages would send an injury-free season at QB to the Red Raiders.

It won’t be in 2023 though and that’s simply maddening.  Maybe Texas Tech is cursed.  Maybe Holden Hall was constructed on an ancient sacred religious site that no one knows about and we are being damned by the gods. But whatever the reason, it sure is getting old.

Alan Bowman, Jett Duffey, McLane Carter, Tyler Shough, Donovan Smith, and now Behren Morton.  All have missed at least one start due to injury since the start of 2018 (assuming that Morton is unable to play against BYU) and that’s no way for a program to turn things around.

The Texas Tech offensive line is still a problem

If there is one reason why Morton was injured, it would have to be the punishment he took behind a porous Texas Tech offensive line.  Time and again in the first half, Morton was under duress even when the Wildcats were rushing only three or four players.  That just can’t happen.

For the game, KSU would record only two sacks and three tackles for loss.  But that doesn’t tell the story of how poorly Tech’s line played.

Morton took several huge shots in the pocket and he was repeatedly forced to run for his life.  In fact, aside from his one-yard TD sneak, the rest of his six carries on the night were scrambles where he had to leave the pocket to avoid the KSU rush.

Morton never looked comfortable in the pocket and while some of that likely had to do with his tentativeness due to his gimpy shoulder, much of it was because he was under constant pressure.  Plus, when Strong was inserted into the game KSU started to bring the house and the Red Raiders couldn’t make them pay for that.

In the last two weeks, Tech’s offensive line woes were masked by facing the two worst defensive lines in the Big 12, Baylor and Houston.  This week, the Red Raiders had to face a good (but not elite) KSU defensive front and all of the O-line flaws we saw in the season’s first four games were still there.

Until the Red Raiders fix the offensive line issues, this program is going to remain stuck in neutral. This offseason, two new pieces were added to the starting five and the three returning starters were all moved to different positions.  That hasn’t solved anything meaning that next year, another O-line shuffle is going to be part of the offseason plan and that’s no way to build a consistent winner.

Jake Strong looked just like Texas Tech fans should expect a true freshman to look

There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that Jake Strong’s three consecutive second-half interceptions were why the Red Raiders lost this game.  However, it is hard to be too upset with the true freshman because he played just like one should expect a true freshman to play, especially when he’s making his NCAA debut against a good Big 12 team.

Strong showed some nice signs, especially on the 99-yard third-quarter TD drive that gave Tech its only lead of the game, 21-17.  He ended the game 16-28 for 163 yards and a TD throught he air and 54 yards on the ground (all on one carry) and that’s all you can ask of a true freshman who had to throw his first career passes in a relief role against the defending Big 12 champions.

The best moment from Strong was when he stood in the pocket and delivered the TD pass to Jerand Bradley despite taking a huge hit from a blitzing linebacker.  He also had some nice completions to Myles Price over the middle of the field and Coy Eakin down the sideline.

The problem is that Tech put too much on his shoulders.  Asking him to throw 28 passes in his first half of college football is just too much.

Strong was fearless in his debut and he showed that he is capable of playing at this level.  However, he also made three critical mistakes and that’s what you expect of a true freshman who had never set foot on the field as a Red Raider before.

Meanwhile, KSU’s true freshman QB, Avery Johnson (who was not making his college debut) had a career day with 5 rushing TDs and 91 yards on 12 carries.  He was also 8/9 passing but it was sure convenient for him to be able to use his legs as his primary weapon, something that Strong didn’t have the luxury of.

Texas Tech OC Zach Kittley abandons the run

Just this week, I praised Tech OC Zach Kittley for committing to the ground game since Shough’s injury. So, of course, he went away from that strategy at the absolute worst time on Saturday night.

On the three drives that ended in Strong interceptions, Kittley had his true freshman throw the ball 13 times.  During that same span, Tahj Brooks carried the ball only three times.  Does that seem like a wise plan to anyone?

Look, everyone thinks they are a natural-born offensive coordinator.  Of course, Zach Kittley knows more about coaching football than anyone sitting on their couch watching at home.

However, even the most novice fan can see that this offense is at its best when Brooks is featured.  So when Tech turned away from the ground game simply because KSU was up by 10 points and deploying a heavy box, it was a grave mistake.

If you have to rely on a true freshman who has never appeared in a game before, you should try to make life as easy as possible for him.  Kittley didn’t do that.

Despite having maybe the best running back in the Big 12, Kittley fell back into his old ways.  He reverted to his comfort zone of throwing the ball and I simply don’t understand why.

KSU bullied the Red Raiders on both sides of the line

Every year, regardless of who the head coaches are or who is on each roster, Kansas State seems to bully Tech at the line of scrimmage.  I don’t know why that is other than the consistency that the Wildcats have had at the head coaching position.

Going from Bill Snyder to Chris Kleiman was like giving a white building a fresh coat of eggshell white paint.  Not much changed in regard to philosophy and methodology in Manhattan and Kleiman’s teams look a lot like Snyders always did.

It is a program that has had stars like Deuce Vaughn or Tyler Lockett but which has always been built upon physicality.  That’s why KSU was able to turn to their true freshman QB and still have success on Saturday night via the QB run game.

Meanwhile, Tech tried to finesse its way through this game even when Morton was lost.  Physicality almost always beats finesse in football and Kansas State is always more physical than Texas Tech.  KSU ran the ball 47 times and threw it just 18 times.  Tech ran it only 30 times and threw it 49 times.

Also, one team laid the wood on defense and knocked the opposition’s starting QB out of the game.  The other could hardly lay a finger on the opposing QB allowing a true freshman to run wild and smile his way to a record-setting performance for a freshman KSU QB in regard to touchdown rushes.

Until Tech gets better and more physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage, games like we saw on Saturday are going to continue to turn into losses.  For the last two weeks, Tech was able to bully two awful Big 12 teams but the roles were reversed on Saturday and a familiar script was followed in this series.

Texas Tech has a tough hill to climb just to reach a bowl

This loss means that Tech is just 3-4 overall on the year.  That means that the Red Raiders are going to have to go 3-2 the rest of the way to just get to bowl eligibility this season.

How depressing is it for a season that began with such hype to turn into one that we can only hope ends with a trip to a low-level bowl that will be played in a half-empty stadium against a Group of 5 team?  Unfortunately, that seems to be the best-case scenario now.

Tech isn’t going to play for a Big 12 title this season.  That was the dream in September but now that idea seems laughable.

Instead, Joey McGuire’s team is going to have to find a way to get three games down the stretch to just play a 13th game this year.  Where will those come from?  Road trips to BYU, Kansas, and Texas will be daunting while home games against TCU and UCF will be no walks in the park.

Can Tech find three more wins?  Sure.  Just about anything is possible in college football.

However, trying to do so with a true freshman likely at QB for at least one of those games, maybe more, will make it difficult, to say the least.  That’s just the reality we are faced with.

However, does getting to a bowl sponsored by a cleaning product or a power tool company really matter anyway?  Does just getting to six wins make this season any more satisfying than getting to only five wins?  I guess that depends on your perspective.

For me, it really doesn’t.  After all, bowl appearances don’t mean squat for a program’s overall momentum unless they are big-time bowls games or playoff games.

For proof, just look at 2014 when Tech went 4-8 after an 8-5 season and a Holiday Bowl win the year before.  Of course, you’d rather play in a bowl game than not but this program isn’t going to make huge strides by playing in the Albuquerque Bowl or something similar.

This season is likely to go down as one of the most disappointing in Tech history.  That’s a hard pill to swallow but there doesn’t seem to be much hope of salvaging 2023 now.

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