Night games in Lubbock between Texas and Texas Tech always attract their share of hype, but this year’s game has a special relevance. The “Battle For The Chancellor’s Spurs”, as this game is dubbed, will feature arguably the two best college football teams in Texas.
That’s true for Big 12 play at least. The Longhorns raced out to a 6-1 start to their season and a Top 10 ranking, in part by beating their other conference foes from the Lone Star State. Since that fast start, however, Texas has given up 40 points per game in two shootout losses. After their loss last week to West Virginia, the Longhorns’ chances of making a Big 12 championship have declined significantly.
Winning against the Red Raiders would keep those hopes alive, and would help the Longhorns avoid a three game losing skid. It would also allow Texas to claim at least seven regular season wins for the first time since 2013.
Texas Tech is still technically looking for bowl eligibility, although there are winnable games remaining on their schedule. The Red Raiders looked like Big 12 contenders at one point this season, but last week’s loss to Oklahoma make a trip to Arlington unlikely.
Still, despite the fact that they’ve suffered two conference losses in a row, the Red Raiders are in position to have their best Big 12 season in the Kingsbury era, during which time they’ve never been better than 4-5. Texas Tech currently sits squarely at .500, and are playing their last true home game on Saturday. The chance to move to six wins is definitely there for the taking.
Texas Longhorns (6-3, 4-2)
The focus of all the criticism in Austin this week has been the Texas defense, a unit that’s looked positively mediocre since midseason. The Texas pass defense has struggled to be consistent throughout 2018, giving up big plays that lead to touchdowns. To add to those woes, last week they had their worst effort yet in defending an opponent’s running game, giving up seven yards a carry against West Virginia.
On the season, Texas has excelled in the red zone, allowing opponents to score on 25 of their 35 trips, good enough for first in the Big 12. In a sense, having a short field to defend probably helps the Longhorns, who have had more issues stopping opponents between the 20s.
Texas has committed the fewest turnovers in the conference in 2018, a statistic that’s been key to their ability to move the ball. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger has been having a strong season as a true sophomore, playing a role as a runner and passer for this team.
His favorite targets in the passing game, Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, are big wide receivers with the ability to go up and get the ball over smaller defenders. Both players are in the top five of the Big 12 in receptions per game, and represent big targets that Ehlinger can look to in order to keep the chains moving.
On the ground, the Texas running game is powered by the threat of Ehlinger who, at 235 pounds, is more of a bulldozer with the ball tucked under his arm. The most explosive non-quarterback runner in the backfield is true freshman Keontay Ingram, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry through the eight games. Ingram is young, but his combination of good vision and the ability to maintain his forward momentum when cutting through traffic makes him the best overall back on the roster right now.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (5-4, 3-3)
As you might expect, all of the hullabaloo in the Hub City has to do with the quarterback position. True freshman Alan Bowman came on early this season and proved himself to be one of the better passers in the Big 12. The Red Raiders would like to have him taking snaps on Saturday evening, but its highly unlikely that he does – Bowman was just released from the hospital after suffering a collapsed lung in Week 10.
His backup and likely starter is Jett Duffey, a redshirt sophomore who runs a 4.6 40 yard dash. Duffey’s fairly dangerous as a runner, but as a passer he’s been inconsistent throughout 2018 – at one point in Texas Tech’s win over TCU, Duffey was benched because of his struggles throwing the ball.
Thanks to tall wideouts like Antoine Wesley and T.J. Vasher, Duffey doesn’t necessarily need pinpoint accuracy. Wesley has been the most productive receiver for the Red Raiders, having managed t rack up 1,176 yards receiving and seven touchdowns through nine games.
On ther other side of the ball, signs of progress under defensive coordinator David Gibbs are there for the Texas Tech. Through nine games, the Red Raiders are holding opponents to a 33.8 percent conversion rate on third down and have managed to get 15 turnovers so far in 2018.
Last week, Texas Tech was absolutely gashed by a more physical Sooners offense on the ground, but in general the Red Raiders have not been prone to give up big gains there. Stopping teams through the air has been a slightly different story, with the Red Raiders giving up 20 passing touchdowns this season.
Texas Keys To The Game
Take Care Of The Ball – Turnovers on the road can lead to big momentum shifts. To avoid that, the Longhorns need to be very disciplined in handling the football, and they need Sam Ehlinger to avoid throwing costly interceptions.
Have Success On The Ground – Running the ball is always critical for a team on the road in a hostile environment, as it keeps the offense ahead of the chains and can help capture momentum. Texas needs to be methodical in their drives and march the ball down the field. That should slow the game down and mitigate the crowd as a factor in this contest.
Contain Jett Duffey – Some of Duffey’s best performances this season have come when he’s been able to get outside of the pocket. The primary challenge for the Texas defense will be containing Duffey and getting pressure on him at the same time. The Longhorns have not been great at getting to the quarterback this season, so that might mean they have to get creative to get pressure.
Texas Tech Keys To The Game
Set Up Big Pass Plays Downfield – Assuming Duffey gets the start on Saturday, Texas Tech is going to need to get their ground game going with plenty of misdirection, especially with plays that get players on the outside of the defense. Texas has been vulnerable there, so expect them to possibly start over-playing that as the game continues – that should set up some opportunities to take shots deep.
Stop The Run – This was probably a big point of emphasis for Gibbs after last week’s game against Oklahoma, and it will be key against for the Red Raiders on Saturday. Keeping the Longhorns out of manageable down-and-distance situations will absolutely be critical. If Texas has to start slinging the ball around, that’s probably an advantage for the Red Raiders.
Play For Field Position – Punter Dominic Panazzolo’s ability to pin teams deep has been overlooked this year, but it will be big in this game. Making Texas put together long drives will give the Red Raiders more opportunities to get stops on third down.
Both teams have an important test ahead of them coming into this game. For Texas, this is probably the toughest road game remaining on their schedule. The Longhorns have not been particularly good on the road this season, having had some of their most unimpressive performances in places like Stillwater and Manhattan.
They’ve also not played well as a favorite, which will probably keep most people from thinking that Texas can get a win against a hostile crowd.
For Texas Tech, a win here would probably look more imminent if a healthy Alan Bowman was suiting up as the quarterback. The Red Raiders are only about a two point underdog, however, so the folks in Nevada don’t think the task is impossible.
I believe this will be a close game, and I don’t know that there’s much that separates these two teams. The Longhorns probably have a slight advantage since Texas Tech is playing their backup quarterback, but there are things that Jett Duffey does well which could present real problems for Texas.
Several factors make this a real toss-up game. Trends are not absolute, and Texas could very well buck the trends in 2018 and play well as a favorite on the road. Kingsbury knows how big two wins in a row against the Longhorns could be, and you have to think he’ll have his guys ready to play. I’m not going to pretend I have a good feeling for this game’s outcome, but I’ll go with Vegas on this one. I’ll take Texas to win, but give me the Red Raiders to cover. Longhorns by a point.