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Texas Tech is like the end of a trial – the defense rests

Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

At some point actions must replace words. Visible improvement is better than talking about improvement. It’s not a court of law, but evidence has to be presented to support opinions.

Texas Tech returned from a disastrous trip to Arizona State dragging a tattered defense and facing what has become the annual question: When will this program figure out a way to keep the other team from scoring whenever and however it wants?

Fortunately for the Red Raiders, Saturday’s game didn’t end until Sunday morning, so the gory details were evident only to insomniacs or those living in Hawaii. The Sun Devils won 68-55, gaining over 600 yards split equally by 300-plus yardage totals through the air and on the ground. Junior running back Kalen Ballage scored eight touchdowns – an NCAA record accomplished with the greatest of ease.

In four losses last season, Texas Tech allowed 55 or more points. In two of those games, the Red Raiders scored 50 or more and lost. Game Two of this season was a replay of what Red Raiders fans are growing tired of watching.

“We’re better than what we showed,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “That was a good team that beat us and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They outcoached us, outplayed us, but we’re better than we played tonight, so we need to show that next week.”

Turning to desperate rationalizations, the optimist can say that Texas Tech gave up two points on a safety and another Arizona State touchdown came after an interception return to the 1-yard line. So minus those nine points, the pessimist will point out that the Sun Devils still would have won, 59-55.

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins, a sophomore quarterback making his second career start, completed 28-of-37 for 351 yards. Facing an offensive line with just one returning starter, Texas Tech had zero sacks. Ballage, who needed just 15 touches to wreak his havoc, absorbed as much contact as a player in a walk-through.

“I don’t place blame on anyone,” Kingsbury said. “There were plenty of opportunities the other night on offense to not go three-and-out or not turn the ball over and keep our defense off the field. When you lose a game like that everyone takes blame.”

Texas Tech appeared to have turned a corner last season with a 35-24 victory at Arkansas that capped a 3-0 start. The Red Raiders lost their next game at home to TCU, 55-52, on a tipped touchdown pass. The next week, they lost to Baylor, 63-35.

This is a defensive unit as fragile mentally as physically. Much as the TCU loss last year seemed to derail the season, Saturday night a game-changing fumble was negated in Tempe by a roughing the passer penalty. Instead of the chance to pad a 14-9 lead against Arizona State, the Red Raiders fell behind 16-14 and never seemed to recover.

“We blew an opportunity to take a bigger lead and allowed them to take the lead,” Kingsbury said. “You can’t do those kind of things in a road game and expect to win.”

Junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 38-of-53 for 540 yards and five touchdowns. His two interceptions came because Kingsbury said he was “trying to play a 14-point play.” Mahomes leads the nation in total offense, but unless the defense gets better, he’s a Ferrari confined to the merry-go-round.

Kingsbury is in his fourth season as the coach at his alma mater. He is still learning on the job, and that fact can spackle some of the cracks in the program. The defense was supposed to be improved; for the first time since the Mike Leach Era, the Red Raiders had the same defensive coordinator (David Gibbs) for consecutive seasons.

Gibbs’ defensive philosophy revolves around a variety of defensive fronts and coverages designed to confuse the quarterback. That confusion is supposed to produce turnovers. In his two seasons as Houston’s defensive coordinator before joining Kingsbury’s staff, the Cougars forced a total of 73 turnovers.

Through 15 games under Gibbs, Texas Tech has forced 28 turnovers – not nearly enough to offset poor tackling and porous coverage.

“I believe in those guys, all the coaches in that (defensive) room and Coach Gibbs and those players, and I know they’ll get it going in the right direction,” Kingsbury said.

The next game of the rest of the year is against Louisiana Tech, which lost at Arkansas 21-20 in the season opener.

“We gotta keep fighting and respond,” Texas Tech linebacker Luke Stice said. “There is no secret formula. There is no magic play Coach Gibbs can call. We got hit in the mouth Saturday. We’re not giving any excuses … All I can tell you is we’re going to respond.”

Texas Tech is like the end of a trial – the defense rests

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