At this point in time, the Red Raiders were at a crossroads. We had suffered through a near upset by Non-Directional Arkansas at home, and were going to the house of the UTEP Miners and their solid running game. At this point in time it's arguable that our own worst enemy was ourselves. Let's break down a couple of unfortunate mistakes and great plays in a pretty good victory on the road. Here's the link to the full game if you have the hour or the patience to watch it again.
We pick up the game right at the beginning with a mistake by our offensive personnel on 3rd and 10.
Texas Tech is lined up in a more or less balanced formation, while UTEP has two high safeties. However, UTEP is also showing a blitz, and with the left side safety creeping towards the middle, it's safe for Davis Webb and our offense to assume that the receivers on the left aren't going to have safety help over the top. He takes a peek at Bradley Marquez to further ward off the safety and the corner over Jakeem Grant, then shifts his eyes back to Grant, who is completely and totally open in the seam. Davis Webb drops a pass right in Grant's hands. Everything about this play has gone our way up until this point. Grant drops the pass. Maybe he was thinking about the end zone before catching the ball or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that he dropped it. Our team is built on the strategy of striking quickly and making other teams play from behind. If we get this pass right here, we have a lead 20 seconds into the game, which is something that cannot be overstated. Instead, we punt the ball away to UTEP and their solid running game.
In this next play, UTEP plays on our aggression, which is a theme for most of our games.
UTEP is lined up in a Strong I-Formation with the fullback to the right of the quarterback. It is very obvious that the strong side of the offense is towards the right. UTEP runs a counter-trap, attempting to get the defense to overcommit to the strong side of the offense while actually running the ball to the weak side. Our linebackers are a tad slow on their reads and Branden Jackson fails to get a piece of the guard who is going to the second level to block them. Fehoko takes the brunt of the collision, and is essentially walled off from the play. That's the focal point of the entire play, as Pete Robertson takes out one of the pulling guards, and Keenon Ward demands the attention of the other. Fehoko is simply not there to make the play. After he is blocked, this play is going to go for at least 10 yards. All this is the result of one small little false step by Fehoko and Jackson attempting to surge into the backfield prematurely. UTEP called a play based on how we attack the line of scrimmage, and it worked out perfectly.
Let's take a peek at our own running game, and how being able to run the ball helps our offense.
We're lined up in that same balanced spread again, only this time with a true balance as Webb and Washington are in the "Pistol" as opposed to the Shotgun. The only variation that we can see is that Jakeem Grant is lined up abnormally wide on the left side, creating a huge amount of space in that left-middle flat. UTEP once again has two high safeties playing a long way off the ball, indicating that they believe this to be a pass. Webb assumedly sees this, and checks into a basic stretch running play with DeAndre. One of the safeties attempts to make a play on Washington, but has to get there so quickly that Washington easily avoids him. I would take DeAndre Washington over most defenders in the open field, much less one who is having to come in out of control. This is an easy 7-9 yards for us. If we can keep spreading the field and finding where UTEP is going to give us space, we can easily score. This play leads directly into the play we run shortly after.
We aren't in the same formation as we were earlier, but it seems as if we're gonna run the same play. Webb fakes the handoff to Washington, and the fake draws the linebacker not coming on the blitz into the offensive linemen. The safety who is rolled down into the tackle box take a poor angle straight backwards, leaving a huge hole in the flat where the safety or linebacker should presumably be. Webb immediately hits the slanting receiver who heads directly into the hole vacated by the play-fake, and the rest is open field. Having an effective running game sets these kind of plays up, as the opponent has to stack the box at least a little bit in order to avoid taking a huge hit from the running game. If we can execute like this all the time, our offense will be virtually unstoppable.
Let's look at another play where our running game simply took off.
We're once again lined up in the trips set in order to spread UTEP out. The offensive line fakes a pass set, throwing the defensive line for a little bit of a loop. Devin Lauderdale fakes a slant route, taking the cornerback out of position. The receivers on the other side fake a screen play, drawing over the safeties. The rest is history, Justin Stockton isn't touched until he gets to the 20, where Lauderdale lays down an impressive series of blocks, allowing Stockton to reach the end zone. So far, minus one drop and one fumble, our offense is working like clockwork. Without those two mistakes, we could be up 21-6. Instead, we only lead by one point.
Later on in the half, we seem to have settled down on defense and have become capable of stopping the run.
UTEP runs a play that pulls three (!!!!!!) linemen to the strong side of the offense. Luckily for us, Kenny Williams holds the edge and squeezes the gap down enough for Keland McElrath to come through and make the play. Holding UTEP to a 5-yard gain might not seem like much of a victory, but a close examination of this play determines that if McElrath doesn't make this play then the running back might still be running. VJ Fehoko reacts slightly slow to the pulling guards, and the linebacker on the other side gets cut blocked. Jalen Barnes was there to help, but there's only so much he can do against the stiff arm machine that UTEP's running back was in this game. The bottom line is this: If Kenny Williams doesn't hold his ground we give up a gain of 20+.
I honestly think this was one of Davis Webb's better games all season. Let's break down this amazing touch pass he had before the half.
We're lined up with both Stockton and Washington in the backfield, drawing safety attention as well as linebacker attention. At first glance this play seems routine, like a little pitch and catch from quarterback to receiver. But when you look at the amount of grey shirts between Webb and Marquez, we can see that this wasn't a simple pass. There's a defensive end, linebacker, and safety all blocking Webb's vision of his receiver. All that he can see of Marquez is more than likely a little black and white sliver in between the grey. Despite only having a window of a couple seconds where Marquez is open and barely being able to see the man, Webb drops in a dime of a pass that allows Marquez to simply stand in the end zone and catch. This is another instance of Webb finding the gaps that UTEP is giving us and putting the ball where our playmakers can make plays.
Now back to the defense, where we begin to see what Pete Robertson was capable of.
Throughout this game, we actually got after UTEP on third down. Penalties killed us, but our play was technically sound most of the game (minus the tackling). As soon as one of the running backs motions out of the backfield and the ball is snapped, Pete knows what is going on. There is little to no resistance from the offensive line, which means one of two things: you are the reincarnation of Julius Peppers reborn to haunt quarterback's dreams, or it's a screen. Robertson stays patient, sidestepping the running back to put himself in between the quarterback and the running back. It looks for a split second like he's been fooled, but he slows down and makes a play on the ball. He knew this was coming from the second both the tackle and the running back let him go, and he makes a great play on the ball in third down.
But unfortunately, once our defense gets tired, we lose our fundamentals, and can make some really braindead plays.
This play is just really unfortunate. Once again, our exhaustion gets the best of us, as we just seem to not be mentally in this play. Micah Awe barely fires off the ball, and allows the offensive lineman to engage him at his level instead of at the line of scrimmage. Branden Jackson fails to get more than a hand on the running back. The defensive tackles get shielded out of the play. Keenon Ward gets knocked off the tackle by JJ Gaines.
sigh. This really is unfortunate. I'm really hoping this issue is fixed next year with defensive depth, but as of right now it's hard to watch. We had the play contained for a modest gain, and we tackled our own player out of the play.
Later on, we see even more exhaustion come into play.
The play itself is pretty simple. It's exactly the same as the one Pete Robertson broke up, just sold better by the running back and with a wide receiver in motion as opposed to a running back. Sam Eguavoen puts a solid hit on Jameill Showers, and the defensive tackle is right there to make the play. Unfortunately, instead of tackling fundamentally, he chose to arm-dive at his side. Both Justis Nelson and Keenon Ward are blocked, and the play that might have only gone for one or two or less goes for twenty. We're exhausted and it shows. We aren't getting off of blocks effectively, we aren't tackling well, and we aren't pursuing well either. We have to get this defense off the field for an extended period of time somehow. The long story short is that we don't, and we find ourselves down in the 4th quarter to UTEP.
However, Davis Webb and Bradley Marquez show their mastery again, and we take the lead late in the 4th.
Marquez gives a quick shake to the corner, who has no safety help over the top for one of the only times this game. Marquez might have pushed off a tad bit, but the fact of the matter is that Marquez gets open in the end zone and Webb floats a gorgeous pass to him despite solid pressure from UTEP. The Miners brought a lot of pressure for one of the only times this game, and Webb made them pay. Webb catches a lot of flack from our fanbase, but against the blitz he is a fantastic quarterback.
Eventually, our defense hardens back up, and we get a 4th down stop to seal the game.
Instead of blitzing like he normally would, Wallerstedt drops nearly everyone back into coverage. Kenny Williams gets a really good jam on the slot receiver, running him deeper than he wanted to cut his route. He ends up running straight into the running back, gumming the entire play up. This simple act of playing hard defense messed up the entire play from the get-go. Everyone else is too well-covered to even think about a pass heading their way. We shut UTEP down all night in the air, and finished it off with this play.
If we can limit the penalties and turnovers, we can be a very dangerous team. Fixing these little mistakes will go a long way into making us a legit team.