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Winning Time

What Texas Tech Does On 3rd Down Could Shape Their Season

Texas Tech v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

In the fantasy football-like college atmosphere we live in, stats and points are a dime a dozen. Texas Tech fans know all too well that scoring 40 is great until your defense gives up 42 and you walk away with another frustrating loss.

The 2015 season was no different for the Red Raiders, but some underlying stats helped shape last season and should do the same this year. One of the most important aspects to focus on is third down conversions; winning time for football teams at all levels.

Last season, Texas Tech was the best offensive team in the nation on 3rd downs. By converting on nearly 52% of their chances, the Red Raiders were able to keep their best unit on the field longer. Giving an offense that talented extra chances was a headache for opposing defenses all year and Tech capitalized by ranking 2nd in the nation in both yards and scoring. Those rankings are inflated by the tempo Tech likes to employ, but turning yards into points is the name of the game. One could argue the scoring numbers would have been even better had Tech not ranked 97th out of 127 teams in turnover rate. If they can protect the ball better this year, Tech will cash in on even more long drives.

A good example of a team that accumulated a lot of “empty” yards is the Washington State Cougars, led by former Tech guru Mike Leach. The Cougars ranked 25th in the nation in total offense, but only 49th in scoring offense. Part of the reason they so often navigated the field only to come up empty was their 40.5% conversion rate on 3rd down. This put them 60th nationally and right about in the middle of the pack. This is the scenario Tech fans should always fear. Yardage totals are great and bring attention to the program, but points are what matter. Last year, the Red Raiders converted yards into points more often than not; they’ll have to repeat that this year to make the leap that many fans are hoping for.

The cheat code for Tech’s 3rd down offense is Patrick Mahomes and his ability to run. Mahomes scrambled for 22 of the team’s 105 conversions last year. Behind him were DeAndre Washington and Jakeem Grant, with 20 and 14 conversions, respectively.

The latter two are gone this year, though, so Tech will have to replace roughly a third of last year’s 3rd down production. Incoming transfer receiver Derrick Willies should soak up some of those chances, and wideout Dylan Cantrell is returning from injury and shouldn’t need many reps to find chemistry with Mahomes, his high school quarterback. Ian Sadler moved the chains on 3rd down 12 times last year, good enough for fourth on the team despite missing games due to injury. Look for him and the likes of Cameron Batson and Jonathan Giles to up their totals this season and replace most of Grant’s production in this category.

The biggest question mark on offense this year will be the running game. Washington was a great player who benefitted from a very good offensive line. His shiftiness, vision and versatility enabled him to pick up tough yardage at the most important times.

His likely replacement this year, Justin Stockton, has burner speed and will dazzle the crowd multiple times, but he may not be the coaches’ choice to pick up those pivotal 3rd and short situations that keep drives moving. I don’t think it suits his skill set to just plug him into Washington’s role and move along.

According to Football Outsiders, Texas Tech was 2nd in the nation in power success rate, which measures success on 3rd or 4th downs with 2 or less yards to go. The combination of a good line, Mahomes, and Washington created a rushing attack that was excellent at getting just enough to keep drives alive. The O-line this year will have some growing pains, and Tech will have to find a back they feel comfortable trusting on these crucial downs if they’re going to replicate last year’s efficiency.

On the other side of the ball, Tech was predictably bad. The Red Raider defense was 124th out of 127 teams in 3rd down defense, allowing opponents to move the chains on about 50% of their attempts.

The defense was obviously the weak link on the team, but they could have helped themselves by getting off the field more often. A more talented defensive line this year should help the 2016 unit by forcing opponents into longer 3rd downs and stopping more of the short ones. The defense only managed 69 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks last season, both among the nation’s worst. Football Outsiders also had the D-line 111th in power success and 102nd in stuff percentage, which calculates the number of rushing attempts stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Standout Breiden Fehoko and transfer Ondre Pipkins should be able to plug a few more gaps this season, but they’ll need everyone around them to improve if they’re going to control the line and get teams off the field. The linebackers will also need to step up and play more physically, but a change in defensive production starts up front with this team.

As we witnessed against Oklahoma State last year, the defense often just couldn’t keep up. New strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt could prove his worth here if the guys have more gas in the tank toward the ends of games.

It doesn’t help the defense that our offense operates at such a breakneck pace, either. According to Football Outsiders, Tech achieved at least one 1st down or scored on 83% of offensive possessions, good enough for 2nd in the nation. For most teams, these stats would indicate that the defense is getting plenty of time between series to rest and recover. However, this isn’t the case in Lubbock. The defense rarely ever gets more than five minutes of game time to rest on the sidelines because whether they’re scoring, punting or turning it over, they’re doing it quickly. This is the double-edged sword of playing fast but having a weak defense, and it’s something those guys will have to cope with and overcome. The Kingsbury Express has one speed and it wasn’t built with brakes.

It’s fair to assume that the offense will be lethal again this year and that the defense will be the weaker link. A drop in the offense’s efficiency, however, could cost Tech a game or two. In the same way, if the defense can stiffen on a couple 3rd downs per game, a solid Texas Tech team could push for 9 or 10 wins and turn some heads around the country.