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September 23, 2008

Tech's defense excelling in key areas

The casual observer will not understand the growing excitement over Texas Tech's defense. A level of excitement that probably surpasses that surrounding Tech's offense, currently number three in the land with an average of 573 yards per game.

The Red Raider defense, at first blush, would seem comparative humble. It is allowing 346 yards per game, which is good for only #62 nationally, right between Eastern Michigan and North Carolina. The Red Raider rush defense is a bit better, but is still only #32 in the country, allowing 100 yards per game. Tech's pass defense is seemingly less impressive still, at #95 nationally and 246 yards allowed per contest.

But those most obvious of statistics obscure others that tell quite a different story.

That apparently porous Red Raider pass defense also leads the nation in interceptions with 10. Consequently, Tech's pass efficiency defense is #38 nationally. The defense's penchant for the pick also helps boost the Red Raiders to #11 nationally in turnover margin. And perhaps most impressive of all, the Red Raiders are number three in the nation in third down defense allowing third down conversions only 22% of the time. Tech is also #30 in the land in scoring defense allowing only 16 points per game.

If, therefore, you combine Tech's #30 position in scoring defense with its high turnover productivity and its ability to lock offenses up on third down, you can make a strong case that the Red Raider defense is a top 25 unit right now.

And it is a very young group that is getting better all the time.

The Red Raiders start one senior on the defensive line in Jake Ratliff, and truth be told, he probably gets fewer snaps than most of the backups. Tech's starting linebackers are a pair of sophomores and a junior. Both safeties are seniors, but both corners are juniors. And there is young depth across the board at every position but safety.

The young pups are gaining experience, however, and it has told in the form of improved play against the last two opponents. After comparatively rough outings against Eastern Washington and Nevada, the Red Raider defense held June Jones' prolific SMU offense to seven points, while Massachusetts put up only 14 points the following week. And of the Minutemen's two touchdowns, one came on a fumble recovery and the other against the second-team defense very late in the fourth quarter. Tech's first unit pitched a shutout against one of the best offenses in the FCS subdivision.

Once Tech commences Big 12 play in Manhattan, Kansas less than two weeks from now, the quality of competition will obviously improve. But so will the Red Raider defense. And that improvement will not stem only from experience and maturity.

Following Tech's victory over UMass, defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill made it clear that his defense has revealed only a modest portion of what is capable of doing schematically. Close observers of the defense will have noted that the Red Raiders have played it vanilla thus far. Blitzes have been very few and far between. Slants, loops, stunts and twists have been even rarer.

In short, Tech has stuck almost exclusively to its 4-3 base with a good deal of cover two in the secondary. McNeill has relied on talent and execution to elevate his troops to the point of being one of the 25 best units in the nation. His defense is predicated upon extreme player aggression within the confines of schematic conservatism and stability. Players such as Brandon Williams and McKinner Dixon are unleashed up front, and are not burdened with excessive read responsibilities.

But McNeill and his boys have a battery of weapons on reserve for if and when they need them. We've seen the blitzes and games in practice, and McNeill acknowledges that they are at his disposal. Unsuspecting Big 12 offensive coordinators are set up for many an ambush. And the rejuvenated Red Raider defense is poised for even further ascent.


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