It is truly amazing how quickly Texas Tech football fans have become obsessed with running the football again. After over two decades of having our identity tied up in being the program that took the spread passing game mainstream, it’s taken just seven games of the 2023 season for Red Raiders everywhere to obsess over the usage of running back Tahj Brooks. That’s why the frustration with the coaching staff’s offensive philosophy has caused such consternation in recent days.
Following last weekend’s 38-21 loss to Kansas State that saw Tech run the ball just 30 times while throwing it 49, despite having to rely on true freshman QB Jake Strong for the entire second half of the game, many are still searching for answers from the coaches as to why the game was put on Strong’s shoulders despite the fact that he was making his college debut.
The media got an opportunity to speak to offensive coordinator Zach Kittley on Monday and he gave some insight into why his offensive game plan was heavily slanted toward the pass against the Wildcats. However, what Kittley said did little to ease the frustrations of fans who wanted to see more of Brooks.
The Texas Tech coaching staff is willing to allow teams to dictate their strategy?
When asked about the play selection against the Wildcats and why Brooks wasn’t used as much, Kittley came off as a bit defensive. After pointing out that Brooks is sixth in the NCAA in yards and carries, he dove a bit deeper into his philosophy about when Tech should try to run the ball.
“We come out in the second half and they go blitz like crazy and they’re packing the box,” he said. “Again, we’re just not gonna just bang our head against the wall.”
While that seems to be a logical approach to calling plays, it doesn’t hold water when the context of Saturday’s game is applied. With Strong in the game at QB, Tech was in a perilous situation to begin with given that he had never taken a snap for the Red Raiders. Thus, wouldn’t it make sense to try to lean on your one proven backfield option in that instance?
Even if everyone in the stadium knew that the ball was going to go to Brooks, most Red Raider fans would prefer to see Kittley betting on Brooks and the offensive line to beat a heavy box rather than gambling on a freshman QB to throw the ball 28 times in the second half. After all, good teams dictate to the opponent what they are going to do and they have confidence in their ability to execute their bread-and-butter plays against any defensive alignment.
That’s what Kansas State did on one of the game’s most crucial plays. With Tech leading 21-17 with 2:30 to play in the third quarter, KSU faced a 3rd-and-10 at the TTU 30.
After a Red Raider timeout, Tech lined up defensively with all 11 players within six yards of the line of scrimmage. That included eight players in the box. In other words, boxes don’t get any heavier than that.
What did Kansas State do? Did they audible to a passing play because that’s what the defensive alignment dictated? No. Instead, they ran the ball with their best weapon, QB Avery Johnson, and trusted the offensive line to open up a hole. The result was a 30-yard TD run that put KSU ahead for good. Also playing a true freshman QB, KSU relied on the strength of their offense even when Tech had a numbers advantage in the box. What a concept!
That’s the mentality that Texas Tech needs to adopt. To be a great running team, you have to have the belief that you can move people out of the way even when the numbers are against you. What’s more, it is incumbent upon the offensive coordinator and his staff to find creative ways to run the ball against heavy fronts.
However, Kittley’s remarks on Monday didn’t portray a huge sense of confidence in his team’s ground game. In fact, what he said showed that he didn’t have much faith in Brooks and his O-line on Saturday.
“If you take away our three big rushes…if you take those three huge ones away, we really were at 3.1 yards per carry,” he said.
That logic remains flawed, especially with a true freshman at QB. Averaging 3.1 yards per carry will get you a first down on four rushes. What’s more, if you just acknowledged that you had already broken off three long runs, who is to say that your offense can’t break off another big play or two on the ground?
Giving the ball to Brooks and continuing to average 3.1 yards per carry would have been a much better plan than trying to ask Strong to be Graham Harrell. Even if you have to punt more than you planned because the ground game was only somewhat effective, that’s better than seeing your freshman QB toss an INT on three consecutive second-half possessions as was the case on Saturday night.
Great offenses dictate to the defense what they are going to do. They have a plan and their belief in their ability to execute that plan doesn’t waiver. What’s more, great offenses anticipate opponents trying to take away their strengths and they devise ways to counter that without abandoning what they do best.
Everyone knew that Mike Leach’s teams were going to throw the ball and yet he never waivered from that plan even when opposing coaches dropped eight into coverage. Somehow, he still found ways to put points on the board week after week even when the defense tried to dictate to him what to do.
Kittley is still young and he is still learning how to coordinate an offense. Maybe this game will be a turning point for him and he will realize that you can’t let the defense take you out of your game plan, especially when you have a dire situation at a key position such as quarterback.
Moving forward, every team on the schedule is going to load the box and key on stopping Brooks, regardless of whether Behren Morton or Strong is the one taking the snaps. Still, Kittley must stick to what his offense has proven it can do best and that is to pound the ball.
He must show that he has faith in this O-line and in Brooks, even when the numbers suggest that to run the ball would be unwise. That’s because what is even more unwise is to do what the defense really wants you to do and put the game in the hands of a passing game that is fatally flawed in 2023.