Texas Tech ended their season 6-6, which for most could be considered disappointing. With several returning starters and a head coach with more fire than his predecessors, expectations were high.
The Red Raiders dealt with numerous injuries and were 1-3 then 3-5. However, Joey McGuire rallied his team to finish with a bowl bid. The Independence Bowl might not be an eye-popping game, but Tech has a chance to finish the year with a postseason victory. That is what every school wants.
In less than two weeks the Red Raiders will face the Cal Golden Bears in Shreveport. In terms of the matchup, both teams look to be pretty even. Cal finished 6-6 also but had a Pac-12 losing record at 4-5. Entering the home stretch of their season, the Bears were 3-6 and had to win out just to go bowling. Like Tech, they won three games at the end of the season to finish at .500.
Similar to the Red Raiders, the Bears’ offense is led by their running back. Tahj Brooks ran for over 1,400 yard this season, but Jaydn Ott is not far off as being another great back in the country. Ott has rushed for 1,260 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Overall, he is 13th in the country in rushing.
With Jaylon Hutchings ruled out for the bowl game due to a knee injury he suffered against UCF, the Tech defensive line will have their hands full. The Red Raiders might be 94th in rushing defense, surrendering an average of 167.7 yards per game, but they have held running backs in check during the season. Just a few weeks back, they held the 10th leading rusher in the country R.J. Harvey of UCF to only 78 yards without Hutchings playing in the second half.
The Golden Bears passing game is led by freshman quarterback Fernando Mendoza. In his first season leading the charge, the freshman has played like one. Mendoza has thrown for only 1,447 yards and 13 touchdowns. Statistically, he is 114th in the country in passing, four spots worse than Behren Morton who has dealt with a shoulder injury for most of the season.
Tech’s secondary has performed well this season against inexperienced quarterbacks thanks to the amount of experience they have back there. Dadrion Taylor-Demerson and C.J. Baskerville have been ball hawks for the majority of this season. The Red Raiders’ best chance to win will have to come down to forcing Mendoza to play mistake-free football and have him try to win this game, not Ott.
Cal’s receiving corps. also does not have a 1,000-yard man. Their best receiver is Jeremiah Hunter, who has 669 yards and seven touchdowns. This is the one group on the offense, Cal has the advantage.
Tech’s leading receiver is Xavier White who has less than 500 yards receiving and only one touchdown. The team is also losing Jerand Bradley and Myles Price to the transfer portal. Both were second and third on the team in receiving.
Despite the struggles on offense for Tech this year under Zach Kittley, his unit should be able to move the ball against this Cal defense. The Bears are 106th in the country in total defense. However, they are 39th in run defense, only surrendering an average of 133 yards. Brooks should find rushing lanes in this game and be able to crack over 100 yards, but the passing game will need to show up in this game to give Tech a chance to win.
Morton might still be dealing with an injured shoulder, but he has been able to make the key throws down the stretch this season. White along with Coy Eakin and Drae McCray will need to step up more in this game to give the offense some sort of balance. Cal is 127th in the country in passing defense, allowing 282.5 yards per game. Kittley still needs to rely heavily on Brooks, but he cannot be scared to let Morton air it out at times.
In a good number of areas, the Red Raiders hold the advantage over their opponent heading into their bowl game. With less than two weeks to prepare, McGuire will have a challenge getting his team ready, but fortunately, this is like having two bye weeks.
This season might not have turned into what McGuire wanted nor what the fans and alumni expected. However, it is better to be in a low-tier bowl game than to be sitting at home during the postseason. The Red Raiders have a good chance to get a victory to end their season and build some momentum going into a spring that will see a lot of change.