Following the Texas Tech football team’s 20-13 road loss to West Virginia, many fans (including me) were rather hard on offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, and rightfully so given that his offense scored only 13 points and picked up 321 yards of total offense that day. However, since then the 32-year-old has shown signs of growth as a coach by adapting his offensive strategy which signals that he is more concerned about winning games than enhancing his own reputation as an “Air Raid” disciple.
Make no mistake, Kittley wants to use the forward pass as the primary means of attack for his offense. After all, when he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tech, he was mentored by Kliff Kingsbury and he was coaching Patrick Mahomes. Anyone brought up in that situation would also fall in love with the idea of chucking the ball all over the yard.
What’s more, in Kittley’s first four years as an offensive coordinator (three at Houston Baptist and one at Western Kentucky), he had a future NFL QB running his offense in Bailey Zappe, who is now a backup for the New England Patriots. So it makes sense that Kittley would be obsessed with airing it out. That’s how he was groomed as a coach and how he made his name as one of the fastest-rising assistant coaches in the country.
Kittley has adapted to do what is best for Texas Tech
Often, successful people are slow to stray from the well-worn paths that led them to the top. However, there are times when new routes must be explored. Unfortunately, many are unwilling to try fresh approaches and when tensions rise, they tend to revert to their comfort zones.
To his credit, Zach Kittley didn’t do that this season. In fact, he has completely changed his philosophy to best suit what his team is most equipped to do, run the ball.
The cynic would suggest that Kittley had no choice but to adapt. With starting QB Tyler Shough out for the year with a broken leg and with new QB1 Behren Morton playing through an injury to his throwing shoulder, is there any other option available to Kittley than leaning heavily on the running game?
However, the reality is that many coaches in Kittley’s shoes would not have changed approaches on the fly. Rather, most would simply double down on the tactics and strategies that they have relied upon for years.
For example, did Kingsbury pivot to the ground game in 2018 when he lost week one starter McLane Carter and his top backup, Alan Bowman, to injury in the first five games of the year? Of course not. Instead, Kingsbury still averaged 44.6 pass attempts per game that year.
Similarly, in 2019, then Texas Tech O.C. David Yost asked his offense to throw the ball 44.3 times per game despite losing Bowman in the season’s second game and having to rely on the flawed passer, Jett Duffey as his QB.
Kittley, on the other hand, tried for one week to lean heavily into the passing game when he shouldn’t have. Against the Mountaineers, he called for Morton to throw 37 passes after coming into the game for Shough. That was an awful decision considering that it was raining that day and that Morton injured his shoulder not long after entering the game.
Even though Tahj Brooks would rack up 149 yards on the ground that day while averaging six yards per rush, when the game was on the line, Kittley called four straight passes when Tech got to the WVU 11 needing a TD to send the game to overtime. It was one of the most maddening sequences in recent Texas Tech football history but, perhaps that failure led Kittley and the rest of the coaching staff to do some soul-searching.
Since then, Tech has averaged 39.5 rushes per game to only 24 passes. What’s incredible, though, is that Tech has actually seen its scoring increase over the last two games despite leaning so heavily on the ground game.
Against Baylor and Houston, Tech has put up 44 points per game. (Of course, 14 of Tech’s points against the Cougars came via the kicking game.) Prior to that, Tech averaged just 29.2. Also, the team’s turnovers lost have dropped from 1.5 per game in weeks 1-4 to just 1.0 per game in the last two games.
It also didn’t hurt matters that the last two games have seen Tech match up with two of the worst run defenses in the country as neither Houston nor Baylor would be able to stop the Cavazos Jr. High developmental team from running that ball down their throat. Regardless, Kittley’s pivot away from a pass-heavy offense to one that keeps the ball on the ground as much as possible needs to be commended.
The main mistake Kittley made to start this year was to build his entire game plan around the notion that his best offensive player was Shough. That proved not to be the case as the senior was merely average at best before his injury.
All along, Tech’s best offensive player has been Brooks and from week one on, the scheme should have been built around what he brings to the table. That’s because everything seems to improve when Brooks is leading the charge.
For instance, the O-line looks like a different group over the last two games as it has imposed its will on the defense. Also, Tech’s defense has benefitted from spending less time on the field as the Red Raiders have allowed only 21 points per game over the last two contests.
This week’s game with Kansas State will be interesting though. The Wildcats should pose a stiffer test against the run as they give up the fewest yards per game on the ground of any team in the Big 12.
Will Kittley have the resolve to stick with the ground game even if Brooks averages only 4.0 yards per carry or less? Will he revert back to his comfort zone if Tech finds itself trailing by two scores? Can he be mature enough as a playcaller to understand that running the ball isn’t something a team does only when ahead but rather, it is a way to score points regardless of the game situation?
We will find that out, if not this week, then at some point over the next six games. What we already know, though, is that Kittley is willing to do whatever it takes for his offense to succeed, even if it means playing a style of football that he is not known for. That’s the sign of a good coach and that’s why all of us who criticized Kittley earlier in the year need to acknowledge and appreciate his willingness to be adaptable and rely on something that he’s never majored in as a coach.