Texas Tech fans showed up in droves Friday night to witness the triumphant return of a quarterback-turned-coach considered one of the top offensive minds in college football.
With help from a record-setting, walk-on freshman quarterback, coach Kliff Kingsbury delivered. But what he added to the mix was a defensive renaissance that included a pass rush unmatched by anything the Red Raiders have unleashed in three seasons.
In Kingsbury’s successful coronation, a 41-23 victory over SMU at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, that fresh defensive wrinkle figures to carry more long-term significance than Friday’s breakthrough performance by Baker Mayfield. And that’s not meant to downgrade Mayfield’s magical debut.
The Austin Lake Travis product showed eye-opening poise and production while picking apart a rebuilding SMU defense. Mayfield threw four touchdown passes, rushed for another score and became the first true freshman walk-on to start — much less win — a season opener while quarterbacking any team from a BCS conference. He established a Tech school record for most completions in a starting debut by any quarterback (43) while finishing with 413 passing yards.
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That made the night historic. It makes Mayfield the feel-good story of college football’s opening weekend because he stepped in and shined in the absence of Michael Brewer, Tech’s projected starter before a lingering back ailment during fall drills sidelined him indefinitely.
Mayfield completed 43 of 60 passes, without an interception, and directed an offense that did not commit a turnover. And he did it without even being on scholarship. That’s heady, unprecedented stuff for a walk-on freshman.
But we’ve seen big passing days before by Tech quarterbacks. Lots of them. And, frankly, there were enough glitches with the execution of the Raiders’ offense to cause concern about what lies ahead when Tech hits the Big 12 stretch of its schedule. The SMU defense simply wasn’t good enough to make Mayfield pay for some ill-advised throws and dubious decisions.
The defense, on the other hand, showed grit and stopping ability that did not surface often enough under former coach Tommy Tuberville. That made the debut of the team’s 3-4 defense under first-year coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, Tech’s fifth different defensive boss in the past five seasons, every bit as meaningful — and probably moreso — than Friday’s pleasant surprise provided by Mayfield.
Tech collected five sacks against SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, its most in any contest since the 2010 season, and turned the second-half momentum with its ability to maintain pressure on the former Texas signal caller in crunch time.
The Red Raiders, who did not record more than four sacks in any game last season, had four against SMU in the first half: one each by DE Kenny Hyder, OLB Will Smith, OLB Terrance Bullitt and OLB Pete Robertson. The fifth came in the third quarter, a collective effort by Smith and Michael Awe.
Gilbert also was forced into multiple second-half throwaways by an active front seven that had more success in the SMU backfield than any of the Mustangs’ running backs.
In fairness, SMU’s best shot at generating a ground game departed when running back Traylon Shead (9 carries, 22 yards) was injured on a third-quarter horse collar tackle by Tech’s Sam Eguavoen. The score was 13-9 at the time and the drive ended in a missed, 27-yard field goal that visibly took some steam out of the SMU offense.
The Tech defense took the rest, keeping the Mustangs out of the end zone — save for Gilbert’s 23-yard touchdown scramble — until the final 1:05, when Prescott Line’s 2-yard touchdown trimmed a 41-16 deficit.
In the interim, Mayfield managed to connect frequently with All-Big 12 receiver Eric Ward (13 catches, 150 yards), including four consecutive completions on one scoring drive. He threw scoring strikes to Bradley Marquez (6 catches, 56 yards), Jordan Davis (5 catches, 70 yards), Jakeem Grant (5 catches, 38 yards) and Reginald Davis. He began a game-turning, 21-0 run with an 11-yard, third-quarter TD burst.
In short, he had an amazing, unprecedented night for a walk-on freshman. But so did a Tech pass rush that has been way too quiet, way too often in recent seasons in the pass-happy Big 12.
That fresh development, along with Mayfield’s emergence, made for memorable head coaching debut for Kingsbury.