After a blistering start capped by a one-week stint at No. 10 in the BCS standings, Texas Tech shows all the signs of a young team that banged its head on a glass ceiling and still is reeling from the contact.
The Red Raiders (7-3, 4-3 Big 12) will drag a three-game losing streak into Saturday’s showdown in Arlington against No. 5 Baylor (8-0, 5-0). An injury-depleted defense has become progressively more porous against opposing rushers, allowing three consecutive season-high rushing totals in the losses to Oklahoma (277 yards), Oklahoma State (281 yards) and Kansas State (291 yards). Tech ranks last among Big 12 teams in turnover margin (minus-10) and penalty yards (723).
The potential exists for Tech, after a 7-0 start, to close the regular season with five consecutive losses. The same thing happened in 2011 when players began tuning out former coach Tommy Tuberville and were outscored by an average margin of 51-20 in those losses.
Rest assured, nothing that dire is happening under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury. This team has remained upbeat and competitive during its recent slide. Tech has battled to the end in each game but lost to a better team or to a team that made fewer crunch-time mistakes.
Despite the three-game losing streak, tight end Jace Amaro said these Raiders believe they can rebound and post a signature win over Baylor if they cut back on self-inflicted wounds.
“I feel like we’re a great team. These three games really haven’t dictated how well we’ve played this season,” said Amaro, who leads the team in receptions (88), receiving yards (1,102) and positive energy. “The mood in the locker room is really good. I think we’re just stressing too much to try to win a game. We just need to play relaxed get back on the road and pull off an upset. That’s our mindset. I think that knocking them off from being undefeated will be a great accomplishment this season.”
Kingsbury, like Amaro, described the team’s energy level as “good” despite the recent slide. He also pointed to Tech’s season-ending matchups against in-state rivals Baylor and No. 24 Texas (7-2, 6-0) as attitude adjusters because the Raiders will face “two teams we know very well and both fans bases get excited for these games. I think that’s helped us move past the last couple weeks and on to what we have ahead of us.”
The proof comes at 6 p.m. Saturday in AT&T Stadium, where Baylor will arrive with the Big 12’s top-ranked ground game (295.4 yards per game). But the Bears expect to lean on third-team tailback Shock Linwood, a redshirt freshman, because of injuries to veterans Lache Seastrunk (groin) and Glasco Martin (knee). That should lessen the stress on Tech’s beleaguered run defense.
On the flip side, Kingsbury acknowledged he may not know which of his freshmen quarterbacks will take the first snap until shortly before kickoff because Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield have been inconsistent in recent weeks.
“We’ll see how it goes this week in practice and then trot one of them out there,” Kingsbury said.
Whatever approach he takes, Kingsbury will seek to turn around the late-season fortunes of a school with a 1-9 mark in November contests the past three seasons. At this point, Tech players insist the possibility of a third consecutive late-season swoon is not invading their psyches.
“We’re very resilient,” receiver Eric Ward said. “This is football. Some times, the ball doesn’t bounce your way. We’re still the same team that went 7-0. We’re going to keep on grinding and getting better. We have to bounce back and keep moving forward.”
The primary issue has been the defensive downturn, with Tech allowing its three highest opponents’ scoring totals of the season in the losses to OU (38), Oklahoma State (52) and Kansas State (49). Defensive lineman Kerry Hyder called the backslide a byproduct of poor tackling and blown assignments, two issues Tech improved while holding K-State to one offensive touchdown in the second half of last week’s 49-26 loss.
“As a defense, if we can clean up those things, we can definitely cut down on this large rushing number we’ve been giving up the past three weeks,” Hyder said. “We understand if we play better, we can get off this losing streak.”
If not, Tech’s glass ceiling will remain at seven wins for a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12’s preseason media poll.
No. 12 Oklahoma State faces a must-win road game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at No. 24 Texas (7-2, 6-0 in Big 12), one of two remaining undefeated teams in the league title race. But the Cowboys (8-1, 5-1), who will arrive in Austin as three-point favorites, envision being in a comfort zone because they won by double-digit margins in their last two trips to Austin (2010, 2011 seasons). Linebacker Caleb Lavey, a Celina native, said OSU understands how to “take the crowd out of it and prepare for a good opponent.”
Offensive lineman Brandon Webb, a fifth-year senior who was a member of both OSU teams that won in Austin, downplayed the significance of being a November participant in the Big 12 title hunt for the fourth time in five seasons.
“It’s not really that much pressure. It’s what we want,” Webb said. “There’s not really that much pressure if that’s what you want to do.”
Receiver Charlie Moore said: “You can see the big picture, but it all starts for us on Saturday. We know that the Big 12 championship isn’t there if we don’t win this week. That makes it a little easier to stay focused.”
Walk-on wonder: Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller, a junior who began his career as a walk-on, heads into Saturday’s game against TCU (2:30 p.m., FSSW) as the national co-leader in sacks per game (1.2) among FBS players. Mueller also is tied for second in tackles for losses (1.7 per game) after last week’s three-sack effort in a 49-26 victory at Texas Tech.
Return of the Cyclones: Iowa State has scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns this season, one by Jarvis West and the other by DeVondrick Nealy. It marks the first time since 1963 that ISU has returned two kickoffs for TDs in the same season.
Becoming grinders: Despite the Big 12’s reputation as a league dominated by pass-happy spread offenses, teams have combined to score more rushing touchdowns (220) than passing touchdowns (191) this season. The scoring plays from scrimmage have averaged 10.7 yards per touchdown run and 27.5 yards per scoring pass.
No. 5 Baylor 56, Texas Tech 27 (Saturday, 6 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4): Bears continue their undefeated roll, build case as BCS title contender during visit to Arlington.
No. 12 Oklahoma State 38, No. 24 Texas 34 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4): Key injuries finally bite Longhorns on both sides of the ball, helping Cowboys boost their title hopes.
Kansas State 31, TCU 20 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., FSSW): Horned Frogs’ bowl hopes mathematically disappear amid more offensive struggles in Manhattan, Kan.
No. 18 Oklahoma 41, Iowa State 17 (Saturday, 11 a.m., FS1): Sooners rebound from lopsided loss to Baylor, remain on fringes of Big 12 title chase.
West Virginia 34, Kansas 21 (Saturday, 11 a.m., FSSW): Mountaineers begin their closing push to finish 6-6, qualify for bowl berth.
Last week: 4-1