Texas Tech football: Turnovers will determine defense’s success in 2019

LUBBOCK, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: Nelson Mbanasor #91 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders reacts to recovering a fumble during the game against the Lamar Cardinals on September 08, 2018 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech won the game 77-0. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)
LUBBOCK, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: Nelson Mbanasor #91 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders reacts to recovering a fumble during the game against the Lamar Cardinals on September 08, 2018 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech won the game 77-0. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images) /

The best way for the Texas Tech football team’s defense to uphold its end of the bargain in 2019 is to be a unit that forces turnovers with regularity, which has been a focus of training camp thus far.

Life as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 has to be as difficult as just about any task in the NCAA.  Last year, six of the league’s ten teams (Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., West Virginia, Baylor, Tech, and Texas) finished in the top 33 nationally in total defense.  So the Texas Tech football team’s new defensive Keith Patterson has his work cut out for him as he tries to finally be the man who brings defense back to the South Plains.

Quite often this summer, I’ve expressed my cynicism about Patterson given his questionable history when coordinating defenses at Power 5 programs.  After all, the best defense he has fielded in his last four years as a coordinator in a major conference was the 2014 Arizona State unit that ranked just 81st in total yards allowed.

But Patterson’s scheme likely will not allow his units to ever be in the top-50 in total defense because he is willing to sacrifice yardage in order to take the type of risks that he believes will lead to turnovers.  The two most highly regarded defensive teams in the Big 12, Iowa State and TCU, rely on a cloud coverage zone that will drop as many as nine players into coverage but this year, the Red Raiders are not going to sit back and react to what the offense is doing.

"“We’re gonna get after quarterbacks and not let them sit in the pocket and pick apart our defense,” junior linebacker Riko Jeffers told Austin Watts of the Daily Toreador.  “Being able to cause more turnovers and get the ball back in the offense’s hands and put more points on the board.”"

That will be a much different approach than previous defensive coordinator David Gibbs took.  Though he too built his reputation around taking the ball away from opposing offenses, Gibbs preferred to play a cautious scheme that tried to limit big plays and come up with stops in the red zone.

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Whereas Gibbs tried to coach turnovers through teaching his players to constantly rip at the arms of the ball carrier and try to put their helmet on the ball when making tackles, Patterson seems to believe the key to causing turnovers is to force the offense into mistakes.  And last year at Utah State, that philosophy was quite successful.

Patterson’s defense was tied with Ohio State for the most turnovers forced in 2018 with 32. Additionally, the Aggies were third nationally in turnover margin taking the ball away 1.08 times more per game than they gave it away (a stat that also reflects the ability of their offense to hang on to the pigskin).

Interestingly, Utah State’s secondary picked off 22 passes, which would suggest they were able to harass and affect the passer, which is something that Tech did not do enough last season.  It is encouraging to see that the majority of the turnovers Patterson’s unit created last year were picks and not fumbles because fumbles seem to be far more random as often times they come about because of nothing the defense did but rather a botched snap, a fumbled handoff, or some other unforced error by the offense.

"“…what I tried to do over the course of the last 10 years is design a program, system to where (we can get turnovers),” Patterson told Watts.  “We built a system that’s aggressive, multiple, multiple-up-front, multiple coverage wise, which I think you have to be because you get so many shots-on-goal.  We’ve come up with what we like to call a blueprint, and we measure it in taking the football away from our opponent. If you look, this year we led the country in interceptions.”"

That blueprint has been honed by playing in two of the top passing conferences in the nation, the Big 12 and the PAC 12.  In his three years coordinating the Arizona St. defense (2014-16), Patterson’s defenses ranked 59th, 24th, and 88th nationally in turnovers gained.  During that time, his defenses averaged 12.6 interceptions per season, 58% of their total team takeaways.

At West Virginia in 2012-13, his defense was 73rd and 19th respectively in turnovers forced.  (In 2012, WVU was in its final year in the Big East).  Interestingly, the Mountaineers benefitted from some tremendous fortune in 2013 as they recovered 16 fumbles, suggesting that their opponents had quite a difficult time holding on to the football.

In the four years that Gibbs was the architect of the defense, Texas Tech was on a rollercoaster in regards to turnovers.  In 2014, the Red Raiders ranked just No. 107 in the nation in total turnovers and picked off only six passes.  But the next year, they jumped up to No. 24 overall while intercepting 15 passes.

In 2017, they dropped all the way to No. 112 in the nation in takeaways while coming up with just five picks.  But last year, they climbed back up to No. 6 overall taking the ball away 29 times (including 12 interceptions).  Perhaps Gibbs’ four-year run in Lubbock is the perfect illustration of how fickle turnovers can be and why most believe that relying on that aspect of the game as the cornerstone of your defense is a risky proposition. (For a greater look at that debate, check out this excellent article from ESPN.com’s David M. Hale.)

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Still, this is the way the Red Raider defense will try to survive in 2019.  And it makes a bit of sense to gamble on turnovers when you know that your overall talent on defense is not strong enough across the board to field an elite unit.  It is a risk worth taking and one that will likely determine just how well the debut season of this new coaching staff will play out.