Texas Tech football focuses on fixing the program’s penalty problem

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: An official picks up a penalty flag during the second half of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field on September 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: An official picks up a penalty flag during the second half of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field on September 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

One of the focuses of this year’s Texas Tech football fall camp has been rectifying the program’s long-running penalty problem.

If it is August, the topic of fixing the penalty problem is certain to arise amongst Texas Tech football fans.  After all, an entire generation of Red Raiders has grown up knowing nothing but the fear and dread that comes with seeing a flag on the field and assuming that the Red Raiders are about to once again be hit with a critical penalty at the most inopportune of moments.

It’s hard to blame Tech fans though.  The truth is that this has been one of the most penalized programs in the nation during the “Air Raid” era.

For instance, last season Tech ranked No. 120 nationally in penalties per game with 8 and No. 114 in the nation in terms of penalty yards per game, 74.7.   Those numbers placed Tech 10th and 7th in the Big 12 respectively.

When you figure that an average college football drive begins at the 25-yard-line, you can see that last year, Tech essentially gave up enough yardage per game in penalties to account for one of their opponent’s touchdowns each week.   Unfortunately, last season was not the exception but rather much closer to the norm for this program.

During the Kingsbury era, Tech’s average ranking in penalties per game was 118th nationally while its average ranking in penalty yards was 115th.  Not once since 2011 has Tech ranked in the top 100 nationally in penalty yards per game and 2010 and 2008 are the only years since 2003 that Tech has been a top-100 team in that category (ranking 97th in 2010 and 57th in 2008).

That’s why penalties were a focus during Saturday’s first scrimmage.  With a Big 12 officiating crew on hand, Matt Wells and his staff got a look at how well their players are staying within the framework of the rules.

More from Wreck'Em Red

"“Not bad for a first scrimmage,” Wells said of his team’s ability to avoid penalties in last Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage.  “We didn’t have a whole lot of [illegal] procedure and all that stuff.  With new quarterbacks and a real Big 12 [officiating] crew in here, I thought we handled it fairly well.  Really, on both sides we have very few pre-snap penalties and I don’t think any post-[whistle].”"

While splits between offensive and defensive penalties by each team are not available, common sense would suggest that infractions have taken a larger toll on the Red Raider defense over the years.  First of all, the defense has been Tech’s far weaker unit during the last two decades meaning that the Red Raiders have been unable to overcome flags on that side of the ball, unlike on offense where the explosive “Air Raid” can gobble up penalty yardage and keep rolling.

Additionally, new college football rules have been predominantly aimed at defensive players.  That is true most especially of the targeting rule, which has changed the landscape of the game.  Recall back to the first game of last year when both CB Des Smith and safety Vaughnte Dorsey were ejected from the Ole Miss game for targeting, leaving a secondary already depleted by the absence of Jah’Shawn Johnson, even more vulnerable.

Penalties also turned the Iowa State game and the Oklahoma game last year and in both cases, it was defensive infractions that cost the Red Raiders most dearly.  That’s why it was encouraging to hear new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson sound upbeat about how his side of the ball looked last Saturday in regards to those pesky yellow flags.

"“Great,” he said when asked how his unit did during the scrimmage.  “We just had some [pass interference penalties] that extended drives and normally when that happens, it’s going to be a bad result.  That’s what the case was in the scrimmage.  I think…at least three times we gave up touchdowns right after a P.I. in a critical situation.“I think the biggest thing for our players was educationally, making them understand that [for] every [defensive back], there’s a set of eyes on you.  Someone is watching you every play.  You can’t grab.  You can’t make contact early.”"

Penalties in the flow of a game are inevitable, especially in the secondary.  The Big 12 receivers are too good and the job of covering them is too difficult not to have infractions.

Being as Wells has said that Tech will play at one of the fastest tempos in college football this year, there will be more plays in the average Red Raider game than in the average NCAA contest meaning more opportunities for flags.  But where Wells wants to see an improvement is in dead-ball fouls.

"“You guys know I’m gonna harp on that, pre-snap, post-whistle penalties,” Wells said.  “We minimize those, that’s not beating yourself.  We’ll try to handle the penalties within the play.”"

That means he is going to try to do what most of his predecessors have been unable to accomplish in the last two decades, instill maturity and discipline in the Texas Tech football program.  According to this article by Max Olson of ESPN, in 2015 Tech was penalized 18 times for personal fouls, of which half were unsportsmanlike conduct violations.  That is a reflection of the culture within the program and something that Wells must remedy. The penalties for taunting, late hits, and other inexcusable acts must become a rarity for the Red Raiders, not a trademark.

"“You won’t see any undisciplined, unsportsmanlike acts,” Patterson said of his defense.  “I’m telling you right now, you won’t see that.”"

Only time will tell if these strong words are going to be reinforced by strong actions.  And even if they are, will it matter?  After all, other coaches have tried to fix this problem in creative ways.  Most notably, Mike Leach had a sandpit for players who committed penalties to do extra “conditioning” work in after practice.

But ultimately, the only punishment that might truly make a difference is to take repeat offenders off the field.  The problem is that this team is so thin that it can’t afford to walk a hard line in regards to playing time.  For instance, a player like Des Smith who has a history of being called for 15-yard penalties will have to be on the field this year quite a bit because behind him, there simply are few proven options.

dark. Next. Texas Tech football areas of concern

In the end, the only way to have fewer penalties is to have better players on the roster.  The better the player is, the less likely he is going to need to cheat the rules to have success.  That is obviously a long-term goal for this new coaching staff but until the talent on the field is better across the board, here’s hoping that at least this team can stop shooting itself in the foot with selfish and undisciplined major dead-ball infractions. That would be a huge step in the right direction in 2019.