Texas Tech football: Last time in Austin, Red Raiders hurt the program with a win

AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 24: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Texas Tech Red Raiders celebrates after in interception in the fourth quarter against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on November 24, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 24: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Texas Tech Red Raiders celebrates after in interception in the fourth quarter against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on November 24, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Two years ago in Austin, the Texas Tech football program beat the Longhorns in a win that might have been the most costly victory in program history.

There’s no doubt that Texas Tech football fans revel in any win over Texas.  Even this week, in a game that matters not one bit, if the Red Raiders can bring down UT in Austin, there will be much rejoicing and revelry in Lubbock.

That was the case two years ago when the Red Raiders last played at Royal-Memorial Stadium.  That night, a 14-point 4th quarter resulted in a 27-23 win to put Tech at 6-6 on the year.  It also proved to be the most costly win in program history.

That’s because that win saved then head coach Kliff Kingsbury from the chopping block as shortly afterward, AD Kirby Hocutt announced that his embattled coach would return for his sixth season.  Everyone knew in their hearts at the time that the first-time head coach was in over his head but we just couldn’t stand the thought of firing a Red Raider legend.

That’s what should have happened following that game.  Regardless of the fact that Tech was headed to a third-tier bowl game, a change was needed.

Just consider how much better off this program would be right now if Kingsbury’s team hadn’t pulled off that improbable win and he had been fired.  First of all, we would now be in year two of a rebuild, which is often when results start to show if indeed improvement is to come.

Additionally, in 2018 and 2019, Tech had disastrous recruiting classes given the hot seat status of its head coach and the transition to Matt Wells.  In fact, the 2018 class was the worst of any Power 5 program in the nation at No. 72 overall and the 2019 class was ranked just 8th in the conference.

But with a different coaching staff in charge, one that was not known to be coaching for its job that season, this program would likely have far more talent on the current roster than it does at this time because recruits would not have shied away from committing to Tech.  This fall, we’ve seen the impact of those two classes as this team has repeatedly collapsed in the second half, especially on defense, because of a lack of quality depth.

Of course, the Matt Wells detractors out there should be especially bitter about the 2017 win in Austin.  That’s because if Hocutt would have had to change coaches that year, Wells wouldn’t have been his choice because he was coming off a 6-6 regular season at Utah State, his third-straight non-winning regular season.  Hocutt couldn’t have sold that to his superiors or the fans.

What’s really amazing is to just stop and think about how improbable that 2017 win was.  After all, that was a bad Red Raider team that had no business beating Texas given how it had played in the weeks leading up to that game.  The only win the Red Raiders had managed in the six previous games was a 38-24 triumph over a Baylor team that finished the year 1-11.

In fact, things had been so bad offensively the week before in a 27-3 loss to TCU in Lubbock, that Kingsbury had benched starting QB Nic Shimonek for former JUCO walk-on McLane Carter, who go the start in Austin, his first start as a Red Raider.  The lefty with a noodle for an arm played three quarters and completed just 16/37 passes for 267 yards and two picks (though he did run for a 2-yard TD).   It was a dreadful start that saw him throw at least four other balls that were tipped or dropped by Longhorn defenders.

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So to save his season and his job, Kingsbury had to turn to another former walk-on, Shimonek, who remains the worst starting QB in the modern era of the program.  But somehow, a player who had been rattled by opposing defenses in critical moments all year found his clutch gene just in time to pull his head coach from the fire and for one of the only times that year.

In that 4th quarter, he threw two touchdown passes while completing 4/8 passes.  But he should have never had the opportunity to win the game were it not for one of the more improbable defensive plays in recent Tech history.

With UT milking a 23-20 lead with just over five minutes to play, for some reason, the Horns decided to throw the ball on 3nd-and-2 from the Tech 37.  Justice Parker picked off that Sam Ehlinger pass and took it 55 yards to the UT 14.  Legend has it that Parker was far out of position on that play but, of course, in an instant when it would have best for this program to not come up with a stop, a defensive lapse actually helped the Red Raiders.

That year, the freshman Longhorn QB, Ehlinger, threw only seven picks.  Two came against Tech in the final quarter.  The second of which was a Douglas Coleman pick to end the game with Texas at the Tech 47 and still a minute to play.  Thanks for nothing Sam.

For what’s its worth, Hocutt has since said that he had decided not to fire his head coach prior to that game, regardless of the outcome.  If you believe that, you likely also believe that a fan man in a red suit is going to shimmy down your chimney in about a month.

We all know Hocutt didn’t want to fire Kingsbury in 2017 any more than he wanted to last year when he had to fight back emotions when talking about his former coach at the press conference at which he announced Kingsbury’s firing.  But had Tech missed out on a bowl game for the second-straight year, his hand would have been forced.

This emotional win gave Hocutt enough of a high to promptly decide to announce Kingsbury’s return before letting the dust settle or the team even board the bus back to the airport.  That’s uncharacteristic of the normally measured and cautious AD.

He would have been better served to get back to Lubbock and look at the state of the program after a night of sleep.  Maybe then, reason and inevitability would have won out.  Of course, Texas could have done us a favor by making the decision for Hocutt.

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But somehow, Tech finally figured out a way to win a close game against a team that carried weight with Red Raider fans, just as it had done in Austin two years earlier in another improbable Tech comeback.  Kliff Kingsbury never figured out how to win games at home while head coach at Tech but in large part because he was rather skilled at winning games just up the road from his hometown, his tenure was extended a year too long and the suffering of Tech fans has continued through the end of the decade.  At least this year, nothing bad can come of a win in Austin…we assume.