We don’t often talk enough about the mental side of sports because it is hard to quantify intangibles. But Saturday in Ames, Iowa, the Texas Tech football team’s greatest challenge will not be the opponent but rather its mental toughness.
If this week were just about football, Tech would likely be favorites in this contest with Iowa State. After all, the Cyclones are just 4-6 overall and 1-6 in conference play. What’s more, ISU is averaging a meager 21.8 points per game and has scored over 24 points just once in Big 12 play.
However, there are two factors in play this week that could turn this game into a huge mental test for Joey McGuire’s team – the weather and the road.
Highs in the Big 12’s northernmost port of call are expected to reach only 22 degrees on Saturday. What’s more, when the game kicks off on Saturday evening, temperatures will likely be in the low teens. Add in a humidity of 77% and you have the recipe for a bone-chilling night at Jack Trice Stadium.
Unfortunately, Tech has not been able to overcome cold-weather challenges in recent years. On a mid-November day in 2018 that saw stiff winds turn the windchill in Manhattan, Kansas to below freezing, the Red Raiders mustered just six points in a 21-6 loss to Kansas State.
That game is famous for being the one in which then-head coach Kliff Kingsbury made the decision to leave the sideline heaters and the jackets in Lubbock in an attempt to impress upon his team that the cold was not going to be their main focus. That strategy didn’t work as Tech mustered only 181 total yards en route to falling to a KSU team that was just 4-6 entering that game.
Of course, maybe the most infamous Red Raider cold weather showing of the last two decades came in 2016 in Ames. That afternoon, in another cold-weather game, the Red Raiders and Pat Mahomes managed just 10 points and 306 yards in a humiliating 66-10 loss to the Cyclones.
Here’s hoping that history does not repeat itself this weekend. But for Tech to change the mid-November cold-weather narrative, it is going to have to do something it hasn’t done in McGuire’s tenure – win on the road.
So far this year, the Red Raiders are 0-5 away from Jones Stadium. What’s been challenging though is the fact that all four of those games have come against teams that were ranked at the time, including two (Oklahoma State and TCU) that were in the top 10 when the Red Raiders came calling. Thus, life on the road for the Red Raiders has been about as difficult as one could imagine.
At first glance, the trip to Iowa State might appear to be far more winnable. After going 3-0 in the non-conference portion of the season, Matt Campbell’s team has won just one of its previous seven games. That includes home losses to Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and even an Oklahoma State team that has hit the skids over the past month.
Thus, this looks like the best opportunity for Tech to finally break its road losing streak, which sits at six games dating back to 2021. But for that to happen, the mental side of the game is going to have to be where Tech excels.
The Red Raiders are a more talented team than the Cyclones. But the mental aspect of playing away from home and in a brutally-cold situation will have McGuire’s team facing an uphill battle.
What’s more, the weather will likely change how the Red Raiders play, especially on offense and that may play right into Iowa State’s hands. The Red Raiders lead the conference in passing at 311.3 yards per game. However, throwing and catching the ball in such bone-chilling weather is often difficult.
Thus, conventional wisdom suggests that the ground game should take center stage. However, Iowa State is the toughest team in the Big 12 to run on. Giving up just over 105 yards per game on the ground, the Cyclones make it nearly impossible for teams to beat them with the run.
Therefore, it will be fascinating to see how offensive coordinator Zach Kittley decides to attack the infamous ISU 3-3-5 cloud defense, one that has given many Red Raider teams fits over the years. Will the weather impact how Kittley calls the game or will he stick with what his team has done all year and keep putting the ball in the air? The answer to that question will likely determine how this game plays out.
So too will be the question of whether or not the Red Raiders can overcome the mental challenges presented by playing on the road in frigid conditions. But if McGuire can get his team to rise up and display the type of mental toughness that will be required for victory this week, it will be a huge step in his rebuilding of the program as it will not only qualify Tech for a bowl game but it will also be an important sign that the Red Raiders are turning the corner.