Texas Tech football: Red Raiders finally find a repeatable winning formula

Texas Tech's running back Cam'Ron Valdez (0) runs with the ball against against Houston in a Big 12 football game, Saturday, Sept, 30, 2023, at Jones AT&T Stadium.
Texas Tech's running back Cam'Ron Valdez (0) runs with the ball against against Houston in a Big 12 football game, Saturday, Sept, 30, 2023, at Jones AT&T Stadium. /

It’s often difficult for a team to change its identity in the middle of a season.  However, if you don’t really have a defined identity to begin with, then it is much easier to create one on the fly.  That’s what the Texas Tech football team might have done in Saturday’s 49-28 victory over Houston in Lubbock.

After opening the season as a pass-happy offensive team, the Red Raiders reversed course against the Cougars and made running the football the primary focus of their attack with fantastic results.  Somewhere, Spike Dykes has to be smiling.

Texas Tech can repeat the formula that worked so well against the Cougars

What made Saturday’s game plan so encouraging is that it was one that should be easily repeatable.  After all, running the football is a far more consistent proposition than airing it out.

The ground game isn’t as impacted by factors such as the weather, dropped balls, or miscommunication as the passing game tends to be.  Rather, running the ball is all about physicality and effort, two ingredients that are easier to control.

Early in the season, Tech tried to be a finesse passing offense.  The belief was that senior QB Tyler Shough would be the offense’s best player and featuring him was clearly the plan out of the gates.

Against Wyoming and Oregon, Shough averaged 42.5 passes and 19 rushes.  While he had some success at times in those games, there is no denying that the offense looked disjointed and ineffective for long stretches when everything revolved around Shough.

However, against Houston, Tech stopped putting so much on the quarterback.  With Shough out for the season and backup Behren Morton playing with an injured right shoulder, the plan shifted to what it likely should have been all along.

For the first time this season when playing an FCS opponent, the Red Raiders actually ran the ball more than they threw it on Saturday.  In fact, the 15 more times that Tech ran the ball was one of the largest disparities toward the run that this offense has seen in some time.

Not only was that part of the plan to keep Morton in the game given that his backup, true freshman Jake Strong, has still yet to throw his first NCAA pass, but it also allowed the offense’s best player to get going.

Tahj Brooks is the unquestioned bell cow of the Red Raider attack and on Saturday, he was able to feast early and often.  With 22 carries, he set the tone with two first-half TD runs and he helped seal the deal late with eight second-half carries during a time when Tech was intent on simply running the clock after building a multiple-score lead.

What’s interesting, though, is that the offense was able to still come up with big plays despite not asking Morton to push the ball downfield.  Thanks to the explosive Cam’Ron Valdez, Tech had plays of 54 and 41 yards in the second half, both coming on runs that saw Valdez display the type of speed and dynamism that he had not previously brought to the table in 2023.

Often, the thought is that big plays come primarily via the passing game.  However, Valdez proved that this offense can eat up huge chunks of yards on the ground.  That was a nice development after last season saw the Red Raiders fail to break off any run over 38 yards in length.

It is all a sign that offensive coordinator Zach Kittley may be evolving in his second year with the Red Raiders.  It’s no secret that the Kliff Kingsbury disciple wants to put the ball in the air.  That’s how he made a name for himself as a play-caller at both Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky.

However, at both of those stops, his best offensive player was future NFL QB Bailey Zappe.  At Tech, though, he’s not had that type of elite passer running the show.

Instead, he now faces the reality of having to scheme up a game plan when his QB is compromised physically, his offensive line is suspect in pass protection, and his receivers often struggle to create separation.  That’s why it was a no-brainer to give the ball to Brooks as much as possible.

Of course, that should have also been the obvious choice last weekend in Morgantown.  On a rainy day that saw Morton have to come in for the injured Shough, Kittley should have relied on his powerful running back to carry the load, especially after seeing Morton miss on his first six pass attempts, often missing badly, in fact.

Instead, he asked Morton to throw 37 passes while giving his running backs only 26 carries.  The result was a 13-point letdown of a performance in a 20-13 loss.

Perhaps Kittley learned his lesson from that game or perhaps his hand was forced given Morton’s iffy health.  Whatever the reason, against Houston he leaned heavily on what his offensive line does best and the result was a 239-rushing yard, 49-point outburst.

There is no doubt that teams are going to try to start taking away the Red Raider ground game and Morton will have to be more of a playmaker moving forward.  However, there is also no question that this Red Raider team should build its identity around being physical and running the football.

It is a more consistent and easily repeatable plan for an offense that has not had a true identity for most of the season.  Now, it is obvious that the ground game is what has to define the Red Raider attack.  It might take some adjustment for fans who grew up during the “Air Raid” era of the program but if results like those we saw against Houston become the norm, it won’t take long before everyone in Raiderland starts to act like it is the 1990s all over again.