Texas Tech football: Loss to KSU highlights Red Raiders’ Zach Kittley conundrum

Texas Tech's offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, left, and Texas Tech's head football coach Joey McGuire talk before the Big 12 football game against Kansas, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Jones AT&T Stadium.
Texas Tech's offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, left, and Texas Tech's head football coach Joey McGuire talk before the Big 12 football game against Kansas, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Jones AT&T Stadium. /

Following Saturday night’s 38-21 loss to Kansas State in Lubbock, there is no one on the South Plains being analyzed more heavily than Texas Tech offensive coordinator Zach Kittley.  In fact, given the way he called plays in the second half of the game, many are calling for Kittley’s head on a platter…or at least his job.  However, the situation is complicated making head coach Joey McGuire’s life rather difficult, if not now, at least in the near future.

Against Kansas State, Kittley had his most head-scratching game as Texas Tech OC

Anyone who watched the Red Raiders fall to KSU for the eighth time in a row was well aware of the mistakes Kittley made.  Having to rely on a true freshman QB in Jake Strong, who was making his first-ever appearance as a collegiate, for the entire second half against the defending Big 12 champions is far from ideal.

However, Tech still had one of the best offensive weapons in the Big 12 at its disposal in running back Tahj Brooks.  So why in the world did Kittley decide to ask Strong to throw the ball 28 times while giving Brooks only eight carries after halftime?

Spare us the talk about K-State loading the box to stop Brooks.  It wasn’t working.  Coming up just two yards shy of his fifth-straight 100-yard game, the senior averaged 5.8 yards per carry on the night and had second-half runs of 13, 9, and 7 yards.

Also, it wasn’t as if the game was out of hand when Kittley turned away from what his offense does best.  When Strong threw his third and final interception of the game, his third-straight possession ending in a pick, the score was only 31-21 KSU with still 10:57 to play in the 4th quarter.

Yet, on that drive, after just seeing Strong throw two awful interceptions, Kittley called six passes to only two runs.  Sure, we have to leave open the possibility that Strong audibled out of some called runs somewhere along the line but at some point, shouldn’t the coaching staff take that power away from a true freshman and instead make the calls from the sideline?  Loads of programs around the country operate that way and if Tech didn’t go that route with a true freshman running the show, then that’s another mark on the negative side of what was an awful performance by Kittley.

Saturday night wasn’t Kittley’s first head-scratching game as a play caller this year, though.  In the season-opening loss to Wyoming, Brooks received only 11 carries despite the fact that the offense went almost the final three periods of regulation without putting up a single point while trying to rely on the passing game.

What’s more, that night, it was QB Tyler Shough who led the team in rushing attempts with 15.  So right off the bat, Kittley believed that the injury-prone Shough was his best running threat, not the durable, elusive, and powerful Brooks.

A week later, Brooks got only seven carries against Oregon despite averaging a whopping 10.1 yards per carry.  Meanwhile, Shough would throw the ball 38 times leading to 4 interceptions.  And again, the fragile QB was also asked to be his team’s leading rusher with 23 carries.

Two weeks after that, at West Virginia, Shough was lost to a broken leg in the first quarter.  Then, Morton sustained what we would later learn was a sprained throwing shoulder.

Still, Kittley asked Morton to put the ball in the air 37 times on a rainy afternoon.  That included four-straight passes on the game’s final set of downs with Tech at the WVU 11 needing a TD to tie things up.

Instead of giving the ball to Brooks, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry on his way to 149 yards that day, when the game was on the line, Kittley inexplicably asked his injured backup QB to save the day through the air.

Time and time again this year, Kittley has failed to put his players in the best position to succeed by refusing to give the ball to his best player, Brooks.  It appeared that he had learned his lesson in the wins over Houston and Baylor when Brooks got 52 combined carries for 281 yards but that wasn’t the case.

What we saw against the Wildcats was a regression toward the inexplicable by Kittley and that’s concerning.  Now, Texas Tech fans are wondering if a change needs to be made, if not immediately, at least in the offseason.  However, that’s going to be a complicated situation.

Texas Tech must carefully weigh all options when deciding Kittley’s status

Those calling for a change at OC in the middle of the season aren’t likely to get their wish.  Kittley remains the best and most experienced play caller on the coaching staff and firing him now would do little to help the offense in the short term.  All that move would serve to do is to give his detractors their bowl of blood earlier than expected.

What’s more, Kittley has shown that he knows how to design a game plan built around Brooks.  It isn’t as if he is incompetent.  Rather, it’s that he constantly falls back into the awful habit of wanting to throw the ball when everyone in the stadium knows that’s the worst plan of action for his offense.

The good news is that correcting that issue is simple.  You just give the ball to Brooks.  Maybe Kittley will finally realize the error of his ways and fully commit to his ground attack now that he has seen what happens when you try to throw the ball all over the place with either an injured QB or a true freshman QB.

Another complicating factor is Kittley’s impact on the future of the program.  Specifically, his relationship with 5-star wide receiver commit, Micah Hudson.

Would firing Kittley prompt the highest-rated recruit in Texas Tech history to reconsider his options?  That’s something that McGuire would have to take into consideration before making any change.  (Also, the same discussion should be had about 4-star QB commit, Will Hammond, one of the best passers in the nation.)

In the end, Kittley isn’t likely to be replaced before the offseason.  That gives him five games to prove himself worthy of a third year on McGuire’s staff.

Whenever his future is decided, though, the decision won’t be as cut-and-dry as many Texas Tech football fans are making it in their minds.  Kittley does have potential and has at times proven to be an asset to this program.  What’s more, some high-profile recruits are ready to play for him beginning next season.

However, with Tech at 3-4 overall and facing a dire situation at quarterback, the Red Raiders can’t afford any more confounding performances from an offensive coordinator who is supposed to be one of the brightest in the game but who isn’t living up to that reputation nearly enough in 2023.