This Friday, the Texas Tech football team will face perhaps its toughest test of the season when the Red Raiders take on No. 7 Texas in Austin. Fortunately, the Red Raiders are playing their best football after stringing together three wins in a row to reach bowl eligibility. However, the formula that Tech has utilized on offense during its current winning streak likely won’t work against the Longhorns.
Since the West Virginia game when Tyler Shough was lost to a broken leg and Behren Morton suffered a sprained throwing shoulder, Joey McGuire and his coaching staff have leaned heavily on running back Tahj Brooks to be the driving force behind the offensive game plan.
In fact, in three of his last four games, Brooks has had 30 or more rushing attempts while last week, he ran for 182 yards on 24 opportunities. That might not be the best way to attack Texas, though.
That’s because the Longhorns are one of the best teams in the nation against the run. Giving up only 82.7 yards per game on the ground, UT sits at No. 5 nationally when it comes to stopping opposing ground games.
That stat is made all the more impressive given how heavily teams in the Big 12 have leaned on their rushing attacks this season. Of course, when a team deploys the type of talent at defensive tackle that the Horns do, it should be expected that stopping the run would be a strength.
It all begins with the massive T’Vondre Sweat. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound machine is almost guaranteed to be a first-round NFL Draft pick next year and he might be one of the first defensive players to come off the board.
This year, he’s amassed 36 tackles with 7.5 being for loss and two being sacks. Of course, the stats don’t tell the whole story of a player that dominant. Just watching any Texas game this year, it is evident that Sweat is at another level as a college football player and he draws tons of extra attention from opposing offensive lines.
That allows his partner, Byron Murphy II to make plenty of plays on his own. A 6-foot-1, 297-pound junior, he’s got 24 tackles on the year with an impressive eight of those being behind the line of scrimmage.
That duo will make it unusually tough to run between the tackles. That’s where Brooks makes his living so it will be fascinating to see if one of the Big 12’s best running backs can still find some yards against the best defensive tackle duo in the conference, if not the nation.
It all means that Morton will have to play his best football game of the year on Friday. Fortunately, Texas has been susceptible to giving up yards through the air.
In fact, the Horns rank just 12th in the league in pass defense giving up 253.9 yards per game. For instance, former Texas Tech QB Donovan Smith passed for 348 yards and 3 TDs against Texas for Houston earlier this year.
Similarly, Will Howard and the incredibly average Kansas State passing attack were able to gash Texas for 327 yards and four touchdowns in Austin earlier this month. Even TCU cracked the 300-yard mark against Texas with their backup QB, Josh Hoover.
The question, though, is whether or not Morton will be healthy enough to play his best this week. We know he isn’t going to be at 100% but the form he showed against UCF this past Saturday should give us hope that he’s at least to a point where he can be an asset in the passing game and not a liability due to his injury.
Throwing for 265 yards and 2 TDs, Morton showed the type of zip on his passes that we saw last season but which has been absent this year due to his shoulder sprain. Though McGuire has previously indicated that Morton’s shoulder health can fluctuate on a daily basis, the hope is that he’s physically at his best as the regular season concludes this week.
What will also help Morton and the passing game is the presumed return to action of leading receiver Myles Price. The speedy inside receiver missed the UCF game with his own shoulder injury but on Monday, McGuire said that the senior is expected to play this week.
That’s good news for an offense that is yet to have a truly dominant day through the air with Morton calling the shots. Thus far, Morton has yet to record a 300-yard day in 2023 with his 282-yard performance against TCU being his best passing output.
It is easy to believe that he will have to top that in Austin if his offense is going to put enough points on the board to upset the Horns. Texas is averaging 33.9 points per game, third-most in the Big 12 and that’s five more points per game than Tech averages.
Only twice this fall has Texas been held below 30 points. Though those two games happen to be UT’s two most recent outings, the fact remains that Texas has an elite offense littered with future NFL talent. Thus, the Red Raiders aren’t going to win this game without putting up more points than they have in their last two games.
Morton is going to be even more central to Tech’s success this week than typically is. Simply asking him to throw the ball only 25-30 times while asking Brooks to rack up 30 rushes or more likely won’t get it done against the Horns.
In 2015, a sophomore Texas Tech QB named Patrick Mahomes II took his team into Austin and after he threw for 372 yards and a TD while running for 70 more and another score, he emerged a Red Raider legend. In some ways, Morton seems like a decaffeinated version of Mahomes given his moxy, arm strength, and improvisational skills, all of which are reminiscent of Red Raider greats like Mahomes, Graham Harrell, and B.J. Symons.
Maybe Morton will have his first signature moment as a Red Raider in Austin as Mahomes did. In fact, if Tech is going to pull off the upset, he’ll likely have to channel his inner gunslinger and be the offense’s best weapon.