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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A look at Texas Tech’s defensive improvement under David Gibbs

How do the Red Raiders match up with OU’s offense?

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

It’s being billed as one of the comeback stories of the year in the Big 12, and it’s true: The Texas Tech Red Raiders are playing better defense in 2018 than they have in years.

Tech currently ranks 79th nationally in Defensive S&P+, which would be the program’s best finish since 2013 if it holds up. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders are giving up 28 points per game, their lowest average since 2009.

In fact, Tech’s defensive ascent really began last season, when Lubbock’s finest stopped playing some of the worst D in the country and started playing solidly below average. The team went from 125th in Defensive S&P+ in 2016 to 88th overall in 2017. The impact of that modest tick up likely played a role in head coach Kliff Kingsbury keeping his job for another year after his team limited the Texas Longhorns to 23 points in Tech’s regular season finale.

With the Oklahoma Sooners coming to town this weekend, Tech’s D will face its toughest challenge yet this year. How equipped is Tech to slow down the best offense in the country?

Highlighting the linebackers

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ base 3-3-5 scheme showcases the strength of the Red Raiders defensive personnel: a rangy set of linebackers. The defensive line generally plays a tight three-man alignment built to spill runners outside into their pursuit.

Tackling machine Dakota Allen patrols the middle of the field at MIKE linebacker. Kolin Hill plays the RUSH position, which is akin to a JACK LB lined up to the boundary. Jordyn Brooks lines up to the field side of the formation, frequently shifting into the box to match the alignment and personnel of the offense. Similarly, Gibbs will move a safety up closer to the line of scrimmage on running downs versus 11 personnel (one running back and tight end).

In light of his productivity and Netflix series stardom, Allen gets the most recognition among Tech’s LB unit. He has 68 tackles through eight games and is second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss. He gets off blocks and fills running lanes well, a sign of his command of the defense.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

However, Allen’s all-around impressive play overshadows the threat that Brooks poses to opposing offenses. Brooks has an instinct for knifing through gaps in the offensive line to create problems in the backfield, while his combination of of size (6-1, 240 pounds) and the ability to cover ground quickly make him an effective disruptor. When Brooks was ejected for targeting last week versus the Iowa State Cyclones, Tech’s ability to generate stops went down significantly.

Bending into big plays

That’s the form of Tech’s defense, but an accurate depiction of the function rests in the eye of the beholder.

You could call Gibbs’ philosophy a bend-but-don’t-break style if you’re so inclined. The Red Raiders excel at getting teams off the field on third down, with opponents converting on about 30 percent of third-down attempts, the top mark in the Big 12.

Meanwhile, Tech has a knack for stiffening up in the red zone. The D has given up a touchdown on just 48 percent of opponents’ possessions that get inside Tech’s 20. That’s the second-best rate in the Big 12.

On the other hand, intentionally pliable defenses typically don’t give up chunk plays with the consistency as Tech. The team currently ranks 80th nationally in Defensive IsoPPP+, which measures explosiveness. Tech has allowed 43 plays of 20 yards or more so far this year, putting the Red Raiders at 96th overall in the country. (For comparison’s sake, OU’s opponents have 30 plays that have gained 20 yards or more this year when taking on the Sooners.)

The Red Raiders primarily appear susceptible to allowing chunk plays through the air. Through eight games, opponents are averaging roughly one passing play of 40-plus yards per game versus Tech – only nine teams have given up more this season than Tech, and five of them have played nine games to the Red Raiders’ eight.

Targeting turnovers

The irony of Tech’s ballyhooed defensive revival is that in the past, Gibbs has professed little use for statistics such as yards per play and passer rating. Instead, he has zeroed in on causing turnovers. The Red Raiders’ tackling and physicality frequently leave a lot to be desired, but they get ultra-aggressive when it comes to swiping at the ball and other techniques for generating takeaways.

A season ago, Tech gained 29 turnovers in 13 games, one of the highest totals in the country. When the Red Raiders ended in the black on turnover margin in ‘17, they had a 5-0 record. Conversely, they won just one of seven contests in which their turnover margin was even or negative.

This year, the Red Raiders have produced 13 takeaways through eight games, well behind last season’s pace. In their three losses to the Ole Miss Rebels, West Virginia Mountaineers and Iowa St., they’ve managed to create just two turnovers. On the other hand, they’ve given the ball away six times in those contests.

Against TCU, one of Tech’s better wins of the season, the Horned Frogs turned the ball over three times. That included an interception by Brooks in the Red Raiders’ end zone to snuff out a TCU scoring drive.

Can Tech slow down OU?

So, to review, Texas Tech’s defense:

  • Is prone to giving up big plays in the passing game;
  • Thrives on stopping teams on third down and in the red zone; and
  • Loves turnovers.

You probably couldn’t describe a defense in worse position to slow down OU’s offense.

The Sooners have turned the ball over six times in eight games this season, tied for fourth-fewest in the country.

OU ranks 10th in the country at converting on third down at 48.65 percent. The Sooners have faced just 74 third down tries on the season — the fewest in the country.

Explosive plays have a lot to do with why the Sooners aren’t getting to third down. They boast the sixth-most gains of 20-plus yards in the country this season, 58. On top of that OU ranks fourth nationally in pass plays of 30 yards or more with 23 and fourth in pass plays of 40-plus yards with 14.

The conventional wisdom is that a mix of ball-control offense and playing not to get beat deep on D represents the best strategy for beating the Sooners. Keep an eye out to see if Gibbs and Kingsbury buy into that, or they could turn up the aggressiveness on defense in hopes of OU’s fumbling away the game.