At the risk of sounding overdramatic regarding the second game of the year, Arizona State’s home contest versus Texas Tech can very well define the 2016 season. A victory could put the Sun Devils in an excellent position to start with a 4-0 mark and to some extent defy the gloom preseason expectations. A loss could enhance the doubts that already surround this team.
Joe Healey examines ASU’s Saturday opponent and identifies the key components of this matchup.
Texas Tech Offense
Every year in Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense the quarterback has the opportunity to shine, and since taking over the starting position late in 2014, Pat Mahomes has become one of the most prolific passers in college football.
In his first full season as a starter, Mahomes ranked fourth nationally with a Big XII leading 4,719 passing yards, adding 36 touchdowns. Different from many other Texas Tech quarterbacks of late, Mahomes adds excellent athleticism as last year he rushed for 456 yards and 10 touchdowns, making him Tech’s leading returning rusher from 2015.
Mahomes is simply a playmaker and a definite big play threat in and out of the pocket, though he can force some mistakes as evidenced by his 15 interceptions in 2015.
Last week, before exiting in the third quarter he completed 30 of 43 passes for 483 yards with four touchdowns, adding a team-high 57 yards and two scores.
Last year’s sensational running back Deandre Washington, who rushed for 1,492 yards, caught 41 passes for 385 yards and had 16 total touchdowns, now plays for the Oakland Raiders, but Justin Stockton (5-10, 200), who scored 11 total touchdowns of his own in 2015, figures to capitalize on the open starting position.
In 2015, Stockton ran for 367 yards on 6.0 yards-per-carry with five scores while catching 22 passes for 341 yards with six scores. Against Stephen F. Austin he carried six times for 25 yards and added four receptions for 66 yards.
Behind Stockton, Quinton White (5-7, 215) is listed as the primary reserve. He did not carry the ball last week but caught three passes for 16 yards. Over his first three years, White has played a running back and fullback role, with 280 career rushing yards.
As always, par for the course in the Texas Tech offense is for running backs to be actively involved as pass receivers, which Stockton and White certainly appear to be.
The starting receivers for Tech figure to be Devin Lauderdale (5-10, 176), Cameron Batson (5-9, 175), Ian Sadler (5-11, 195) and Reginald Davis III (6-0, 185), but more options should see the field Saturday such as Derrick Willies (6-3, 215), Keke Coutee (5-11, 175), Jonathan Giles (5-11, 185) and Dylan Cantrell (6-3, 210).
With Jakeem Grant and his 90 catches for 1,268 yards and 10 touchdowns from 2015 now with the Miami Dolphins, Lauderdale (41-539-4), Sadler (42-596-3), Davis (38-536-8) and Batson (29-327-1) are bring a generally equal level of contribution to give Mahomes a list of viable targets. Giles (16-155-3) and Coutee (11-105-0) also were involved in the passing game last season.
In Texas Tech’s opener, all receivers saw action, with Lauderdale leading the team in receptions (seven) and Giles and Davis as the top performers in terms of yardage (89 and 80 yards). Five different pass-catchers hauled in touchdown receptions last weekend.
Unlike the last time these two teams met, the 2016 version of Texas Tech does not have the matchup nightmare hybrid tight end/wide receiver such as Jace Amaro (6-5, 265), who caught eight passes for 112 yards in the 2013 Holiday Bowl against the Sun Devils.
From left to right, the Red Raider offensive line figures to start Baylen Brown at tackle (6-5, 305), Jack Reichel at guard (6-5, 290), Tony Morales at center (6-3, 295), Justin Murphy at guard (6-6, 310) and Terence Steele at tackle (6-6, 300). The line as a whole boasts some incredible size, as all four starting guards and tackles are either 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6.
Though the line brings size, experience is a general issue as Reichel is a first-year player from the JUCO ranks, Steele is just a redshirt freshman, Morales was a scout team member from 2011-14 until earning a game day role last year while starting six games and Murphy started four of five games played in 2015 before being sidelined by injury.
Brown is the elder statesman as he began the year 23 starts dating back to the 2013 season – including a start in the Holiday Bowl against ASU – but, as stated above, the other four projected starting linemen entered the 2016 season with 10 combined career FBS level starts.
Texas Tech Offense Summary
A potential Heisman Trophy candidate of Texas Tech can play at a level as a team to keep him on the national radar, Mahomes’ arm could go numb after the amount of passes he likely will toss against the Sun Devils. He got plenty of rehearsal last week, as he helped combine to complete passes to seventeen different receivers week one against Stephen F. Austin.
Recently the Texas Tech rush offense has been significantly better than some of the other Air Raid squads such as Washington State, but replacing last year’s near 1,500-yard rusher is a tall task and Saturday will be the first true test to see if the Red Raiders are stocked to fill that void.
Ultimately, Mahomes will likely take his best shot over and over against the Arizona State secondary until the Sun Devils prove to be able to stop him – if they prove to be able to stop him.
Texas Tech Defense
The Red Raider defensive front positions Notre Dame transfer Kolin Hill (6-2, 250) at end with Michigan transfer Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 325) at nose along with tackle Breiden Fehoko (6-3, 295) and rush end Gary Moore (6-5, 240).
Hill appeared in nine games for the Fighting Irish in 2014 (he did not play against ASU) and sat out last season after transferring. As a recruit, Hill was rated the No. 21 outside linebacker prospect in the 2014 class by Rivals. Hill posted two tackles including one sack last week in his Red Raider debut.
Pipkins played with the Wolverines from 2012-14 before using last year as a redshirt after transferring to Texas Tech. Altogether with Michigan he appeared in five games with no listed starts, a substantial disappointment for the former five-star prospect listed as the third-best defensive tackle prospect and the No. 14 overall recruit in the 2012 class by Rivals. Pipkins did have a solid debut game for Texas Tech with five tackles including one for loss against Stephen F. Austin.
Fehoko returns as the most accomplished defensive lineman from Tech’s 2015 roster as he was an Honorable Mention All-Big XII selection after totaling 19 tackles including 4.0 for loss with 1.0 sack. Moore was generally on par with Fehoko last year in terms of productivity as he posted 13 tackles including 4.0 with 3.0 sacks in 2015.
At linebacker, WILL D’Vonta Hinton (5-9, 225) is joined by MIKE Jordyn Brooks (6-1, 235) and SAM Malik Jenkins (6-1, 225).
Hinton is one of the team’s top returning tacklers from 2015 as he posted 53 total stops including 5.5 for loss with 2.0 sacks. Jenkins was close on his tail with 52 tackles including 4.0 for loss, while the true freshman Brooks, rated by Rivals as the No. 64 outside linebacker in the 2016 class, has made an immediate impact and entered the starting lineup.
Last week, Jenkins tied for the team lead with five tackles, While Hinton added three including a tackle for loss, while Brooks had a pair of tackles.
In the secondary, Justis Nelson (6-2, 180) is paired with D.J. Polite-Bray (6-0, 195) at cornerback with Jah’Shawn Johnson (5-10, 180) at free safety and Keenon Ward (5-9, 200) at strong safety.
Johnson is Tech’s leading returning tackler from 2015 (85), while Ward had 60 tackles last season and Nelson had 44. A wide receiver for Texas Tech in 2013 and 2014, Polite-Bray redshirted in 2015 and now stands in the starting lineup at cornerback.
Against Stephen F. Austin, Nelson tied for the team-high with five tackles, while Polite-Bray had four tackles and two pass breakups. Johnson and Ward registered three tackles each, while Ward added an interception.
Texas Tech Defense Summary
As good as the offense was in 2015, that’s just about how bad the defense was. Few teams in the country are as polarizing as the Red Raiders when it comes to a squad with an offense that few can keep up with, but a defense that can prevent few from passing by.
Though many key performers are gone from last year, there are several new pieces to the Tech defense in 2016, including FBS transfers, JUCO transfers, and other newcomers, with the hopes that the infusion of new talent and improved athleticism can result in better overall defensive efforts.
Poorest last year against the run and one of the least intimidating defenses in the country in 2016, Texas Tech likely will – or at least should – game plan to limit the Sun Devil run game by any means necessary and force the first-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkins.
Texas Tech Special Teams
On special teams, kicker Clayton Hatfield after earning Honorable Mention All-Big XII recognition in 2015. Hatfield made both field goal attempts last week, connecting from 31 and 43 yards. Last season, Hatfield made 14-of-16 field goal attempts and 53-of-54 PATs.
Punter Michael Barden averaged 32.6 yards on five punts last week against Stephen F. Austin.
Reginald Davis III and Keke Coutee are listed as the primary kick returners with Cameron Batson at punt returner. Davis and Coutee are new to the return game for the Red Raiders while Batson averaged 6.2 yards on 13 punt returns in 2015.
It seems like a scapegoat simply to say the game will come down to what sort of limitation ASU can place on Mahomes, but in all reality that figures to be the primary factor that will determine the winner of this game.
Both teams have advantages while on offense, so it may come down to which team is able to cash in on red zone trips and avoid turnovers.
After an opening game that left fans feeling lukewarm despite a 31-point margin of victory in the early September Arizona heat, this game is expected to provide a distinct proving ground for Arizona State to determine whether the Sun Devils have made strides in fixing last year’s historically poor pass defense.
If this game becomes a shootout, Sun Devil fans definitely will closely watch quarterback Manny Wilkins to see how his composure and execution hold up in times of need.
A victory over Texas Tech would go a very long way to exorcising some demons from 2015, but a loss would resurrect the concerns from a year ago and the fear that the 2016 season could follow a similar path of mediocrity for Arizona State.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Try to Contain Mahomes: Both in terms of his ability to accumulate incomprehensible stats and his mobility under duress, Mahomes is the most important player in this game on either side. If he is able to let loose through the air and/or if ASU allows him to break out of the pocket, the Sun Devils will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Six Not Three: ASU and Texas Tech had identical numbers in the red zone when it came to conversion percentage (87.5%) and total scores (56) and opportunities (64). However, a huge gap existed between Texas Tech’s ability to register red zone touchdowns while ASU all too often settled for field goals as the Red Raiders ranked 25th nationally by scoring touchdowns 67.2% of the time while ASU ranked 108th at a rate of 51.6%. In what assumes to be an offense-heavy game, when ASU makes its way beyond the Tech 25-yard line, the Devils need Texas native Zane Gonzalez to be used for PATs more than field goals.
Feed the Beast(s): In 2015, Texas Tech ranked 126th of 127 FBS teams in rush defense by allowing nearly 280 yards per game. As much as ASU’s faulty pass defense appeals to the Air Raid attack of the Tech offense, Texas Tech’s porous rush defense should similarly tantalize Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, and mobile quarterback Manny Wilkins. ASU’s running attack should be used early and often not only to attack a deficiency in the Red Raider defense but also to help create openings in the passing game.
· ASU has a total of 14 Texas natives on the 2016 roster: DB Chad Adams, DB Bryson Echols, K Zane Gonzalez, DB/LB Deion Guignard, WR John Humphrey, WR Ellis Jefferson, S Laiu Moeakiola, WR Ryan Newsome, RB Nick Ralston, DB J’Marcus Rhodes, LB Christian Sam, WR Cameron Smith, WR Jeremy Smith and QB Dillon Sterling-Cole.
· ASU OL coach Chris Thomsen coached at Texas Tech in 2012 and was the Red Raiders’ interim head coach in the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl, leading Texas Tech to a 34-31 win over Minnesota.
· Texas Tech LS Jacob Herbig attended Denton (Texas) Guyer High School, as did ASU WR Ellis Jefferson
· Texas Tech LB Coltin Nied attended Southlake (Texas) Carroll High School, as did ASU WR Cameron Smith
· Texas Tech OL Luke Heitshusen and OL Cody Wheeler attended Allen (Texas) High School, as did ASU DB Chad Adams and LB Christian Sam. ASU head coach Todd Graham also was the head coach at Allen from 1995-2000.