Texas Tech: Beyond the Box Score Preview - DEFENSE

Two posts of note: Yesterday's Offensive preview and the summer Defensive preview from which I will be pulling the quotes below.

We're going to start with a follow-up on one thing I mentioned yesterday.  I said Tech seemed to have a decent amount of upset potential because they hadn't been consistently bad, but had instead seemed to run somewhat hot-and-cold.  A longer stretch of hot play could lead to a pretty damn good hour of work on their part.  To investigate the "upset potential" idea a little further, I broke out something I haven't used much this season: individual-game "+" scores.  Just as each team is ranked based on their season-long "+" numbers, they get "+" scores for each game they play as well.  It is (obviously) based on their performance against their given opponent and how it compares to everybody else's performance against that team.  As with S&P+, a performance of 200.0 means the team was precisely average in every way.  Here is the week-to-week performance for both Missouri and Texas Tech.

The good: Mizzou has vastly outplayed Tech for most of the season.

The bad: the last two weeks, the two teams have played at a very similar level.

The Oklahoma game did not necessarily help Mizzou's "+" ratings out as much as one would expect, as, once again, Mizzou didn't play amazingly well in that game (this lends credence to my theory that Mizzou's first-quarter slump was due as much to a "2009 Nebraska" hangover as an Oklahoma hangover).  They were much better against A&M than against Oklahoma.

Now let's look at this data another way.  Since momentum doesn't really exist in any clearly-defined form -- meaning, teams don't get better or worse and stay that way -- we can learn almost as much by doing what the good folks at Beyond The Box Score often do: lining performances up from best to worst.

In terms of week-to-week performance, Tech has had one of the smallest standard deviations in the country.  They have been exactly average to slightly above average almost every single week.  Meanwhile, Mizzou has varied from average to best-in-the-country.  They don't have a California-like standard deviation, but it has been of the 30 highest in the country to date.

Whereas the first chart should give you pause -- have Tech and Mizzou really been at or near the same level recently? -- this one should ease your concerns a bit.  While both teams have a similar floor, Mizzou's ceiling has been much, much higher in 2010.  In fact, only twice in eight games has Mizzou played at a level below Tech's ceiling.  This suggests that while Mizzou could in fact play below Tech's level and lose, their odds of pulling this one out are still quite high, even if they play one of their lesser games.

Now, on to the defense.

Defense

Overall Ranks

S&P+: 65th
Success Rate+: 53rd
PPP+: 71st

Standard Downs S&P+: 64th
Passing Downs S&P+: 71st

Redzone S&P+: 52nd

Q1 S&P+: 92nd
Q2 S&P+: 95th
Q3 S&P+: 36th
Q4 S&P+: 54th

1st Down S&P+: 48th
2nd Down S&P+: 103rd
3rd Down S&P+: 48th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 30th
Rushing SR+: 5th
Rushing PPP+: 71st

Standard Downs: 42nd
Passing Downs: 14th

Redzone: 39th

Adj. Line Yards: 13th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 86th
Passing SR+: 105th
Passing PPP+: 80th

Standard Downs: 93rd
Passing Downs: 87th

Redzone: 68th

Adj. Sack Rate: 56th
SD Sack Rate: 29th
PD Sack Rate: 78th

While I'm not going to tell you that Tech had one of the best defenses in the country last year, I am certainly going to mention that they were as much of a reason for Tech getting back to the nine-win mark as their offense was.  Both units dropped off at least a hair compared to their 2008 heights, but this D made plays at key times, especially when rushing the passer.  Last year's defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill was able to dial up effective blitzes on passing downs, which allowed them to play Missouri-style effective defense -- when Mizzou's D is doing well, it's because they're getting pressure on the QB while the DBs drop back and clean up the messes if the quarterback still gets the pass off.  They didn't force a ton of turnovers, but they got to the quarterback and were able to prevent a ton of big plays in the passing game.  Unfortunately for them, their three leading sack-masters from a year ago (Brandon Sharpe had 15, Daniel Howard had 8, Marlon Williams had 3.5) are all gone, as is their best corner Jamar Wall.

There really isn't any way to sugar-coat the fact that Tech's defense has been the definition of mediocre this season.  They pile up quite a few tackles for loss, and their rushing defense is downright solid, but any gains they make on standard downs, they tend to give away on passing downs.  Looking at their Passing Downs Sack Rate, they do not appear to blitz amazingly well, and while their efficiency level is great versus the run, they play soft against the pass and allow an alarmingly high success rate via the air.

Injuries and inexperience have not helped.  Not even close.  With contributors like Will Ford, Scott Smith and Terrance Bullitt currently out and almost no defensive line experience starting the season, struggle should have been expected.

Defensive Line

There will always be period of transition when a defense moves to a 3-4.  Neither the ends nor tackles recruited to play a 4-3 will likely be quite hefty enough to handle the rigors of extra blocking from the offensive line, and everybody has to adapt to a new role.  Well, take the normal amount of transition, and double it in Tech's case.  They must replace every player who was even a remote pass rush threat (their only returnee with more than one sack last year it Whitlock, who had three).  Their top three listed defensive ends are newcomers -- a redshirt freshman and two junior college transfers.  Their only known quantity on the line is a tackle who was a bit undersized in the 4-3, and now is a lot undersized in the 3-4.

One thing Tech could have going for them here is freshness, the element of surprise.  Only three of the ten players listed above registered a tackle in a Tech uniform last year.  Donald Langley (Tennessee) and Chris Perry (Miami) are both transfers from other BCS schools.  There is almost certainly a bit of talent and athleticism here, and since so few of them have actually taken snaps in a 4-3 at the major college level, they could adapt to new roles faster.  This is obviously the positive spin of "They have almost no experience," but I do what I can.

DE Brian Duncan: 30.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks
DT Colby Whitlock: 29.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU
DE Sam Fehoko: 20.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR
DE Donald Langley: 10.0 tackles
DT Pearlie Graves: 6.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks

Tech's depth chart (PDF) lists four down linemen, as I believe that, for all intents and purposes, Brian Duncan basically serves as both the second end and the fourth linebacker.  I'll list him as a lineman here, but keep in mind that he is a little of both.

The expected stars (Duncan and Whitlock) really seem to have played rather well so far.  They have combined for 16 tackles for loss, which is a very respectable total (as means of comparison, Brad Madison and Zaviar Gooden have combined for 13).  Meanwhile, wonderfully-named redshirt freshman Pearlie Graves has made the most of his new-found (and injury-aided) playing time.  He has compiled 4.5 tackles for loss in just two games.  Oddly, he is listed as a second-string tackle behind Bobbie Agoucha, who has yet to make an appearance in a box score this season.

As I mentioned, Tech has put together a solid performance against the run this year.  They rank 30th in Rushing S&P+, fifth in Rushing Success Rate+, and 13th in Adj. Line Yards.  It will be very interesting to see how Mizzou gameplans for them.  Nebraska game aside, they have gone to greater lengths this year to establish the run, and it has often paid off.  But considering Tech's struggles against the pass, could you blame Dave Yost and company if they loaded up on the aerial attack?

Linebackers

Now we get to potentially the most experienced unit of the Tech defense.  Players like Brian Duncan and Bront Bird have been steady performers throughout their time in Lubbock, and they will be counted on to be the same in 2010.  Duncan could perhaps be the most important player on the Tech roster.  He moves into the "Buck" role for Tuberville's first Tech defense, the DE/OLB hybrid who will spend a lot of his time rushing the quarterback.  (Being that the Tech depth chart lists the line as DE-NT-DT instead of DE-NT-DE, I'm thinking he will spend as much or more time as the fourth end as he does the fourth linebacker.)  He was a tackler, not a pass-rusher last year -- he was fourth on the team with eight tackles for loss last season, but none were sacks.  How he adapts to the "fourth end" role will likely determine how Tech's defense performs overall.  He is as experienced as you could want a senior leader to be, but he doesn't have this type of experience.

The rest of the LB corps should be rock solid.  Bird, Julius Howard and Sam Fehoko are all strong, though since they'll all spend time as the fourth rusher in the 3-4, we'll have to see how well they serve in attacking roles; the three combined for 93.0 tackles last year, but only 7.5 tackles for loss.  Behind all of these upperclassmen are a host of redshirt freshmen.

MLB Bront Bird: 58.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR, 1 PBU
WLB Julius Howard: 26.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks
SLB Tyrone Sonier: 18.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF
WLB Brett Dewhurst: 15.0 tackles, 1 PBU

Statistically speaking, the linebacking corps has been extremely disappointing this year.  Even if you throw half of Brian Duncan's stats into this pile, the overall number of disruptive stats have been minimal.  It does appear that Tech uses a nickel quite a bit, meaning there are fewer linebackers on the field to make plays.  That might explain it, but in a 3-4, one expects linebackers to be more disruptive than this.  Looking at the secondary stats, much of the blitzing seems to come from the D-backs.

Secondary

Many are writing the Tech secondary off this season because of the loss of star corner Jamar Wall; but while I still think the linebackers are the best unit on the field for the Red Raiders this fall, the overall dropoff should not be too significant here.  Wall was good, but playmaker LaRon Moore should be able to step into the #1 CB role without much of a problem (we'll have to see if D.J. Johnson or Will Ford are then capable of stepping into Moore's #2 role without dropoff).  Both safeties return, including freshman 2009 All-American Cody Davis.  Neither Davis nor Franklin Mitchem spent much time behind the line of scrimmage last season, but they combined to intercept two passes (both via Mitchem's hands), break up nine passes, and recover three fumbles.

A secondary is only as good as the pass rush in front of it, and that was never more true than for Tech's secondary last year.  If the opposing quarterback was getting the pass off, it was likely going to be complete (opposing QBs completed 60.3% of their passes last year), and no Tech defender grabbed more than two interceptions last year, not even Wall.  The secondary will need to help the super-green pass rush out this year, holding their coverage longer than they did in 2009.  Can they?

S Cody Davis: 53.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 4 PBU
S Tre' Porter: 37.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU
CB Jarvis Phillips: 35.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 6 PBU
CB D.J. Johnson: 32.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU
S Franklin Mitchem: 19.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 4 PBU

Being that Tech's third safety (Franklin Mitchem) has made more tackles than their third non-Duncan linebacker (Tyrone Sonier), that probably tells us something about how Tech uses its defensive personnel.  And considering other defensive backs like Ford and Bullitt have been hurt, that probably tells us even more.

Every single defensive back on the above list has made at least one play behind the line of scrimmage and broken up at least three passes.  Despite the fact that their passing success rates suggest pillow-soft cushions, it does appear that the Tech defensive backs like to mix it up, and they often win individual battles.

They also lose them too, however, and they have suffered a ton of breakdowns.

Honestly, this game will likely be won or lost with Mizzou's horizontal passing.  Tech's poor success rates suggest great things for Mizzou in this regard, but if they can make some tackles behind the line of scrimmage and force some passing downs -- or jump some routes and pick off some passes (easier said than done with Gabbert's hand cannon) -- their odds of winning will increase significantly.  (Then again, Tech's poor passing downs performance suggests that Mizzou might still have the edge even if they're facing quite a few 2nd-and-10's.)

One note: watch out for Jarvis Phillips in future seasons.  The redshirt freshman from Dallas has taken on other teams' No. 1 receiver quite a bit and has been burned at times, but his four interceptions and six pass break-ups suggest he is well on his way to good things.  He might not be completely ready yet, but he could be a helluva shutdown corner in the future.

Special Teams

The only truly known quantities on this Tech team are the offensive skill position players and the special teams unit.  Despite mediocre punting, this unit ranked in the overall Top 20 last season and returns all of its marquee players.  Eric Stephens is a very strong kick returner.  Matt Williams was not tested significantly last season (only four of his 14 field goal attempts were from beyond 40), but he was quite consistent.  That's probably a good thing, as not every coach is as flamboyant about going for it on fourth downs as Leach was (case in point: the 2007 MU-Tech game that saw Leach forgo approximately 26 field goals and fail miserably in the process).  Both Williams and punter Ryan Erxleben (how exactly do you pronounce that?  Earls-leben?  Erz-luh-ban?) will possibly be counted on to shoulder a larger load this season.  Then again, new offensive coordinator Neal Brown coached at Troy last year, where their kicker attempted just 14 field goals...

Using the same table I used last week for the Nebraska preview, here is a table with Tech's and Mizzou's current special teams ranks:

Category Tech
Rank
Mizzou
Rank
FG Kicking 94th 18th
Punting
Opp. Punt Returns
52nd
38th
45th
7th
Kickoffs
Touchback %
Opp. Kick Returns
82nd
18th
92nd
28th
61st
89th
Punt Returns 94th 75th
Kick Returns 36th 28th

Again, I find it extremely odd that Tech ranks 82nd in overall kickoff distance but 18th in touchback percentage.  I know they had a couple of comical, failed onside kicks earlier this season, but I don't think that alone would account for that large a differential.  Regardless, after watching kick after kick sail over his head last week, you know Marcus Murphy is going to be hungry to return just about anything he actually gets his hands on.  And facing Tech's 92nd-ranked kick coverage unit, that might not be a terrible idea.

If Tech has an advantage in this unit, it is on Mizzou kickoffs and maybe Tech punting.  Mizzou holds the kicker advantage (as they usually do against teams not named Nebraska), and in all, Mizzou holds an edge here.  Not a huge one, but an edge nonetheless.

Summary

For a nighttime road game, this game does appear to hold minimal upset potential for Mizzou.  The F/+ projections love the Tigers (+21!), and as I mentioned above, Mizzou has spent 75% of this season playing above Tech's apparent ceiling.  They have defended this type of offense well in the past, especially when a mobile quarterback is not involved, and in general I feel pretty confident.  Mizzou's short passing game is likely to thrive, the numbers suggest they are much more likely to break a few big plays than Tech is.  My general paranoia comes from obvious factors -- it's a road game at night, Jones-AT&T is typically good for at least one nice upset a year, and Mizzou's performance last week was their second-worst of the season (behind San Diego State).  If Normal Mizzou and Normal Tech face off tomorrow night, Mizzou wins.  Beyond that, I can just say that in West Texas, it is probably a good idea not to make that many assumptions.  Expect just about anything tomorrow night ... with the assurance that most scenarios point to Mizzou moving to 8-1.

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