It has been a tale of two seasons for the Texas Tech Red Raiders this year, and perhaps no unit has contributed to that sentiment more than the defense.
For the first seven games of the Red Raiders season, it was the best of times. The last five games? Well, we know how the story ends.
Through Texas Tech's first five games, the Red Raiders allowed a measly 13.8 points per game and won each of those contests by a double-digit margin. A once-proud Texas Christian attack mustered just 10 points against the Red Raiders while June Jones' SMU squad was the only team to cross the 20-point mark against Texas Tech through the first five weeks.
But in week six, something happened. All of a sudden, the schedule got tougher, the opponents got faster, and points got scored. Kliff Kingsbury was able to guide his team to two more victories after the team's first five games, but finally, the Red Raiders were exposed.
Against a slate that included Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor, the Red Raiders fell apart down the stretch and lost their last five games. The worst part for the Red Raiders was not offensive miscues, but rather a complete and total defensive free fall.
In their last five contests, the Red Raiders allowed a staggering 48.6 points per game.
Still, it doesn't mean this Texas Tech defense should be taken lightly. The Red Raiders have had a month to iron out their kinks, and it's not as if this defense hasn't faced an up-tempo spread offense before (Practice anyone?). The team has its fair share of playmakers, and it starts with inside linebacker Will Smith.
Smith is the anchor in the 3-4 scheme employed by Kliff Kingsbury and he registered 106 tackles on the season. That total is 30 more than any of his teammates' marks, and he played with a target on his back. Opponents knew Smith was the key to beating the Red Raiders, yet he still led the team in tackles and sacks (5.0).
The Red Raiders have two other inside backers who shared time this season in Sam Eguavoen and Micah Awe. Both players finished in the top five on the team in tackles this season, but Eguavoen was the better run-stopper as he notched 5.5 tackles for loss.
Texas Tech boasts a few formidable edge rushers including sophomore Pete Robertson who actually played quarterback in high school. Robertson has excellent speed, but he's a bit of tweener in terms of position. He's played everywhere from safety to defensive end in college, and he added a team-high two interceptions to his 7.0 tackles for loss this year.
Second team All-Big 12 end Kerry Hyder plays with his hand in the dirt most of the time, and he's one of the better run defenders on the team. Hyder starts at defensive end and tallied 11.5 tackles for loss which is the exact same total Will Sutton enters Monday's game with.
The Red Raiders' top interior lineman is Brandon Jackson who weighs just 240 pounds, but gets the job done at defensive tackle. Jackson had 8.5 tackles for loss this year and three sacks, and his smaller frame helps him keep up with up-tempo offenses.
One of Texas Tech's biggest issues this season was its failure to force turnovers and that started in the secondary. The Red Raiders managed just seven interceptions this season and neither starting cornerback had a pick. In fact, Robertson (A defensive end/linebacker hybrid) and safety J.J. Gaines (Seven games missed due to injury) were the only two players with multiple interceptions.
While Gaines missed a lot of time, the safety opposite him earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors. Tre' Porter finished second on the team in tackles with 76 and as the free safety, he's asked to do more than his fellow defensive backs in run support.
Aside from a horrendous -13 turnover margin that placed the Red Raiders 121st out of 123 FBS teams, Texas Tech also ranks 83rd nationally in total defense. The Red Raiders surrendered an average of 419.1 yards per game this year, and gave up more than 194 yards per game on the ground.
The Sun Devils will likely be without Marion Grice, but they are hoping to have D.J. Foster back at full health to shoulder the load against a porous run defense that should give Arizona State ample opportunity to capitalize.
Todd Graham has always preached a strong running game and winning the turnover battle, and Texas Tech presents the Sun Devils with a golden opportunity to make the most of Graham's game plan.