Arizona State’s second matchup of the year features a visit from Texas Tech, its ever-so-popular head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and the Air Raid—a system the Sun Devils were overwhelmed by in three matchups last year.
Before we break the Red Raiders and their offensive scheme down, I think it’s important to have a general grasp of its background.
Coaches Hal Mumme (pronounced “mummy”) and Mike Leach are credited with its creation during their tenure at Kentucky which started in 1997 (Tim Couch was their starting quarterback at the time).
The intent of the system in its earliest form was to get the ball into the hands of playmakers quickly, and allow them to create after the catch; it remains the same today, with many different twists and wrinkles.
Leach’s success took him to Oklahoma, then helped land him a head coaching gig at Texas Tech. It’s said that while in Lubbock, Texas, Leach implemented the four-wide look that the scheme is commonly associated with the Air Raid today.
He’s responsible for much of its recognition and usage across the country, especially considering Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), Sonny Dykes (Cal), Mark Stoops (Kentucky) and Kingsbury are among the most notable members of the scheme’s coaching tree to currently hold head coaching positions.
For the Red Raiders, the scheme has granted them offensive success over the years. Below, we take a look at what Texas Tech does, and how ASU can potentially stop its opponent.
Head Coach: Kliff Kingsbury (former starting quarterback for Mike Leach at Texas Tech)
Offense: Air Raid
Defense: 4-3 Under base; Multiple
Key Players: Patrick Mahomes (5-QB), Devin Lauderdale (6-WR), Justin Stockton (4-RB); Justis Nelson (31-CB), Malik Jenkins (41-LB)
Texas Tech Offense
As stated before, the Red Raiders implement an Air Raid scheme. With the losses of receiver Jakeem Grant and running back DeAndre Washington, Kingsbury’s offense will most likely profile as an extremely pass-heavy unit in 2016.
During his Monday presser, Graham called Kingsbury’s variation of the Air Raid a “pure” one which most resembled Leach’s. In case you need proof: Texas Tech attempted 71 passes with 17 players recording a catch in their 2016 opener, as if Leach were calling the plays himself.
Schematically, the Air Raid is said to be composed of about 30-40 core passing plays that alter according to formation by Kingsbury. He’s said it’s a simple playbook to install too, claiming it only takes 10-12 practices to administer (he also doesn’t use a playbook; players copy their own playbook down in order to buckle down on the plays).
Kingsbury’s version includes multiple formation looks, with a pistol set, spread four-wide set, trips offset, and empty set appearing as the most reoccurring of them.
The scheme isn’t predicated on much action or motion within the backfield, but rather timing and pace.
Shallow crossing routes, particularly from the slot, are a key element of the passing game. Their incorporation in the offense comes as a result of the Mesh concept.
Against zone coverages, the shallow routes ran on Mesh plays come across the middle within five-to-seven yards of the line of scrimmage, bating a dropping linebacker or even safety to step down from a zonal assignment, and allow an inward-breaking route with more depth to sneak behind.
In the quick game, you’ll typically see receiver screens designed to get the ball to a player while needing to only beat one defender to gain significant positive yards. Kingsbury’s offense doesn’t rely on run-pass option action in the backfield often, however quick screens do set up action for deeper routes downfield when the pass along the perimeter is used as a decoy.
Where ASU needs to be careful
Defending the middle of the field and down the seams wasn’t ASU’s strong suit during their season opening victory over Northern Arizona.
In order to slow down the potent passing attack of Texas Tech, ASU cannot allow the receivers entering the middle of the field to catch the ball comfortably in space. More importantly, the Sun Devils can’t allow Mahomes to take off with the football into a vacated area of the field or even extend a play before heaving a pass downfield.
Mahomes’ ability to extend plays is among the best in the country. Finding a way to stop him from doing so will ultimately be the difference in the final outcome.
Where ASU has the advantage
Texas Tech’s offensive line is composed of a redshirt freshman, a sophomore, a redshirt sophomore, a senior and a redshirt season. Last year, it was the left side of the line that looked lost on several occasions.
Texas Tech’s starting right guard from last season moved to left tackle, but he’s the lone returning starter along the front five. Viva the Matadors—Texas Tech’s SB Nation site—had this to say regarding Mahomes’ protection in the first matchup of the year:
We were getting a lot of pressure from the outside of our offensive line throughout the game. Which forced Mahomes to take off scrambling almost as soon as he caught the snap on numerous occasions, which scares me a little bit. However, he did a good job showing his ability to step up into the pocket and deliver a strike.
If ASU wants to have any shot, they need to collapse the pocket and wrap up Mahomes when they get the chance, otherwise the man Graham called the best in his conference will make the defense pay.
Texas Tech Defense
The Red Raiders line up in multiple fronts defensively, employing different variations of zone and man coverage. There’s even a wrinkle of Tampa 2 that’s worked in.
Texas Tech’s defensive approach is very conservative against the pass, however its linebackers appeared to over-pursue ball carriers when facing the run and on play action.
This bodes well for ASU running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, along with quarterback Manny Wilkins. If the three of them are sharp, they’ll make an overly vigilant defender pay for his mistake, especially considering how much misdirection, motion and action goes on in the backfield.
In the passing game, the approach is much different.
During a third-and-6 against Texas, the Red Raiders defense showed blitz, placing five along the line of scrimmage.
However, when the ball was snapped, the two edge defenders dropped back into a spy or containment, watching the quarterback in the backfield while only three men rushed the passer.
Previous opponents took advantage of Tech’s conservative passing defense, particularly teams with talented receivers and a capable offensive line or solid quarterback play.
Where ASU needs to be careful
Taking care of the football is paramount this week. Giving Mahomes any extra possessions will come back to haunt the Sun Devils, and realistically, they should be able to move the ball well against the Red Raiders defense.
Where ASU has the advantage
The Wilkins-Richard-Ballage trio is going to be tough to stop for opposing defenses, even they know what’s coming. Aside from quarterback, offensively, ASU actually is the better team, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
ASU’s offense shouldn’t have much trouble moving the ball against the Red Raiders’ defense.
Game Viewed: Texas Tech @ Texas (2015), Texas Tech @ TCU (2015), Texas Tech vs LSU (2015)