The Texas Tech defense continues to hold opposing offenses out of the end zone.
The skill players have big-play capability.
And the Red Raiders are 5-0 for the first time in five years.
Buzz around the Big 12 so far has justifiably centered on Baylor’s offense and Oklahoma’s defense. But Texas Tech has been the surprise team of the conference.
Can the Red Raiders keep it going?
That hinges heavily on what happens at quarterback the rest of the way.
Saturday, walk-on true freshman Baker Mayfield played his best game since the opener against SMU as Tech routed Kansas 54-16 after falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter.
Mayfield completed 65 percent of his passes for 368 yards and had a nifty 19-yard touchdown dash that gave the Red Raiders the lead for good in the second quarter.
But in the third quarter, Mayfield suffered a knee injury that apparently wasn’t as bad as it looked. Coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday morning that scans on the knee didn’t show the structural damage the Tech training staff originally feared. Kingsbury added that Mayfield wouldn’t be out for the season but didn’t add anything else, including who his starter would be this weekend against Iowa State.
“We gotta see where Baker is at and take it from there,” Kingsbury said.
If Mayfield is out, Kingsbury has two alternatives: true freshman Davis Webb, who has played quite a bit in relief of Mayfield this season, or Michael Brewer, the preseason projected starter who returned Saturday in garbage time from a back injury that sidelined him the first month of the season.
“Those quarterbacks did a good job handling themselves Saturday,” Kingsbury said.
How the quarterbacks handle themselves going forward -- and how Tech handles the quarterbacks -- will go a long way in determining whether Tech can emerge into a legit Big 12 contender along with the Bears and Sooners.
So far, the Tech defense has shown it's up to the challenge.
The Red Raiders have the eighth-best scoring defense in college football and second-best in the Big 12 behind the Sooners. Texas Tech has given up yards but has bucked up in the red zone, giving up just two touchdowns on 11 red zone attempts. The Red Raiders have also forced a Big 12-best eight fumbles.
“We’ve really harped on red zone defense all year,” Kingsbury said. “They’ve stepped up there.”
Even though the offense has been held in check at times, the Red Raiders have the skill players to match their defense.
Tight end Jace Amaro, who leads the Big 12 with 38 receptions, is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses in the slot. Eric Ward and Bradley Marquez are big-play threats on the outside. And diminutive sophomore inside receiver Jakeem Grant is as explosive as anyone else in the league with the ball in his hands.
For those reasons, quarterback could be the one position that puts Tech over the top. Or, the one spot that pushes the Red Raiders down.
Although Mayfield seemed to find his stride at Kansas, Kingsbury could be back to square one at the position if Mayfield can’t practice this week.
Webb has come in and made plays, notably a late touchdown pass that helped beat TCU last month. But there’s a difference between relieving and starting. Is Webb ready for that? Brewer, meanwhile, has all the tools to be a successful quarterback in the league, when 100 percent. But is he 100 percent? And when will Mayfield be back?
The Red Raiders have three weeks to hash out those quarterback questions before they head to Oklahoma on Oct. 26. If they can, the Red Raiders could emerge into a viable conference title contender in Kingsbury’s first season.
After all, the other pieces appear to be in place.
“The defense has really carried us,” Kingsbury said. “Special teams has been a strong point.
“If the offense can get caught up, we’ll feel pretty good.”