Paul Rhoads enjoyed his time with the Texas Tech defense a whole lot more the last time he met them.
Against the nation's worst rush defense, Rhoads' Iowa State team rolled for 368 rushing yards in a 41-7 win that helped push the Cyclones into a bowl game. It also began Texas Tech's descent (the Red Raiders were ranked No. 20) out of the postseason.
This time around, though? The new Texas Tech defense looked a whole lot different. Texas Tech stuffed the run all night and didn't bother blitzing senior quarterback Steele Jantz.
The result: Just 116 rushing yards and 189 yards of total offense for an offense that entered the game averaging 429 yards in three nonconfernce games.
The Red Raiders forced four turnovers from Jantz this time, when sophomore Jared Barnett went without a turnover at quarterback a year ago.
The difference is clear.
"Up front, they were very physical. Did a nice job of getting off blocks, and just smothered our receivers in the pass game," Rhoads said.
A revamped defensive line has Texas Tech holding opponents to just 85 rushing yards a game. Combined with a solid pass rush and an improving secondary, the Red Raiders held their spot as the nation's leader in total defense just a year after finishing 114th in the stat. Texas Tech is giving up 24 fewer yards per game than No. 2 Alabama, though the Red Raiders have faced an FCS opponent and three teams that all rank at least 89th or below in total offense.
"In this league, in the Big 12, you’ve gotta have as much speed as you can," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We’re tackling better. We have speed on the team. We’ve made it a priority the last two years in recruiting to bring in height and speed on defense, guys that can run and rush the passer with speed and get their hands up and in the passing lane.
"It’s an ongoing process to get this defense where we need to be to play the Oklahoma State’s, the West Virginias, teams that throw the ball almost every down."
That speed showed up everywhere and hounded the Iowa State defense, whether it was getting to quarterbacks more quickly or breaking on thrown balls with more quickness. Jantz threw three interceptions, and former receiver Cornelius Douglas nabbed two. Douglas returned one 40 yards to set up a late touchdown and won the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Ball carriers were swarmed and didn't go anywhere after encountering one or two defenders.
"They were notably better on Saturday night," Rhoads said. "There’s a personality that you establish as a defensive coordinator of a team. Individually first, then on your staff, and it grows throughout the team."
Credit new coordinator Art Kaufman, as Tuberville's former assistant at Ole Miss was reunited with his old boss in Lubbock this offseason. It was Texas Tech's fourth coordinator in four years and third in three years under Tuberville, but Kaufman is the first to make a real impact.
"Do your job first. Be accountable for what you’re supposed to do. Everybody doing their job every play. We throw it in this league, but you still have to stop the run, because some of these throwing teams can run the ball on you. That just opens the floodgates for the passing game also," Tuberville said. "We’ve gone in and Art’s done a good job of training these kids in terms of playing the run, how to play with their hands, how to play with their eyes, gap control, all the little things it takes to be a run-stopping team and that filters down to playing pass defense and rushing the passer."
Kaufman's impact will get its toughest test yet when the Red Raiders host Oklahoma on Saturday. Oklahoma's dealt with struggles of its own offensively, but through three games, the Sooners rank 25th nationally in total offense. That's been a bit of a disappointment, but there's no doubt Oklahoma's offense is in a different league that what Tech has faced to this point.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops has already taken notice of the change in Lubbock.
"They’re playing a lot more aggressive," he said. "They’re really physical up front. They’re covering people in tight coverage. Just everything looks stronger and more disciplined in how they’re playing."
Saturday, we'll find out just how much stronger and more disciplined Texas Tech can be as the season goes on.