LUBBOCK, Texas -- The Texas Tech defense has a motto for third down.
“We call that the money down,” said linebacker Terrance Bullitt. “That’s when you get paid.”
This season, the Red Raiders have been cashing in. And due in large part to their sweeping defensive turnaround, Tech is 6-0 for the first time in five years.
“When you hear about Tech, you think about how explosive our offense is,” said defensive end Branden Jackson. “We want to show the world that Tech isn’t just an offensive school.”
So far in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first season, the Red Raiders are doing just that.
In the Big 12, they’re third in total defense, second in scoring defense and first in “money down” defense. Opponents are converting just 27 percent of their third downs against the Tech defense, which dating back to the Mike Leach era has long been a drain on the Red Raiders’ perennially high-scoring offense.
This season, the defense is carrying its weight.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the defense has contributed more than nine points per game to the Red Raiders’ scoring margin. When adjusted for the offenses they’ve faced, that ranks 17th in the country.
That’s a massive improvement over the last two years. Tech’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last season was -0.3. And in 2011, Adjusted Defensive Efficiency showed the Tech defense cost the team more than a touchdown a game, which ranked 100th in the FBS.
“It’s a different attitude,” Bullitt said. “We wanted to put the team on the defense’s backs.”
Despite rotating true freshmen quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, the offense has continued to hum like past Tech offenses. The Red Raiders trail only Baylor in Big 12 scoring offense with an average of almost 42 points a game.
But offense has rarely been a problem.
Since Leach’s first year in Lubbock in 2000, the Red Raiders have never averaged less than 30 points a game. And yet, they’ve never won a Big 12 title, either.
Defense is why the preseason pick to finish seventh in the Big 12 is thinking it can contend this season.
“Our offense is capable of putting up a lot of points,” said nose guard Kerry Hyder. “So we feel like the faster we can get them the ball, the faster than they can put up points.”
But unlike past years in Lubbock, when the offense hasn’t put up the points, the defense has been there to back them up.
In Tech’s marquee win so far -- a 20-10 Thursday night victory over TCU -- the defense came up big. The Red Raiders defense gave up 23 first downs and 401 yards of offense. But they bucked up when it mattered, forcing TCU to go 3 of 16 on third down, while stuffing the Horned Frogs twice on fourth down.
Eventually, after a dormant second and third quarter, the Tech offense finally woke up late in the fourth quarter, as Webb found Bradley Marquez with a 19-yard touchdown to break a 10-10 tie.
“This has definitely been in the making,” Hyder said. “We’ve got a lot of older guys, especially in the front seven. I can feel the energy around the defense right now."
Hyder is a big reason for that energy.
A catalyst in the middle up front in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt's 3-4 defense, Hyder leads the Big 12 with nine tackles for loss. Last weekend in the win over Iowa State, he produced a team-high nine tackles with two quarterback hurries, despite facing constant double teams.
“He's probably not as big as some of the guys I've seen,” Kingsbury said of Hyder, who weighs just 280 pounds. “But he plays hard and he shows up on tape over and over again. He's been a real leader for that defense.”
Others have stepped up, too.
Inside linebacker Will Smith has helped Hyder plug the run and leads the team in tackles. Bullitt has been wreaking havoc from the outside, either dropping back in pass coverage or bringing pressure off the edge.
Together, those three have helped set the tone for Tech's defensive revival.
"We’ve come out here, tried to outwork the offense since the spring, and listened to our coaches," Bullitt said.
Up next, Tech faces back-to-back road tilts at West Virginia and Oklahoma in a pivotal stretch that will denote the Red Raiders as Big 12 contenders or pretenders. But if the defense keeps delivering on the money downs, the Red Raiders just might be the former.
"It’s finally coming together," Hyder said. "We’ve got a lot of confidence building.”