Texas Tech's early defense a sign of change

LUBBOCK, Texas -- For most of the first quarter, Texas Tech's offense didn't perform the way fans at Jones AT&T Stadium have grown accustomed to over the past decade. The Red Raiders moved the ball 50 yards on the first drive and had a field-goal attempt blocked. On the second and third drives, they combined for zero yards and two three-and-outs.

Excluding a lopsided result against Texas A&M last season, the Red Raiders never scored more than seven points in the first quarter of a loss.

They scored seven on Sunday, but unlike last season, Texas Tech's new defense held, dominating SMU in the first half before a few second-half mistakes and mishaps made the win a less-convincing 35-27 final.

Tuberville called the first-half performance excellent. Before a lengthy drive put SMU's first points on the board, Texas Tech held the Mustangs to just 68 yards of offense, resulting in four punts and two interceptions on their first six drives.

Before that score (which Texas Tech promptly answered with its own touchdown), SMU hadn't crossed midfield.

"I would never have guessed that," Tuberville said. "We didn't know what to expect, so we didn't know what to plan for."

SMU is not Texas. They are not Oklahoma. They are not Texas A&M. But they are a good offense, and if Texas Tech strings together many more stretches like they did early Sunday against SMU, a bad day for the offense doesn't mean a bad day for everyone involved with the Red Raiders program.

"It gives you huge confidence; you obviously have the momentum...you're not pressing," said quarterback Taylor Potts of the defense's early dominance. Potts finished with 359 yards and four touchdowns to further distance himself from backup Steven Sheffield. "You still want to score on every single drive, but it's nice knowing that your defense is playing really well like they always do."

Tuberville and his defensive coordinator James Willis arrived with SEC-stacked résumés, defensive minds that Red Raider optimists hope become SEC kryptonite to the Big 12 South superpowers.

Texas Tech doesn't have the defenders of a Florida or Alabama, two teams that sent Oklahoma and Texas home from the past two national championship games ringless. But they might soon. Tuberville's 2011 recruiting class ranks as the nation's 20th best, and though seven of the 19 commits are defenders, Tuberville already has a commitment from 2012 linebacker Derek David, a linebacker who ranks as one of the best defensive prospects in his class.

But that's the future. For now, Tuberville's focus remains on shoring up a leaky run defense and educating an inexperienced secondary that starts three sophomores.

"We gave up 27 points and that's way too many. That's 14 points too many. We want to try to have every shutout we can," Tuberville said. "But again, this defense will get much, much better."

Despite the 27 points on the scoreboard, Willis was pleased with the defense as a whole. It stunted the growth of rapidly developing SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, who finished his freshman season with a 460-yard performance in a 45-10 win over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. He threw three interceptions on Sunday after just four in seven games all last year, and finished with just 218 yards on 21-of-38 passing.

Texas Tech's impressive sack total -- it was one of just three teams in the Big 12 with more than 40 last season -- remained, notching five on Sunday and three by linebacker Brian Duncan, who didn't have any in 2009.

But the three interceptions are a good sign for a team that had just 10 all last season. That says improvement.

"Defensively, we're a work in progress, but I tell you, the way they practiced and the way they concentrate, they get better," Tuberville said.

Yes, it's just one game -- or almost a half, rather. Yes, it's against SMU. But the Mustangs offense was stifled in the first half, and when the Red Raiders needed a final stop with the game on the line, they got it.

Look up where the defensive powers in the Big 12 South started on Week 1. Texas gave up 17 points to Rice, the nation's 109th best offense in 2009, and Oklahoma had to defend its own end zone for most of the fourth quarter at home to survive an upset bid from Utah State.

Comparatively, Sunday's performance was a nice starting point for the Red Raiders.

"They finished, and that's our theme for the year," Willis said. "You start fast and you finish strong."

It was a pretty nice finish for the Red Raiders, with Duncan earning two of his three sacks on the final drive to preserve the win. But moving forward, Sunday's win over SMU was the start of something new for Texas Tech football.