Texas Tech looking to prove its toughness at Arkansas

David Gibbs has worked to instill toughness in his defense, which faces a tiff test against the Arkansas running attack on Saturday. AP Photo/Sharon Ellman

Any number of other plays would’ve told the same story of last year’s meeting between Texas Tech and Arkansas. But on one particular telling sequence, the Razorbacks ran a simple pitch out. The fullback took out one Red Raider, the pulling guard cleared out another. And Jonathan Williams basically jogged into the end zone with no obstacles in his path. Arkansas went on to rush for an astounding 438 yards, exposing the Red Raiders as soft while further amplifying the notion that the Big 12 was merely a finesse conference.

Saturday in a key nonconference tilt in Fayetteville, the Red Raiders have the opportunity to restore their reputation, while also landing the Big 12 another crucial victory over the SEC on the heels of Oklahoma’s comeback win at Tennessee’s last weekend.

"I don't have to remind them,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of last year’s game. "You don't forget a beating like that.”

The Red Raiders' front seven, in particular.

“Definitely, we remember it,” said defensive end Branden Jackson. “Arkansas’ biggest strength is what people think our biggest weakness is. We’re ready to get out there.”

Arkansas’ 49-28 romp in Lubbock last year sent the Red Raiders on a defensive tailspin they never recovered from. Defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt resigned days later. And Tech went on to field one of the worst defenses in Big 12 history. The Red Raiders ranked last among Power 5 conference teams in rushing defense on the way to a 4-8 finish, Tech’s worst record in 31 years.

“The whole offseason, we’ve prepared ourselves to become mentally tougher and physically tougher,” said defensive end Pete Robertson. “We have to bow up.”

The trip to Arkansas should reveal how far the Red Raiders have come under David Gibbs, Tech’s sixth different defensive coordinator in as many years. Gibbs has tried to simplify the scheme -- going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment -- and has focused on instilling toughness and discipline among his defenders. The Red Raiders gave up 45 points in the opener to Sam Houston State, but showed progress in Week 2 in a 69-20 win over UTEP, even though the Miners scored a 91-yard touchdown early in the game on a simple isolation handoff.

"We know what's coming, so we better lace them up," Gibbs said. "If you can't stop a simple ISO play, we probably shouldn't even head to Arkansas, because they'll run 50 of them.”

The Red Raiders, however, are catching the Razorbacks at a vulnerable time. Preseason MAC favorite Toledo stunned Arkansas with a 16-12 victory in Little Rock last weekend, as the Razorback rushing attack sputtered for just 103 yards on 31 attempts. Still, despite the loss, Arkansas remains a 12-point favorite over the Red Raiders.

“That loss to me doesn’t change who I thought they were prior to the season. They’re a top-20 team. Everybody has a bad day,” Kingsbury said. “It’s still a great rushing team. They have a great running back (in Alex Collins, who took over as the featured back after Williams suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason). He's one of the best players in the country. Their offensive line is one of the most physical in the country. It's a great rushing team, so we're expecting a heavy dose of that. We have to be better.”

Behind sophomore quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Red Raiders have gotten off to a promising start. But the schedule is also about to stiffen, with Big 12 co-favorites TCU and Baylor awaiting Tech in the two weeks following Arkansas.

Last year, the Arkansas game set the tone for what kind of season the Red Raiders would have. It figures to set the tone for Tech once again. And, once again, it figures to start in the defensive trenches.

“They’re a tough team,” Jackson said. “But this is a great opportunity for us to go out and compete -- and show what we’ve got.”