Texas Tech Must Solve Zone Coverage In 2018

In 2017, the Texas Tech offense was woefully ineffective when facing teams that played a soft zone coverage in the secondary meaning they are likely to see plenty more of that this season.

In the ever-evolving chess game that is college football, coaches are constantly trying to develop new schemes to combat the latest trends.  In 2017, opposing teams found an especially effective method of slowing down the prolific Texas Tech offense, an extreme zone coverage often labeled “cloud coverage”.

Early in the season, Tech was able to beat man coverage and defenses that sent extra rushers after Shimonek. Using a soft zone coverage that at times dropped as many as nine men into coverage, Big 12 teams were able to befuddle the Red Raider passing attack as the season wore on.

Tech first saw this style of defense from Oklahoma State which held the Red Raiders to 381 total yards and only 27 offensive points (Tech added seven points on an INT return for a TD by DeMarcus Fields). And later in the conference race, two teams in particular, Iowa State and TCU, deployed this scheme to near perfection.

In a 31-13 loss to the Cyclones, Tech mustered only 336 yards while committing three turnovers.  A close look at Shimonek’s stat line reveals the perfection in Iowa State’s plan.

The Texas Tech QB completed 31-41 (75.6%) of his passes but for a paltry 207 yards.  Iowa State allowed Shimonek to complete passes underneath and then they swarmed to the ball keeping the speedy Tech receivers from racking up yards after the catch.  In this game, Tech averaged just 6.6 yards per completion, which was half of the 12 yards per completion Shimonek averaged for the season.

Four weeks later, TCU utilized the same strategy to humiliate the Red Raider offense.  In what was the worst offensive home performance  by a Texas Tech team in the “Air Raid” Era, the Frogs held Tech to just three points in a 27-3 win.

Gary Patterson’s TCU defense limited Tech to just 153 yards passing and 327 total yards.  Shimonek was horrible completing just 51% (17-33) of his passes before being benched.  On the afternoon, Tech averaged an stunning 4.3 yards per completion.

For years, teams have attempted to force Tech to score on long sustained drives that take as many plays as possible.  The theory is that passing teams like the Red Raiders lack the discipline to consistently have success on drives that last more than a handful of plays.

But never before have teams gone to such extremes with this strategy as they did at times in 2017 when they almost completely abandoned the pass rush.  So now it is up to Texas Tech to figure out a way to combat this strategy.

The first place where Tech must defeat these defenses is at the QB position.  Perhaps Shinonek’s greatest flaw was his tendency to hold the ball for long periods of time.  He was slow with his reads, especially in the intermediate and short passing game.

This year’s QB, whomever that may be, must get the ball into his playmakers’ hands quickly.  Decisiveness with the ball will be paramount as the QB must quickly identify where the ball must go and get it to the playmakers accurately and on time allowing the receiver to operate in space before the defense has time to swarm to the ball.

That plan is made all the more complicated by the fact that none of Tech’s QB candidates has more than three quarters of experience at the college level.  So it would behoove the Red Raiders to take some of the pressure off of the young QBs with the ground game.

Texas Tech must punish teams on the ground when they drop eight or more men into coverage.  At times last season, Tech was able to do just that with some success.

But far too often, Kingsbury didn’t stick to the ground game as he seemed like he just couldn’t stand to keep the ball on the ground.  For example, consider the OU game.

In the first quarter, Tech pounded the OU defense on the ground.  Tre King had 61 of Tech’s 72 total yards on the ground as the Red Raiders found the end zone  on three-consecutive drives.

But after the first quarter, Tech ran for just 43 more yards and scored only one more TD.  That is a habit Tech can’t afford to repeat this year.

Enter new offensive coordinator Kevin Johns.  Last season as the OC at Western Michigan, Johns’ team rushed for almost 225 yards per game.  In 2015, while the offensive coordinator at Indiana, Johns’ offense produced two 1,000-yard rushers.

The most experienced unit of the 2018 Texas Tech offense is the offensive line that returns all five starters.  They will block for a group of running backs led by King (who ran for 623 yards and five TDs las year) and the returning Da’Leon Ward who showed signs of promise by leading Tech in rushing as a true freshman in 2016.

Next: Analyzing Kingsbury’s Biggest Mistakes

There is plenty of talk about who Kingsbury will rely on at both QB and receiver this fall and many fans are hoping to see the most explosive and athletic players get the nod.  But to beat so-called cloud defenses, Tech must be a more precise passing team while also committing more fully to the run.  If the Red Raiders can do that, perhaps they can emerge from the fog that these defenses enevolped them in last season.


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