It was the worst of times, it was the best of times for Texas Tech football in Houston on Saturday night. After trailing the Houston Cougars 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-7 at the intermission, the Red Raiders came alive in the second half to win the 2021 season opener 38-21.
Calling it a satisfying win would be an understatement and not just because Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier in the week that his team was going to “wreck Tech”. But also, it was an important statement made against a university that by all reports is soon to be joining the Red Raiders in the Big 12.
While several factors went into the Tech turnaround, first and foremost among them was a change in defensive strategy. After deciding to spend virtually the entire first half playing eight men in coverage and rushing only three players at Houston QB Clayton Tune, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson changed it up and brought waves of pressure in the second half and the results were dramatic.
Unable to handle the Red Raider blitz, Houston would be held scoreless over the final 30 minutes of the contest while Tune would throw three critical second-half picks, part of a four-INT night for the turnover-prone Cougar QB.
In fact, it was Tune’s second pick of the evening that turned the tide of the game. After Tech had pulled to within 21-14 on a Tyler Shough TD run in the red zone, Riko Jeffers would intercept Tune and return the ball 13 yards for a TD to knot the game. It was part of a 31-0 run that Tech would go on over the course of the final two quarters.
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And throughout the second half, it was Patterson’s defense that stole the show. Houston would muster only three first downs (and one came on the game’s final snap in garbage time) and one third-down conversion. And after dominating play in the first half, the Cougars would wilt under the Red Raider pass rush amassing only 53 total yards of offense after halftime.
Tech managed to get to Tune three times but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It was rare for Tune to have a moment to scan the field and find his receivers as Tech kept him from getting his feet set, which led to errant throws, poor reads, and a pile of interceptions.
That allowed the Red Raider offense to finally find its own footing in the fourth quarter and put the game away with two clutch drives in the final five minutes. And leading the way was wide receiver Erik Ezukanma and running back Tahj Brooks.
Ezukanma wound up with seven grabs for 179 yards while Brooks carried the ball 15 times for a career-best 134 yards and two 40-plus-yard touchdowns. Meanwhile, Shough would have a solid Red Raider debut as the transfer from Oregon was 17-24 for 234 yards with a TD and no picks.
What’s impressive about this win is the fortitude that Matt Wells’ team showed in earning it. This is the type of game that teams of recent Red Raider past would have let get away from them in the first half.
But on Saturday night, Tech played with poise and resilience and those are encouraging signs from a football team that is supposed to be built on its age and experience. Perhaps it is also an indication that this will finally be the year that Texas Tech football will return to the land of the relevant after several years of aimlessly roaming around in the land of the lost.