OU-Texas Tech: Three Keys to the Game

Sooners must figure out Tech's new QB ... Third down defense is huge ... Riding T.J. Pledger to the finish
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Meet the New Guy

Texas Tech offensive coordinator David Yost will lean heavily on SaRodorick Thompson, who’s fifth among Big 12 runners at 70 yards per game and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Tech now ranks fifth in the Big 12 in rushing at 149 yards per game.

But Yost has a new weapon at his disposal in Utah State transfer quarterback Henry Colombi. Colombi probably isn’t the prolific passer (yet) that Alan Bowman is, but he’s more athletic and can contribute to the Red Raider offense in different ways. Head coach Matt Wells said players have gravitated to Colombi since he supplanted Bowman, a two-year starter.

Henry Colombi

Henry Colombi

“Henry gave us an added dimension with some scrambles (40 yards) and made some positive plays there running the football,” Wells said.

“I think they’ve both handled it very well. Henry’s calm, cool, collected. That’s kind of how he handled it here in the office, around the complex for the two weeks leading up to it.

“Alan handled it like a pro. Obviously disappointed, but was very supportive of Henry. I think he was really good in his preparation, his practice habits and those kinds of things. And he’ll need to be ready again when and if called upon.”

Tech’s leading receivers last week with Colombi throwing the football were Myles Price (7 catches, 79 yards), Erik Ezukanma (4-47) and Ja’Lynn Polk (3-14). It seems the coaching staff is bringing along Colombi slowly to get him acclimated to Big 12 football.

OU coach Lincoln Riley said Tech’s offensive trajectory has “been interesting” behind Colombi.

“They’ve certainly got a good back back there, so you can understand why they’d want to be handing the ball off and involving those other playmakers,” Riley said. “I think they’ve found a good balance. They had a nice balance the other night against West Virginia. Effective at both, and then obviously the quarterback came in there and did a really nice job. So I would think they’ll continue to gain some confidence in him and continue to open it up for him.

“But they’re doing a lot of good things. They’ve always been very creative offensively and do a good job mixing tempo and formations and challenging you in different ways. The staff’s obviously done a really nice job adapting to the personnel they have right now.”

Third Time’s the Charm

Halfway through the season, Oklahoma ranks 12th nationally in third-down defense, yielding a conversion percentage of just .302. Among teams that have played more than one game, that’s seventh (Oklahoma State leads the multi-game group at .193).

Lack of takeaways has been the bane of Alex Grinch’s existence. But his players are doing the next best thing: they’re getting off the field on third down. That may have caused Grinch to reexamine the emphasis on turnovers.

Nik Bonitto and Brian Asamoah sack Max Duggan

Nik Bonitto and Brian Asamoah sack Max Duggan

“It’s a critical down in football,” Grinch said. “We call it a key down and design to have the antennas up for our guys when it’s a third-down situation. It’s a planned takeaway. The only difference between a third-down stop and a takeaway is field position; there’s a kicking play after a third-down stop.”

Grinch said getting off the field on third down is akin to “stealing a possession,” and that was vital last week as TCU converted two third downs on its two touchdown drives and then went just 3-of-11 the rest of the day.

Texas Tech has been very good on third down offensively this season, converting 47 percent (35-of-75). That ranks 28th nationally, but 22nd among teams with more than one game.

“You never want to be — we say ‘Don’t be a prisoner to the sticks,’ “ Grinch said. “To imply that if they get a first down, all of a sudden it’s a third-and-7, an 8-yard gain is a devastating play to our football program. You never want to get to that point. But (by) the same token, you want to take advantage of those opportunities when the sticks are to your advantage.”

Pledger Allegiance

Oklahoma ranks sixth in the Big 12 at 148.4 rushing yards per game (just a few decimals behind Tech). But look at the individual list and there’s junior T.J. Pledger, who’s now up to No. 4 among conference running backs at 85.3 yards per game. Pledger’s longest run is 26 yards, but he’s raised his per-carry average to a highly respectable 5.0.

T.J. Pledger

T.J. Pledger

In his last two games, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Pledger has run for 131 yards against Texas and 122 against TCU. In the Red River Rivalry, Pledger had 79 yards at halftime, but against the Horned Frogs, he gained 89 yards in the second half. He’s running harder and with more confidence, particularly late in games.

“Yeah, he’s been really getting better,” Lincoln Riley said. “He’s gaining trust, I think, confidence. He’s getting his legs underneath him. Everything about him gets better each week. The amount of carries (22 each game) will do that for a guy. And I think he’s getting more in sync with our offensive line. So no doubt. He’s definitely the first back right now and has done a great job for us with some key runs the last two weeks. And can still get so much better himself. But, proud of his development and how tough he runs for us. It’s been fun to see him get better and better and gain more confidence as we go on.”

Even if Rhamondre Stevenson returns — he's easily the Sooners' most physically gifted running back and probably has a good future in the NFL — Pledger has earned his playing time.

Riley said the Sooner offensive line has shown “definitely progress,” even though the running game still hasn’t averaged 4.0 yards per carry in a game. Riley said the average might be deceptive because there have been a small amount of big losses, which include quarterback sacks and continued struggles with wide receiver reverses. Pledger averaged 5.5 last week against TCU and 6.0 against Texas.

“We made a few mistakes here and there,” Riley said. “ … We had about three or four ridiculously dumb plays the other day that cost us minus-7, minus-8, minus-10, that honestly, we ran the ball good enough the other day to have well over a 4-yard average.”

Riley said the offensive line play has been “much cleaner” and Pledger and Seth McGowan have been “agonizingly close to popping” long runs, although the team’s longest rushing play so far this season is still just 26 yards.

“You see the progress each week,” Riley said. “We’re getting more in sync. Backs are trusting it more. Linemen are getting a great feel for working together. It's definitely heading the direction we want it to head. Now, we can't get there fast enough, so we'll keep pushing like crazy to get it as good as we can here this week in Lubbock.”

Texas Tech (at 4.0) is one of just four Big 12 teams to allow at least 4.0 yards per carry this season. The Red Raiders have allowed 149.0 yards per game on the ground (oddly, the exact same number of rushing yards the Tech offense is averaging).

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