The Texas State football team is playing for its first 3-0 start in 30 years Saturday, but the path to that distinction runs through a real deal football team playing on its home field at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are 3-0, fifth nationally with 400 passing yards per game under the head coaching of Kliff Kingsbury, the former great Tech and New Braunfels High quarterback.
Texas Tech pulled away from Southern Methodist on the road in the fourth quarter, 41-23, then punished Stephen F. Austin, 61-13. Last week, Tech beat No. 24 Texas Christian, 20-10, in Lubbock, surviving a messy night that included three interceptions. Somehow, Texas Tech pulled away from a game that was tied, 10-10, with less than four minutes left against a nationally ranked team. Now, TCU is out of both polls, and Tech is in the Associated Press poll at No. 25.
The Bobcats are a happy 2-0, but these wins haven’t broken new ground. Winning on the road in the opener is a good sign, but it’s not as good of a sign when Southern Miss was 0-12 last year. Winning, 28-3, at Bobcat Stadium against Prairie View A&M last time out, the Bobcats did what they had to do. Looking back to days when the Bobcats were vulnerable on their home field against Abilene Christian, taking care of business isn’t nothing. We know the Bobcats are on the right track.
But there’s still some distance between these football teams. The Bobcats are in for a tough one, so they might as well be tough about it, but a win in this game would be such a big deal that we don’t even contemplate it. How the players feel about it is their thing, and it will say something about what they are. But anyone on the outside looking at this game all but knows Texas Tech will win it. Now that the Bobcats are in the big time, people are putting Vegas money on their games, and the money going on this game says Tech will win by 27 points. So, it’s a big job ahead.
“I don’t think it takes anyone long to see you’re playing a Big 12 school, you’re in your second year of FBS football, you’re going to their place to play, it’s a pretty big challenge,” Franchione told reporters at his press conference this week. “It might be the biggest challenge of the year. Our guys are excited about it. A lot of our guys know their guys. This is Texas guys vs. Texas guys. They’ll be fired up to play.”
Two years ago, the Bobcats played at Texas Tech in their first game under Franchione and took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. But it was the opener for both teams, Texas Tech worked out the kinks pretty quickly and trounced to a 50-10 win. Last year, the Bobcats brought in Tech as the marquee opponent for its first home game as a bowl-level program, and Tech celebrated the occasion with a 58-10 victory before 33,006, the largest crowd ever at Bobcat Stadium.
Being a fan of Texas football, one figures Texas guys vs. Texas guys will give it a good tug. Being reasonable, one looks at Texas Tech as a Top 25 type of program and looks for signs that the Bobcats can line up a little more evenly. Are they getting faster? Are they getting stronger? Are they competitive on the line of scrimmage?
Forget about winning it. You just want the Bobcats to stay on the same field with these guys. Can they go to Lubbock, play a representative football game, keep it within three or four touchdowns? Can they catch a little attention from the gamblers by covering a 27-point spread? At this early stage of bowl-level life, there are moral victories. They don’t add up like real victories, but good signs are the best you’re going to get sometimes and you take them. You want the team to see past adversity to 60 minutes of earnest football and give itself a chance on every play.
“I don’t feel a need to motivate our guys this week,” Franchione said. “When we played Houston, it was Texas guys vs. Texas guys, so you have a little pride on the line. It’s similar in this game. Any time you play a Texas school, you have those things. These guys know what happened the last two years. They’d like to walk off the field Saturday with their head held higher. Last year just got away from us so quickly, I don’t think our guys felt like they had a chance to show what they could do. They’d like to have a chance to show what they can do.”
If we’re still wondering what’s real and what isn’t about the Bobcats, all will be revealed on Saturday. The Bobcats allowed 400 or more yards 15 times and 500 or more yards nine times in Franchione’s first 24 games this time around. But we look up now and find the Bobcats ranked No. 1 overall nationally against the run, allowing only 34 yards per game. Two opponents have launched a total of 95 passes against the Bobcats, who have so often through the years given up the big play. But those passes have netted only 559 yards, a paltry 5.58 yards per attempt. Are the Bobcats really better, let alone that much better, defensively?
Here’s another number in which the Bobcats lead the nation: turnover margin, plus 3.0 per game. Most of that came in the Southern Miss game, during which the Bobcats enjoyed a 6-1 turnover margin, but they also were up 1-0 against Prairie View A&M, and turnovers will decide as many football games as anything. In 2011, Texas Tech beat the Bobcats, 4-1, in turnovers, and Tech won the turnovers, 2-1, last year. Maybe that part of the game is up for grabs.
“Our defense is going to have to play,” Franchione said. “Our offense is going to have to move the ball some. We’re going to have to get some turnovers like we did against Southern Miss. We’re going to have to take care of the ball, which we’ve done so far. The formula doesn’t change a whole lot.”
The formula doesn’t change, but the execution does, and that comes with players, and that comes with time. One year since the last time Texas State played Texas Tech, Franchione has added a recruiting class, and a class from the playoff-level days went away. In a game like this, it’s a question of whether Texas State’s talent level is getting closer, and whether the players are getting tougher mentally. There’s no better way to find out than by going on the road against a Top 25 team.