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The Air Raid baptism

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Oklahoma State’s new DC Jim Knowles had to endure his first painful lesson on the horrors of defending a high level Air Raid offense.

Texas Tech v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

After their week three triumph over Boise State, the Oklahoma State Cowboys were suddenly looking like world-beaters and major contenders in the Big 12 conference. Their former walk-on QB Taylor Cornelius threw for 243 yards at 9.3 ypa while adding 13 carries for 60 yards and two scores on the ground (after removing sack yardage). The defense was an even brighter revelation, stuffing a Boise offense that had looked like a vintage Broncos unit in earlier weeks and inflicting seven sacks with a devastating pressure package from new DC Jim Knowles.

Then Kliff Kingsbury and the Texas Tech Red Raiders came to town...41 points surrendered and 17 forwarded later and suddenly Oklahoma State seems to be due for a tough season in the Big 12 while Tech is ascendant.

What actually happened is that Jim Knowles received a nasty welcome on the reality of facing the modern offenses in the Big 12 while Kingsbury put on yet another clinic on how to attack defenses from the Air Raid.

Freshman Tech QB Alan Bowman threw for 397 yards at 8.6 ypa with two TDs and two INTs while three different Raider RBs finished with 10 or more carries with Demarcus Felton leading the way with 14 carries that went for 130 yards at 9.3 ypc with two TDs.

Here’s the sort of Air Raid machinations that Knowles was introduced to in this game:

RPOs as a means of passing

Some offensive coaches refer to their RPOs as “release” throws. As in, they want to run the ball but they’ll give the QB some pass options on run plays in the event that defenders don’t honor the spacing they (the O) intended to have and start getting nosy in the run game. Texas Tech wants to throw the ball and they were very aggressive about throwing it on RPOs against the Cowboys. For them the run play is the constraint, not the aim.

This two play series demonstrated the pickle OSU found themselves in trying to stop the Tech paradigm. On first and 10 after picking up a third down with a flag route to one of their bigger wideouts, the Raiders run inside zone with the slot receiver running a quick hitch route against off coverage:

What’s notable is that Oklahoma State isn’t playing zone and then bringing the defender responsible for the slot to help against the run. They play cover 1 and try to bring a safety down to help cover the FB or fit the run off the FB’s block. Off coverage is enough for the Raiders to take their shot and set up second and one.

This time they run a slant with former Baker Mayfield HS teammate Zach Austin (Lake Travis HS) on the backside. It’s the same issue as before, Tech takes advantage of OSU not failing to put a DB over the option receiver but for failing to bracket that receiver with inside help.

Texas Tech slots Ja’Deion High and Zach Austin combined for 15 catches in this game that garnered 148 yards, many of them were effectively running plays. This put the Cowboys in a serious bind as their normal run-stopping structures were not designed to handle an offense that would be this aggressive throwing the football off their run plays. Knowles had to fumble around for some alternative calls and alignments, which led to big problems later on in stopping the Red Raider run game.

Incidentally, they’d finish that drive with a Bob Stitt sweep to Ja’Deion High on another outside zone play.

Misdirection in the run game

Kingsbury doesn’t have any interest in giving the defense any kinds of clear keys on where the ball is intended to go on running plays. For many spread running teams, the alignment of the FB or TE or else their path on the run are dead giveaways. They can send their LBs racing to where the FB inserts in order to negate the extra gap the offense would get and get the best run stoppers to the ball.

So Tech mixed in a variety of plays beyond even RPOs to keep the OSU LBs and run supporting Ss from having clear keys to allow them to play fast. One was a standard trick from the I-formation days, having the FB hold backside pursuit on outside zone:

The key to stopping outside zone, beyond careful and sturdy play up front and particularly on the edge, is fast flow from the LBs to keep up with the quickly moving gaps. The weak side LB here gets caught following the track of the FB and isn’t there when the RB cuts upfield. Instead you can find him realizing late only to realize that there’s an OL waiting between him and the ball.

The Raiders also had a variety of sweeps and decoy sweeps attached to their runs which would follow the FB’s block on the edge:

By the time they were running the GT counter play without just tossing it on an RPO or sweep, the Cowboy front was worn down and getting washed out by the down blocks and pullers and struggling to finish tackles.

Kingsbury has always had a knack for keeping defenses from sniffing out Tech’s screens and passing plays, this year they’ve been able to add a lot of run game into the mix as well thanks to fielding five returning starters along the OL and bringing in some fresh perspectives on the offensive staff (co-OCs Kevin Johns and Clay McGuire).

That all serves to protect a young QB and help him to orchestrate drives that in turn helps protect the defense. Tech ended up running 92 plays to Oklahoma State’s 62 and held the ball for 41:17 of the game clock. Consequently at the end of the game when OSU was wearing down, their own desperate drives were being thwarted by a Red Raider pass rush that still had their legs and wind.

But the Red Raiders also converted 9-14 third downs and some of that was due to one other factor.

Throwing to spots for big targets

Texas Tech’s leading receiver this season is Antoine Wesley, a 6-5/200 pound junior that has emerged opposite the 6-6/200 pound T.J. Vasher for the Red Raiders.

They hit him on a few big plays during the game, including on this third and four when he was draped in man coverage down the sideline:

It’s a good throw by Bowman, who’s showed a remarkable ability to hit the key spread throws with great accuracy. Tech recruited him without facing much competition, securing his commitment after a short junior season before a big senior year. He throws an accurate ball and he usually knows where the ball should go and can throw it there with anticipation.

On this play you can see him lead 6-3/220 pound Seth Collins on a flag route and beat the deep safety:

Oklahoma State pressed up on this play, tired of getting gashed on bubble screens on unbalanced sets like this one, and the Red Raiders just went to a man-beating play and burned them over the top. Air Raid teams often spend a lot of time and energy getting opponents to play man-free coverage so they can finally just throw the ball around like they always intended.

This Tech wide receiver corps, which was mostly unknowns heading into the year, is just another ensemble cast like most every other Tech WR group we’ve seen in the last 20 years. They have the water bug slots, the steady route runners, and the big targets outside that can beat man coverage on jump balls.

Texas Tech will have their struggles this year against defenses that are more familiar with their tricks, play better or more careful coverages, and that know how to get after them. However, this one of their stronger teams of the Kingsbury era with yet another fantastic offense, more than enough to offer Jim Knowles an important rite of passage on defending B12 offenses.