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Texas Tech comes to town in a huge early litmus test for NC State

Honestly no clue how this one will play out.

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been 19 years since NC State and Texas Tech met on the football field—that was a 49-21 Wolfpack win in Carter-Finley on what I would swear at the time was the hottest day in the history of the planet. The year prior, State topped the Red Raiders in overtime, 51-48, thanks to a breakout performance by TA McLendon.

In the years since, the Red Raiders have stayed true to their Air Raid roots, and in that sense at least, little has changed since these teams squared off in 2003. It’s never been an easy scheme to handle, and NC State will have its work cut out for it.

There are reasons to feel optimistic, though. For one thing, this Wolfpack defense fared well against Mike Leach’s offense in Starkville last year, limiting Mississippi State to 24 points on 316 yards, with just 22 coming on the ground. Further, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has a lot of experience gameplanning against the Air Raid from his time at West Virginia; Gibson even managed to bottle up Patrick Mahomes one year.

And Texas Tech is coming into this weekend with an inexperienced quarterback—though obviously talented—in Donovan Smith. Smith was tossed into the starting role after Tyler Shough got hurt in Tech’s season-opener; Smith will be making his sixth college start on Saturday.

Smith has proven an effective passer in his limited time on the field, and his mobility will present a problem as well. He’s different from your typical Texas Tech quarterback in that respect, and that could matter a lot.

Against Houston, he ran the ball 14 times and gained 86 yards, including the game-winning scramble in overtime. Though he was also sacked six times, and lost a total of 58 yards on the ground. (Hence the super odd-looking “20 carries, 28 yards” line from that box score.)

There have to be concerns on the Tech side after allowing so much pressure up front. Texas Tech has three new starters on the line, and they have very little major-college experience between them. Center Dennis Wilburn is a junior college transfer in his first FBS season, right guard Landon Peterson has three career starts (two of those coming in 2022), and right tackle Monroe Mills is in his first year as a starter.

It’ll be interesting to see how those guys handle a big game under the lights amid a hostile crowd. Here, perhaps, is an area where State fans can make a difference.

Texas Tech also lost its top two receivers from last season, though as is typical of this system, they’ve found guys to plug in and be effective. Freshman Jerand Bradley is the team’s leading receiver so far, with 12 grabs for 158 yards and two scores. He’s a tough matchup at 6’5 and you can bet Tech will try to leverage that. Four different guys have over 100 yards receiving on the season, while seven players have caught at least five passes.

At running back, the Red Raiders feature Tahj Brooks and SaRodorick Thompson, who combined for 1,068 yards rushing in 2021. Their workloads were pretty even that year, but Brooks handled the bulk of the work this past weekend. Both have plenty of experience, and Thompson was the team’s leading rusher in 2019 and 2020. Brooks had four runs last season of 40+ yards, tying him for 10th nationally.

On the defensive side, Texas Tech is absolutely loaded with upperclassmen, and while the unit did have to replace a handful of starters, the overall experience level here is high. Up front, defensive tackle Jaylon Hutchings has made 35 straight starts, nose guard Tony Bradford has 31 games of experience, and edge defender Tyree Wilson led the team with 13.5 TFLs (7.0 sacks) in 2021.

Linebacker is the worry area from Tech’s perspective. They’ve got one starter who was a DB last season and into spring ball this year, and another who played sparingly at Florida before transferring, and has only five starts under his belt. Super senior Krishon Merriweather is a difference-maker at middle linebacker, however—he led the team in tackles back in 2020 and is doing so again in 2022.

As for the secondary, I’m not sure Devin Leary will face a more experienced group this season. There are eight seniors spread across five positions, including all the starters. At the “Star” position is Marquis Waters, who has 41 career starts. (Thirty-five of which came at Duke.) At one corner spot there’s Adrian Frye, who has 35 career starts. At the opposite corner is Rayshad Williams, who started the final 12 games in 2021. Safety Dadrion Taylor Taylor-Demerson has several years of experience and became a regular starter in 2021, as did fellow safety Reggie Pearson, who averaged more snaps per game than anybody else on the defense. (Pearson also started 12 games for Wisconsin in 2019.)

And yes, you can expect former Wolfpack cornerback Malik Dunlap to factor into the rotation as well.

Texas Tech’s defense definitely has the ability to give the Pack issues, and if NC State stumbles around the way it did against ECU in that second half, it might be in trouble. But Texas Tech has plenty of lingering worries of its own, and will line up against the best defense it’s seen this season. It’s possible this ends up being one of those surprise low-scoring games that runs contrary to the narrative going in. Who knows!

Either way, I won’t be surprised if this is a one-score game late in the fourth quarter.