Tech defense aiming for a turnaround at Nevada

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Mike Leach has some definitive plans for this weekend in Nevada. And they don't involve casinos or card-playing.

Even if he had free time, the Texas Tech coach said he's not that interested in a trip to any of Reno's gaming meccas -- mainly because it just doesn't suit him.

"I don't really do much of that," Leach said. "Cards and counting to 21, that's not really my deal. I get tired of adding and subtracting."

An interesting admission from the architect of one of the most prolific passing offenses in NCAA history -- particularly considering his team's challenge on Saturday night in Mackay Stadium against a similarly potent offense.

Two of the nation's four most prolific offensive attacks will hook up when the Red Raiders travel to visit the Wolf Pack. Statisticians will be doing the adding in what should be a wild offensive battle with two offenses who posted a combined 1,268 yards last week.

Containing the Wolf Pack's vaunted "Pistol" offense will prove challenging to Tech's defense that showed surprising struggles in a 49-24 victory over Eastern Washington last week. The Red Raiders were singed for 341 passing yards in the opener and rank 100th nationally in pass defense.

Those struggles came after much hype before the season about how improved their defense would be with eight returning starters and an influx of talented junior college players along the defensive line.

"I know a lot of people were disappointed we didn't come out and hold them to seven points," Tech safety Darcel McBath said.

Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill defended his team's performance by saying that Eastern Washington's yardage per attempt was below his team's typical goal.

"I know that looked like a lot of yards, but they threw 63 times," McNeill said. "I was pleased with some of the things we did. I thought we were strong on our third downs. But we have some things have got to improve."

Tech did have its moments, but it should have expected them against the Football Championship affiliated first-game opponents. The Red Raiders limited Eastern Washington to 23 rushing yards on 22 carries, forced three turnovers and produced three sacks. Eastern Washington produced only two long scoring drives of 54 and 77 yards.

But the score caught the attention of many critics who have wondered if the Red Raiders might be a tad overrated with their current No. 12 ranking in the Associated Press and ESPN.com power polls.

"I could see why people might have looked at that and wondered, but I don't think they realize how good that team was," Tech defensive end Jake Ratliff said. "They were much better than all of us thought. We had to work to beat them."

The biggest area for specific improvement will be cutting down on penalties. Tech was flagged 18 times for 169 yards -- a couple of dubious school records that topped the previous mark set in Leach's first season in 2000.

The penalties were separated into three areas by Leach -- selfishness, technique and aggression. Tech picked up six personal fouls, all in the first half. They were flagged five times in the second half, with two of them for pass interference.

Tech coaches are determined not to let that affect their aggressive nature on defense, Leach said.

"There's some very bad teams out there that have no penalties," he said, "and part of it is they don't push the envelope enough to get any penalties. You definitely don't want to be one of those teams."

The Red Raiders prepare for a team in Nevada that should be even more challenging to contain than Eastern Washington was, McNeill said.

In Nevada's "Pistol," unique challenges are in place from an offense that borrows elements from the spread, shotgun and Wing-T offenses. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick lines up 3 1/2 yards behind center, and the tailback is 7 yards behind center.

The Wolf Pack typically employ one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers, relying on inside handoffs and bootleg runs from Kaepernick. Leach is so impressed he says that the 6-foot-6 Kaepernick might be the best quarterback Tech will face this season.

Games like Saturday night's contest in Reno are ones that the Red Raiders have traditionally struggled in. Unexpected road losses to New Mexico in 2004, Oklahoma State in 2005 and Colorado in 2006 have come in similar situations.

The Red Raiders are the only Big 12 team to be bowl-eligible in every season in the conference's history. But a frustrating knack of stumbling against lesser opponents has kept the Red Raiders from ever qualifying for a BCS bowl game or winning a Big 12 title.

Tech hasn't won an outright conference championship since winning the Border Conference in 1955 and hasn't won 10 games in a season since 1976.

Playing well after the struggles of the first game could be an indication that this team is different from those Tech teams that preceded it.

"The thing we got out of last week was how disappointed the kids were -- even more than some of the people out there," McNeill said. "Our kids weren't happy. We won by 25 points, but our kids expected more out of themselves than that.

"And I think that helps us coming into this week. They won't be overlooking this game. How we played last week will keep them from being overconfident. We were glad we won, but we've still got a lot more improving to do."