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Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech still searching for turning point

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Texas Tech just needed one more stop. Four minutes left. A 56-53 ballgame. An upset of No. 12 Oklahoma State right there for the taking.

The drive that followed perfectly depicted Kliff Kingsbury’s continued search for his program’s turning point.

First play: Tech linebacker D’Vonta Hinton stripped J.W. Walsh. The ball bounced off Hinton’s facemask and onto the turf. Tech should be 27 yards away from retaking the lead. Instead, OSU’s fourth-string running back fell on it.

Second play: Walsh fired a 73-yard touchdown pass. Game over.

When you drop 53 points on the best defense in the Big 12, you must win. The crazy thing is, Texas Tech’s defense got seven stops on the day. The scoreboard still said 70-53.

“The level of team we have right now, to play with those top teams in our league, we have to basically play flawless,” Kingsbury said. “And if we play flawless, we can play with them. If we don’t, we’ll get beat. We’re just not good enough to overcome mistakes at this point.”

Texas Tech is now 17-17 under Kingsbury and 8-16 in Big 12 games since his arrival in 2013. Hard to sit back and ponder that, though, when you play 11 consecutive games with no bye until Nov. 21. But Kingsbury doesn’t blame an unforgiving schedule or dig up excuses.

His Red Raiders are 5-4 with losses to four of the nation’s top 20 teams. They’re better this season, no question, after a dismal 4-8 in 2014. But this won’t be the year they make the leap to the Big 12’s top tier. Against ranked opponents, Tech is 2-11 under Kingsbury with a defense giving up 56.7 points per game in the losing efforts.

“I don’t see the mental toughness when the game’s on the line,” defensive coordinator David Gibbs said.

Against TCU, this team was one impossible play away from a stunner. Against Oklahoma State, they grabbed an early 31-14 lead. Sure, those might be good signs. Still doesn’t feel good.

“We've got to start pulling some of these out in the end,” offensive coordinator Eric Morris said. “It doesn't make it any better or easier to come in here on Sundays and look at it. You still have a terrible feeling in your gut when you walk in here.”

Blowout losses to Baylor (63-35) and Oklahoma (63-27) got out of hand quickly. Tech turned the ball over four times in both games and never stood a chance. To Kingsbury, those games revealed a harsh truth about where Tech stands in the conference.

“We’ve got to learn how to win,” Kingsbury said. “That’s the biggest deal.”

At least he’s found his quarterback. Over his last 12 starts, Patrick Mahomes has produced 4,650 passing yards, 501 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns on 62.5 percent passing. He ranks No. 1 in total offense, passing yards and touchdowns among Power 5 quarterbacks during that span.

There are concerns about his supporting cast -- the offensive line loses four graduating starters and there’s no go-to outside receiver -- but having a passer as competitive as Mahomes gives Tech a chance every week.

Defensively, the Red Raiders finally have the right leader in Gibbs. They just don’t have the ballers yet.

Gibbs has brought structure and evoked buy-in. But he inherited serious roster instability as Tech’s seventh defensive coordinator in seven years. Tech is paying the price today for signing too many junior college transfers, especially along the defensive line, who failed to pan out.

“You have to be two deep everywhere,” Gibbs said. “If you're not, you're going to play defense like we do.”

A core group of underclassmen -- Hinton, Breiden Fehoko, Dakota Allen and Jah’Shawn Johnson -- have emerged and are considered the future of the defense. Gibbs isn’t cheating with get-rich-quick ideas when it comes to the rebuild. Tech needs something sound and sustainable.

“There's been building blocks laid this year,” linebacker Micah Awe said. “Eventually people will look back on this year and say, ‘OK, I see what he was talking about.’”

But right now, you’re not going to get Gibbs to look ahead at how much better this defense can expect to be in Year 2.

“That would be the chicken thing to say,” Gibbs said. “We better go play good this Saturday. If we don't, there might not be a Game-friggin'-10.”

Winnable games against West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas remain that can shape confidence and momentum, as would a bowl. Kingsbury can sense his program is getting closer and closer to something special.

“I’m really excited about where we’re heading,” Kingsbury said. “Anytime you lose, it’s frustrating. But it’s a tough league.”

Still, the answers Texas Tech seeks today are proving as elusive as those tight games against elite teams: When do we get there? How do we get there?

“We’re about to win a lot of football games,” center Jared Kaster said. “But this is where it starts.”