KU’s red-zone struggles prove costly in Texas Tech defeat
On a day where not much went right for the Kansas football team, its execution in the red zone proved to be the difference in a 16-13 loss to Texas Tech on Saturday afternoon in David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
The 19th-ranked Jayhawks (7-3, 4-3 Big 12) dug themselves an early 13-point hole. They lost quarterback Jason Bean in the second period, turning to freshman walk-on Cole Ballard as the third-string signal caller.
And yet, Kansas still might have won the game with better results when it mattered most. KU managed just six points on three red-zone trips against a Texas Tech (5-5, 4-3 Big 12) defense that entered Saturday ranked 13th in the league in red-zone defense.
“At the end of the day, we just didn’t execute,” running back Devin Neal said. “That’s as simple as I can put it. We got to execute better down there. That’s where we get our points. You lose games when you end up kicking more field goals than you score.”
Kansas ran a total of 10 offensive snaps in goal-to-go situations against Texas Tech and produced no points in such scenarios, recording a net gain of 12 yards on those 10 plays.
The Jayhawks didn’t complete any of their three pass attempts within the Red Raiders’ 10-yard line. Two of those passes were thrown by Ballard, who is the son of Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard and played his first meaningful collegiate snaps on Saturday.
As for the seven rushing attempts, Daniel Hishaw Jr. was given four goal-line carries (three in the first half). Devin Neal received two rushing attempts, while Ballard earned one QB draw on the final drive.
“That’s an area that we need to be better at, and they were the better team when it came to those situations,” KU head coach Lance Leipold said. “That’s how I really look at each situation.”
KU’s finishing struggles began on its third possession of the day, when it put together a promising 18-play drive that started on its own 1-yard line. A nice 8-yard run by Hishaw — the team’s longest play in the red zone all day — dragged the Jayhawks to Tech’s 1-yard line.
From there, Hishaw was given two opportunities to punch it in. He was stuffed by the Texas Tech defensive front for no gain on third down, and then proceeded to lose five yards on fourth down for a turnover on downs.
“They were really good and sometimes you don’t get the push that you want,” Ballard said of Texas Tech’s defensive front. “They played really well and they played the gaps really well. It was just one of those days, it happens.”
The Jayhawks got their chance at redemption with two fourth-quarter drives that ended back in the Red Raiders’ red zone. They had to settle for a field goal on both occasions, the first of which featured two different Neal runs for a net gain of two yards from the Texas Tech 8-yard line.
As for the final drive, Ballard marched Kansas down to the opponent’s 10-yard line. Neal started off the goal-line sequence with a 3-yard run, followed by a 4-yard draw from Ballard. On third down from the 3-yard line, Kansas opted to run its familiar Wildcat formation with a twist. This time, Neal was asked to pass the ball.
Neal caught a direct snap and sprinted right, as Jared Casey broke free in the end zone. Neal, who had recently hinted to the media about throwing out of the Wildcat formation, tossed the ball in the back of the end zone. The pass never got there, as Casey lightly shoved a Texas Tech defender to avoid an interception.
“We prepped it all week, but Texas Tech did a phenomenal job covering it,” said Neal, who admitted he hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since early in his high school career. “I just tried to give Jared a shot by throwing it back in the box, and it didn’t work out.”
While it’s easy to be critical of KU’s red-zone decisions with the benefit of hindsight, the reality is it wasn’t any single play that halted the offense in such situations.
According to stats site Game on Paper, Kansas posted a 29% success rate in the red zone against Texas Tech. It marked one of the team’s worst red-zone success rates of the season, with a season-worst mark of 0% in losses to both Oklahoma State and Texas.
But the Jayhawks know they are capable of doing much better in the coming weeks.
“Our process is first identifying what we need to fix,” Neal said. “That starts in the film room with the coaches, and that’s what we are going to do tomorrow. We are going to talk as a unit about things we need to fix, and then we go out to the field and execute.”