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Commentary: Reality exposes where Tech is and how far away

Turns out the 2022 Texas Tech football season is not a made-for-TV Disney movie after all. You know the plot – new coach is hired and excites the fan base as he instantly rescues a program mired in 12 years of mediocrity, and he does so with a raw backup quarterback after an injury to the starter, a poor offensive line and befriends the son of a single mom in his spare time.

Reality is quite different. The world where credits do not roll at the end is much more calculating and colder – and painfully honest. Tech got a dose of that Saturday night in a hostile environment 1,533 miles east of Lubbock.

It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to those who don’t see their favorite team in rainbows and sunshine, who don’t see Joey McGuire as David Copperfield pulling magic tricks from behind a tablecloth.

McGuire is trying to accomplish one of the hardest things in college sports – transferring a mid-tier football program into a winner. It’s like turning around the Queen Mary, and progress is not linear with the arrow always gradually pointing up.

North Carolina State’s 27-14 win showed where the Red Raiders are, how far they need to go, and how it likely won’t be this year – as if it ever was. The Wolfpack entered this third game of the season ranked No. 16 in the country, a 10.5-point favorite, and fueled by a sold-out crowd on a “Blackout” night.

I have my doubts the Wolfpack will finish in the top 15, but no arguing they came in with impressive credentials. Defensively, they had 14 of their top 16 tacklers back from a year ago in which they were 14th nationally in scoring (19.7 points per game). Basically, an entire defense returned from a 9-3 team that was four points from being 11-1.

Add to that is defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. When he was heading the West Virginia defense a few years ago, his specialty was confounding the high octane offenses of Kliff Kingsbury at Tech and Art Briles at Baylor who had better and more quarterbacks than Donovan Smith.

In that backdrop, Tech’s offense and special teams were dreadful. That should not qualify as a major surprise with Smith making just his sixth collegiate start and a not-ready-for-prime-time offensive line.

A muffed punt catch early in the game by walk-on Drew Hocutt – son of Tech Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt – and a Smith interception returned 84 yards for a touchdown led to 10 gift points. There were two other interceptions, one by Smith and another from Behren Morton in garbage time.

Smith was sacked four times. A running game, a raw quarterback’s best friend, was non-existent with just 54 net yards, an average of 2.1 yards a carry. In gaining 353 yards in fits and starts, the Raiders converted just three out of 16 times on third and fourth downs.

Different looks seemed to confuse Smith, who looked indecisive. Neither he nor receiver were on the same page when Ayden Smith took his 84-yard interception into the end zone for a 20-0 lead with 4:40 to play in the first half. In all, Smith was 21 of 36 for 214 yards.

There were also some confounding coaching decisions that didn’t help. Going for it on fourth-and-1 around the State 30 in the first half while trailing 13-0? Sure. But a rollout and wayward pass that was a pick-six? No.

Later, it seemed a sign of panic for Tech to forego a punt from its own 35 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. The Raiders trailed 20-7, with an entire quarter to play, but inexplicably tried to convert a fourth-and-8 and didn’t come close. State scored on a trick play immediately after for a 27-7 lead and it was game, set and match.

There was also the curious decision not to use any of its three timeouts later when there was a slight hint that Tech could make it interesting in the end. Instead, McGuire hoarded all three for the final minute.

Those are Wellseque in-game decisions by McGuire that hopefully with self-reflection will correct themselves in the future. The overall coaching and preparation seem to be on target.

Almost lost in the offensive flaws is what appears to be an honest-to-goodness defense. That group has been a hideous oversight for a decade in Lubbock, but now, led by DE Tyree Wilson, appears to have some players for defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter,

State had only 270 yards – 83 less than Tech despite having possession for eight more minutes. Senior quarterback Devin Leary, who threw for 3,433 yards, 35 TDs to just five interceptions last year – was held to 121 yards through the air and sacked twice. It was his lowest yardage since the final game of his freshman year in 2019.

There are reasons Tech was picked in the 8-10th place range in the Big 12 and a 6-6 record in most best-case scenarios. Those were evident on Saturday.

Maybe with the exception of Oklahoma, there’s not a game on its schedule Tech can’t win or can’t lose. Best example is when Texas comes to Lubbock on Saturday. This is reality when games are played on a football field and not in a movie theater.

Jon Mark Beilue is a 1981 graduate of Texas Tech. He has been writing about Red Raiders sports for five decades.