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Texas Tech earns passing grade so far

(TSX / STATS) -- Texas Tech, and specifically Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury, faced an uphill battle when this season began.

The list of challenges went something like this: get a lot better on defense, stay close to the same on offense despite the departure of junior QB Patrick Mahomes II for the NFL, take on a better-than-average nonconference schedule, then face the rigors of Big 12 play, and make it to a bowl game after missing out in 2016.

Through two games, the Red Raiders appear to be making progress on that list.

Nic Shimonek has shown he's up to the task of replacing Mahomes -- at least through two games. Shimonek ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency (213.2 rating) and has thrown for 927 yards and nine touchdowns. He has another hurdle to clear this week as Houston, with All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, likely will be the toughest defense he's faced.

Yes, Texas Tech (2-0) gave up 45 points in a 52-45 victory over Arizona State on Saturday. The Sun Devils scored on four straight drives in the second half. The glass-half-empty take on that is that the Red Raiders still can't stop anybody on defense.

But the glass-half-full view is that Texas Tech stopped Arizona State from gaining even a first down on its final two possession when the Sun Devils had a chance to take the lead and then tie the game in the closing minutes.

Although Texas Tech missed an apparent chance to put the game away earlier and blew an 18-point lead, the Red Raiders still walked away with a win. In 2016, Texas Tech lost four games that were decided by eight points or less.

"There's a lot of guys back on this roster, offensively and defensively, that played a bunch of snaps last year and went through those games," Kingsbury said during the Big 12 teleconference on Monday.

"There's no substitute for experience and experiencing that and how to get better the next time. They've been through that one year and had it not turned out the way they wanted. So we can hopefully change that."

The challenge only gets bigger for the Red Raiders this week as they travel to play former Southwest Conference rival Houston. Arizona State showed Texas Tech's pass defense to be a possible weakness and the Cougars (2-0) have the passing game to exploit it, led by Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kyle Allen.

"We're not where we want to be, obviously," Kingsbury said. "I feel like the team is working hard, I think their mentality is right. They're just trying to get better every day. They're not looking past anybody. That's what having a tough nonconference schedule will do for you."

--WR Dylan Cantrell had a breakout game versus Arizona State, making a highlight-reel one-handed catch in the second half and finishing with eight receptions for 160 yards and two TDs. He also scored the Red Raiders' game-winning touchdown on an end around. With opposing defenses having their hands full covering Texas Tech WRs Derrick Willies and Keke Coutee, Cantrell is likely to benefit from favorable matchups a lot this season.

--RB Da'Leon Ward is back with the team after missing practice in August due to academic requirements. Kingsbury didn't say when Ward, the team's leading rusher as a freshman in 2016, might be available to play. Ward hasn't played so far this season.

Updated September 19, 2017

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