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September 2, 2012Eric Stephens was greeted by some family exiting the football training facility about an hour after Texas Tech put the final touches on a 44-6 win against Northwestern State on Saturday evening in Lubbock.
He looked relaxed for the first time in ages. Although Northwestern State wasn't the toughest competition the Red Raiders will face this year the Demons provided a tough challenge for Stephens personally.
Stephens was nervous entering Saturday's game so it was nice to see him exhale in the bright moments after it.
It was his first game since suffering an extremely traumatic injury nearly a year ago. The injury took nine months of intensive rehab to recover from.
Stephens hadn't recovered from the injury. Until Saturday. Until he scored two touchdowns coming back from a torn ACL and torn MCL knee injury and walked away from Jones AT&T Stadium on his own power.
It's not like Northwestern State couldn't tackle. And every time Stephens was brought down all 50,236 fans in the stadium held their breath.
"I think it's big (to take a first hit) every season but more so now because of the knee deal and everything," Stephens said. "My mom texted me earlier and we texted back and forth and she asked me how I felt. I told her I felt great but I was just kind of nervous. Not so much about the knee but just getting back out there. It's been a while.
"After I took that first hit everything was fine."
Stephens gave Tech the lead in the first quarter with a four-yard touchdown and then expanded that lead with a two-yard touchdown run the very next drive on his way to 58 yards on 16 carries.
The Red Raiders did some running Saturday. They were able to control the game by doing so without tipping much of a hand to the Texas State Bobcats who got a signature win against Houston on their first night of FBS competition.
Tech kept it simple and they were able to do so because Stephens and fellow running backs Kenny Williams and SaDale Foster kept the Red Raider defense fresh with time-consuming drives.
It wasn't as easy as it looked. The Red Raiders had not won a game since Oct. 22, 2011 and things weren't looking up when quarterback Seth Doege ended a promising open drive with an interception and long return.
But thanks in large part to 179 rushing yards on 46 carries after Northwestern State squandered their interception return to the Red Raiders' 36-yard line with a missed field goal you never got the feeling that the Demons were going to take control of the game.
Stephens got the first touchdown. Then the second for a 14-3 lead. Williams gained 74 yards on the ground on 15 carries and Foster added 44 more on his 11 runs to sustain and capitalize on eight of 11 possessions.
And that Tech defense which was dominated as early as the season-opening game of 2011 against Texas State came out fresh time and time again and held the Demons to 84 yards of total offense.
Three pass break ups by the Red Raider defensive line and nine great tackles by free safety Cody Davis along with three sacks certainly didn't hurt the effort. Neither did 199 passing yards and a touchdown by Doege and another 122 yards and two touchdowns by backup quarterback Michael Brewer in the fourth quarter.
But Saturday's win belongs to the running game and the offensive line.
"We were really, really conservative," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I called the game a lot with those two (freshmen) guards in mind. I didn't want to put a whole lot of pressure on Le'Raven Clark and Alfredo Morales in game one because I didn't feel like we needed to.
"We'll open up the playbook a little more and I always feel like there's big improvement between Week 1 and Week 2. You hear coaches say that a lot but the reason is coaches have a lot to figure out. In practice you go against the same people and the same looks over and over and over again for 29 practices."
So the running game gained yards, sustained drives, ran time off the clock, kept the defense fresh and forced the Demons to respect the run which allowed Doege and the receivers to get comfortable and open up the game.
Tech probably could have won the game by a wider margin if they opened up the playbook. But Saturday's win was not of the ugly variety.
It was a decisive win.
Just like Stephens did, everyone emotionally into the Red Raider football program can exhale for a week.
"That's a lot better," head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Feels a lot better coming in here and seeing you guys after last year. But that was a good start, a very good start. I thought our coaches and players really prepared to play this game. That group had quite a few experienced players. I know we were better than them, but one thing we worried about was their execution, their play and being able to run the ball.