November 02, 2008
The big difference in Texas Tech, Entertaining Also-Ran, and Texas Tech, Championship Contender, as unveiled in the dramatic win over Texas Saturday night, is the defense. In the summer, I was very skeptical about the optimism for coordinator Ruffin McNeill, a midseason replacement in 2007 whose promotion didn't lead to much better results last year -- the Longhorns, for example, added 59 points to bring their scoring average against Tech since Mike Leach took over in Lubbock to nearly 44 over eight games. But it was a dramatically different Tech D that swarmed over Colt McCoy this time, sacking UT's hero four times and picking him once for a touchdown. If not for a punt return touchdown and one badly blown coverage that led to a long score in the fourth quarter, Texas' prolific attack wouldn't have made it out of the teens on the scoreboard.
The other big change, though -- and equally scary to the Raiders' opponents down the stretch -- was Tech's sudden affinity for the handoff. Over the last five years, Mike Leach has only called one other game against the South Division's heavy hitters that looked like Saturday's in terms of balance:
Texas Tech Running Game vs. OU and Texas
The 2005 win over Oklahoma also happens to be the only game on the list Tech actually entered as a favorite, coming in at 8-2 (i.e. Leach's best team before this season) late in the year to the Sooners' disappointing 6-3 (Bob Stoops' worst team at OU). In other words, it was the only occasion Tech lined up across from either of the Big Two as an equal rather than a scrappy, savvy underdog, and could expect to match up with them on more "conventional" terms. By all appearances, these were the circumstances Saturday: Tech was more committed to the run because, physically -- four of its starting offensive linemen are 315 or heavier, and nasty, indeed -- it could afford to be. Pushing the Horns around the way the Raider line did most of the night hadn't really been an option before.
A hundred-five yards is not the most impressive haul, though it is depressed by a pair of sacks on Graham Harrell for -25 yards; running backs Shannon Woods and Baron Batch had a solid 25 carries for 122, just shy of five yards per carry, more than enough to throw the pass-focused Texas D and its three-man lines into confusion. Double the uncertainty by considering the Raiders' success on first down, where eight of 14 carries went for five yards or better, and nine of the 14 (six in the first half) either went for another first down or led to one. That's not overpowering, but in a wide open system like Leach's, it is a philosophical shift against a defense as good along the line as Texas', and the unpredictability it fosters makes the improved talent in the passing game that much more lethal.