January 03, 2010
Texas Tech 41, Michigan State 31. Lost in the sudden outbreak of "Leach and the Restless" at Texas Tech last week was the question that's going to have the most long-term impact on the program: What is the direction of the dominant passing offense of the past decade without its architect? Even more than the escalating win totals and fundamental weirdness of its now-former coach, Tech's rise over the last decade has been about Mike Leach's unapologetic insistence on the pass, and his ability to turn quarterbacks nobody else wanted -- or wants at the next level when they leave Lubbock -- into an assembly line of record-breaking gunslingers. Bluntly, his exit threatens the unique identity that made nondescript Texas Tech into Texas Tech, Scourge of the Skies over the most successful run in school history, which is what really has folks in Lubbock up in arms about it.
Based on Saturday night's barrage, those concerns seem a little silly -- with interim offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley filling in for Leach as play-caller, Tech passed 54 times with two different quarterbacks, for 460 yards and three touchdowns. Nine different players ended the night with multiple receptions; there was even enough time for a 100-yard rusher, Baron Batch, a rarity under Leach. Trailing 31-28 in the fourth quarter after a 10-point Michigan State rally for the lead, backup QB Steven Sheffield answered by hitting all six of his passes (his first of the night after spending the first three quarters on the bench) on a 77-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown to Detron Lewis. If the last week had never happened, it would have been just another great show by the "Air Raid" against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten, as everyone predicted.
And the old coaches in the house -- Bob Davie calling the game in the booth, Lou Holtz back in ESPN's studios -- both lobbied for Tech to retain interim coach Ruffin McNeill, who has openly lobbied for the job since being promoted from defensive coordinator and went off to a chorus of "Ruffin! Ruffin!" from the heavily pro-Leach crowd after the win. It was eerily similar to West Virginia's inspired effort in a Fiesta Bowl blowout over Oklahoma following Rich Rodriguez's departure two years ago, when the Mountaineers made what looked like a rash, morning-after decision to take the "interim" tag off Bill Stewart. Subsequently, the once-prolific WVU offense of 2009 barely resembles the spread 'n shred that ripped the Sooners to ribbons, and hasn't come close to replicating its success.
That's the choice Texas Tech has to make, between a) An attempt to recreate the high-flying style under either an ex-Leach protegé, namely Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, or b) A proven spread coach like Baylor's Art Briles or Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who replaced Briles at UH and led the only offense in the nation this season that passed more often than Texas Tech; c) Go in an entirely different direction with the likes of ex-Ole Miss/Auburn boss Tommy Tuberville, who, like McNeill, has openly lobbied for the job but isn't likely to make many concessions to the spread given his first, disastrous step in that direction at Auburn; or d) A 'status quo' attempt to continue Leach's success with the brain trust he developed on his own staff. Any of those options could work. But if the choice is d) -- especially if that choice is based on last night, the end result of Leach's efforts with his final team -- it had better for the sake of keeping Ruffin McNeill, and not trying to keep the Leach offense without the Leach drama.