Armed with senior quarterback Graham Harrell, one of the top receivers in the country and experience on both lines, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach came into the season knowing it could be a special one for the Red Raiders.
Avoiding what would have been a deflating first loss has only made Leach more excited about the possibilities.
The seventh-ranked Red Raiders look to rebound from an uncharacteristic performance and achieve their best start in more than 30 years Saturday when they visit Big 12 South rival Texas A&M.
Harrell has teamed with sophomore receiver Michael Crabtree - one of only two Texas Tech starters who are underclassmen - to lead one of the most prolific offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Red Raiders (6-0, 2-0) rank sixth in scoring with 46.3 points per game, and second in total offense with 556.3 scrimmage yards per game. They won their first five contests by an average margin of 29.8 points.
However, they gained a season low-tying 421 total yards, including a season-low 284 through the air, last Saturday against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers rallied to force overtime, but Eric Morris scored on Texas Tech’s first possession of the extra session, and Jamar Wall intercepted a Nebraska pass to seal the 37-31 victory.
Texas Tech remained one of 10 undefeated teams in the FBS - three of which play in the Big 12 South. The Red Raiders haven’t won their first seven games in a season since they opened 8-0 in 1976.
“I was proud of our guys hanging in there,” Leach said. “We had a little bit of adversity, but we overcame it. I am really proud of them for that. … Almost always in games like this you have to be the last guy swinging, and we were.”
The Red Raiders say they learned their lesson in the near upset.
“It teaches us that we can’t give up on a team and anyone can come in this house and we can go anywhere and get beat,” linebacker Brian Duncan said. “We have to go out there and respect each team.”
That approach could be particularly important against Texas A&M (2-4, 0-2), the Red Raiders’ only unranked opponent on the schedule until the Nov. 29 regular-season finale against Baylor. In between, Texas Tech will play No. 16 Kansas, No. 1 Texas, No. 8 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Oklahoma.
The Aggies aren’t exactly sure what they’ll need to do to stop the Red Raiders’ high-octane offense.
“Pray for maybe a torrential downpour,” said Texas A&M defensive coordinator Joe Kines, whose team ranks 107th in the FBS in scoring defense with 33.0 points allowed per game. “If it rained about 14 inches in the first quarter, that’d probably slow it down a little bit.”
Unfortunately for the Aggies, the forecast for College Station on Saturday is clear, so A&M will have to depend on a defense that’s surrendered 850 yards and 100 points while opening its conference slate with consecutive defeats for the first time in the 13-season history of the Big 12.
After a 56-28 loss at Oklahoma State, the Aggies gave up a season-high 449 total yards in a 44-30 home defeat to Kansas State last Saturday. That doesn’t bode well for a meeting with the Red Raiders, who will surely test the Aggies’ inconsistent secondary.
“We’re getting better, but we still have a ways to go in order to cover the group we’re going to cover right here,” Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said.
Sherman’s team leads the Big 12 in pass defense, holding opponents to 162.8 yards per game, but that’s at least partially because the Aggies have only seen 140 passes attempted against them - easily the fewest in the conference. That number should skyrocket Saturday, and Sherman knows his team will need to stay aggressive in order to keep up with the Red Raiders downfield.
“It seems like when we make our mistakes, it’s when we don’t attack things we should attack,” Sherman said. “We’re a little bit hesitant. I would like us to be a little less fearful of making mistakes.”
Texas Tech has won six of its last seven meetings with Texas A&M, including two of the last three at Kyle Field. Harrell went 30-for-37 for 425 yards and three touchdowns and Crabtree caught eight passes for 170 yards in the Red Raiders’ 35-7 home victory last Oct. 13.
Despite Texas Tech’s recent dominance in the series, Sherman thinks his team is up for the challenge.
“I look at this as a great opportunity for us,” he said. “(The Red Raiders) deserve the attention that they’re getting. They’ve done what they’ve needed to do so far. They have come into Kyle Field and I’m sure they’re anxiously looking forward to that. But so are we.”