Friday, November 21, 2008

Game of the Week: #1 Texas Tech @ #5 Oklahoma

For the third straight game, the Texas Tech Red Raiders could be playing the biggest game in the program’s history. This time an invitation to the Big 12 Championship game is on the line, which would also serve as a de facto BCS semifinal final game for Tech. The same could be said if the Sooners advance. Oklahoma has been laying in the weeds since dropping the Red River Rivalry game to Texas, not so quietly rolling off four straight wins to stay in both the Big 12 and BCS title pictures.

When Tech Has the Ball

GRAHAM HARRELL CONTINUES to put up record setting numbers as he leads the Big 12’s top rated passing offense, averaging 407.2 yards per game. Harrell has now topped 4,000 passing yards and 35 touchdowns for the third straight year. He is also battle tested, throwing for 930 yards and eight touchdowns (no interceptions) against Texas and Oklahoma St., the Red Raiders’ toughest foes. Maybe the most impressive accomplishment by the senior signal caller has been the silencing of the “system quarterback” nay-sayers. Although he might not match last season’s numbers (5,705 yards, 48 touchdowns), Harrell is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. He makes quick decisions and is an accurate passer. Recently, we’ve seen Harrell use his legs more than ever. Playing a major role in Harrell’s success is Tech’s impenetrable offensive line, which has allowed a mere five sacks in 499 pass attempts. Leading the way have been left tackle Rylan Reed and right guard Brandon Carter, neither of which has given up a sack all season. Reed, a former minor league pitcher, knows a little something about pitching a perfect game, having shut out eventual No. 2 overall pick Chris Long in last season’s bowl victory. Leading one of the deepest stables of wide outs is sophomore Michael Crabtree. Despite being in just his second season, the Biletnikoff Award winner is a man among boys. He possesses impeccable hands, the quickness to make people miss, and the strength to simply break free from want-to-be tacklers. Crabtree runs crisp routes and no one in the game does a better job of coming back to the football. If teams pay too much attention, Harrell does not hesitate to look to one of his other targets – Detron Lewis, Eric Morris, Edward Britton or Tramain Swindall. Britton has two 100-yard games in his last three contests and Morris is particularly adept on third down situations coming out of his slot position. Not to be overlooked is Tech’s ability to run the football. Sophomore Baron Batch has a good burst, while senior Shannon Woods has used his shiftiness to find the end zone 11 times thus far.

WHILE THE SOONERS pass defense is holding opponents to a conference low 52.7 completion percentage and is one of only two Big 12 schools to have more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed, they are susceptible to the big play. The top three quarterbacks they have faced, Colt McCoy, Todd Reesing and Josh Freeman, have combined to average 366 yards against them. However, their combined touchdown-to-interception ratio is a very average six-five. Cornerbacks Brian Jackson and Dominique Franks must be on their game. King-sized strong safety Nic Harris needs to remain disciplined and not over-pursue. Oklahoma’s top ball-hawk is free safety Lendy Holmes. Helping the secondary is a speedy linebacking corps led by Travis Lewis and Keenan Clayton. Lewis leads the team in tackles as a freshman, while Clayton (six forced fumbles) has made the move from safety rather seamlessly. They have struggled to replace Ryan Reynolds in the middle since he went down against the Longhorns, with freshman Austin Box learning on the job. With junior Austin English out with an injury, a pair of sophomores in defensive end Jeremy Beal and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy now lead the line. Beal is a versatile pass rusher, while McCoy is emerging as a disruptive force. He is very effective tying up blockers to free up teammates, not to mention making plays himself. It should come as no surprise that the former five-star recruit is beginning to draw comparisons to former Sooner star and current Chicago Bear, Tommie Harris.

When Boomer Sooner Has the Ball

THE SOONERS’ high-octane attack has been nothing short of a nightmare for defenses, in fact the big red machine leads the conference in scoring at 51.4 points per game. Sophomore signal caller Sam Bradford tops the Big 12 with his 38 touchdown passes. With a powerful arm, excellent touch, ability to read defenses and superior decision making skills, it should come as no surprise he is also its highest rated passer. While the Sooners lack a leading man comparable to Crabtree, Bradford has no shortage when it comes to his supporting cast. The most consistent performer of OU’s fantastic four is senior Juaquin Iglesias. He is as sure-handed as they come and very quick off the line of scrimmage. Most known for his ability after the catch thanks to his quickness and breakaway speed, Iglesias doesn’t shy away from making the tough catches in traffic. Red-shirt freshman Ryan Broyles has tremendous running skills after the catch – his middle name should be ‘shifty’. Working his way back from injury is senior Manuel Johnson, who was having a breakout season. He is not as productive as the others, but at 6’4”, Quentin Chaney gives Bradford a big target and the ability to stretch the field. The toughest cover on the Sooners might not even be a receiver – tight end Jermaine Gresham is arguably the best player at his position. The pass-catching phenom possesses excellent size and superior athleticism and is equally adept at running over defenders as he is leaving them in his dust. The scary thing is, OU’s running game is coming on strong. DeMarco Murray, their speedy tailback, is starting to display his breakaway speed after having off-season knee surgery. He has the ability to cut on a dime and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Like Murray, Chris Brown is coming off his second 100-yard performance in his last three contests. Brown is one of the nation’s top short-yardage backs with the requisite toughness and vision. Both Murray and Brown have scored double digit touchdowns this season. When they are playing at their best as a cohesive unit, the Sooner offensive line is a physical group. The potentially dominating unit features four seniors that average 6’5”, 311 pounds, led by guard Duke Robinson, who is considered by many to be the best lineman in the Big 12 – a classic road grater. Left tackle Phil Loadholt is another massive individual at 6’8” with the long arms and powerful hands to make him a force in both the run and pass games.

ARGUABLY THE MOST overlooked unit in all of college football is the Texas Tech defense. The Red Raiders rank second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (22.2 points per game), which is why they control their BCS destiny and come into this contest leading the Big 12 South Division. Manning the middle is sophomore linebacker Brian Duncan, who at 238 pounds provides solid bulk. He is flanked by fellow sophomore Brant Bird and junior Marlon Williams, who has made his presence felt in big games. The same could be said of senior strong safety Daniel Charbonnet (five interceptions, three fumble recoveries), who is one of those players with the knack for being at the right place at the right time. Joining him in the defensive backfield is free safety Darcel McBath, who is the playmaker of the Red Raiders’ secondary. He leads the Big 12 with his six interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Their top coverman is junior Jamar Wall, who typically lines up on the left side. His nine pass break ups lead the team. Another league leader on this Tech defense is explosive defensive end Brandon Williams, who has racked up 10 sacks in 10 games this season. He can wreak havoc coming off the edge and looks to do even more damage — he’s caused three fumbles – once he gets to the quarterback. Defensive tackle Colby Whitlock, Tech’s lone starter from Oklahoma, is a bit undersized, but he is active and plays smart.

Final Analysis

THE LAST TIME Mike Leach led the Red Raiders back to his old stomping grounds with the Big 12 Title on the line (2002), Tech was rudely rebuffed, 60-15, by Bob Stoops’ boys. But this is a different Red Raiders team, one that will be looking to win for the third time in its last four tries against the Sooners. Of all the numbers, the most difficult to overlook is Stoops’ 60-2 home record as OU’s headman. Expect the Sooners to edge out the Red Raiders and create a three-way tie atop the Big 12 South.

Prediction: Oklahoma 41, Texas Tech 37

Photo Credit: OU Athletics Department, Texas Tech Athletics