1. This is arguably the biggest game in Texas Tech history. It's not just the rankings, the prime-time telecast or the fact that Lubbock is the center of the college football universe with College GameDay in town that makes this game carry so much weight for Texas Tech. This is the Red Raiders' chance to make the leap to legitimate national-title contender and not just a program with an offense that puts up video-game numbers and has a quirky coach in Mike Leach.
But it won't be Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and that high-powered offense that will make this so interesting. It's a much-maligned defense that's actually better than its numbers indicate.
The Red Raiders are 98th nationally against the pass, giving up 245.5 yards per game, but it's part of the risk/reward approach of this defense. Coordinator Ruffin McNeil primarily has Tech playing a zone scheme that gives up chunks of yards (the Raiders have allowed a play of 30 or more yards in all but one game) but also forces turnovers (20 on the season, including 14 interceptions), ranking 10th in turnover margin.
Texas Tech's game plan was at its best against Kansas last week, when the Red Raiders forced five turnovers, including three picks by Darcel McBath. It will take a similar effort to contain the Longhorns' potent offense, though Tech doesn't have to look hard to find a template. Oklahoma State changed its looks from one down to the next and eventually forced two turnovers, one of which contributed to the Cowboys closing the gap in the fourth quarter.
2. Texas' grueling schedule may be taking its toll. The Longhorns are at the end of a four-week stretch that included No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 11 Missouri and No. 7 Oklahoma State. Understandably, the nation's top-ranked team is showing signs of wearing down.
Heisman contender Colt McCoy, who committed his first turnovers in four games against the Cowboys, has a bruised non-throwing hand and cornerbacks Ryan Palmer (elbow) and Chykie Brown (ankle) are both slowed by injuries.
"We're telling our guys to get in bed, get off your feet," Texas coach Mack Brown said earlier this week. "We're trying our best to make sure they can handle this stretch physically and emotionally."
The 'Horns' defense often looked worn down against Oklahoma State, missing 12 tackles that led to 125 additional yards. The group entered the game ranked second nationally against the run, but gave up 217 yards on the ground, 62 more yards than in their last five games combined.
While the Longhorns were locked in a physical game with Oklahoma State that was their narrowest victory of the season (28-24), the Red Raiders are coming off a 63-21 blowout of Kansas.
Considering the emotional toll of the last three weeks, the challenge of trying to tone down the Red Raiders offense and a raucous Jones AT&T Stadium crowd, this game should be the most daunting of Texas' run.
3. The most crucial matchup will be ... Texas Tech's offensive line versus the Longhorns' defensive front or more important Rylan Reed versus Brian Orakpo. The Red Raiders O-line is spread out farther than most teams, with nearly three yards between each player before the snap, but opponents have rarely been able to break through the wall of seniors Reed and Louis Vasquez and juniors Brandon Carter, Stephen Hamby and Marlon Winn. The unit has given up three sacks in eight games, two of which came within three plays against Kansas, and has allowed just 15 tackles for loss.
Against the Longhorns, Tech will be facing a defense that has produced 29 sacks, second-most in the country, led by Orakpo, who leads the Big 12 in sacks (8 1/2) and tackles for loss (15). He will be locking up with Reed in a tussle of physical specimens (the 6-foot-7, 314-pound Reed bench pressed a school-record 625 pounds, while the 6-4, 260-pound Orakpo benched 515).
Orakpo had two of Texas' three sacks of Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, dominating NFL prospect Phil Loadholt. Even if Orakpo wins the battle with Reed, he and the Longhorns front may not add much to their sack total. The spacing of the Red Raiders line will make sacks hard to come by, but the 'Horns have to at least put pressure on Harrell if they're to give their linebackers and defensive backs any hope of keeping up with Crabtree and the Red Raiders' receivers.
How do defenses prepare for Texas Tech's offense? I asked an assistant coach of one of the Red Raiders' opponents for his impressions. Here's what he had to say:
"I still always believe that the first thing that you want to do is make a team one dimensional, especially the Texas Techs, the BYUs of the world. If you allow them to run the ball on you, it's game over. You have no chance. Even with them, I think that's still the secret. As soon as you sit back and allow them to dictate, then you have problems.
"It's funny to me, because it's not that hard [to handle their offensive line alignment]. I'm kind of flabbergasted. I saw a tackle in the NFL, an NFL first-rounder, dumbfounded by it. If you stick a guy in the gap and pressure the middle, they can't block it. They can't get rid of the ball. If you put guys in the middle in those gaps and run through and they have an ounce of speed about them, they have to tighten those gaps back down. The quarterback's not athletic enough, he's more athletic than he gets credit for, but he's not athletic enough to kill you sprinting outside. He's not like the Tim Tebows of the world. So as soon as you do that you can take them out of [their wide alignment.] If you just sit there and you line up with the offensive linemen and you give them those wide gaps, they'll do that to you all day. You have to restrict the gaps by putting people in there and they'll come back down.
"You have to mix [coverages] up. Here's your problem: If you go with a two-man front, they can run the ball on you; they've got some behemoths that can lean on you and make life miserable. I think they want to see teams come out in a two-man front with four linebackers and five DBs and sit back all day because then they can run on you, they can find holes. There's not a lot of guys in the country that can stay with Michael Crabtree one-on-one for a period of time. You have to be able to restrict those gaps, take the run away and turn them into a conventional offense and then tee off on them a little bit and make [Harrell] get rid of the ball before he can find Crabtree and the 8,000 speedy receivers that they have and then you have a chance."
Texas 35, Texas Tech 30. While the last three games have taken a toll on the Longhorns, it's the reason why they'll be the Big 12's last remaining unbeaten. During that run, Texas' defense has proven it can rise to the occasion and Orakpo & Co. will do it again.