Every year we see a handful of indelible, season-defining moments. The latest came in Lubbock last Saturday night, when Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree slid a shiv between the ribs of the Texas Longhorns.
There is always some surprise team, some ugly duckling outfit that metamorphoses by midseason into a swan or Cinderella. You hear promising reports from spring ball, from fall camp, but they don't really register, because everyone is optimistic in the preseason. (Everyone, that is, who is not a Michigan fan, and who did not see the Gong Show that was the Wolverines' '08 spring game).
Two years ago it was Rutgers. (Twenty years from now, it may be the Scarlet Knights again!) Last year it was Kansas. This year it is Mike Leach's irresistible Red Raiders, 9-0 and second in the BCS rankings going into this weekend's danger game against No. 8 Oklahoma State. Yes, I picked Tech to do very well in July, but those predictions were not meant to be taken 100 percent seriously -- a problem I seldom have anyway.
After some early season jitters, third-year quarterback Harrell has arrived as a frontrunner in the Heisman race. His emergence has been facilitated by Leach's focusing mantra -- Just Do Your Job -- and also the coach's offseason determination to get more production out of his running backs. If you want to go really deep on the Tech offense, check out The Tortilla Retort, whose X-and-O-savvy proprietor speculates that Leach began "tinkering more with two back sets and jumbo packages" for a number of reasons, chief among that "he saw the writing on the wall and it read, 'PERPETUALLY F_____G 8-4.'"
When I talked to him over the phone last Sunday night, Leach said merely that Shannon Woods and Baron Batch are two very good, complementary backs -- "they push each other in a positive way." When teams go with three-man fronts to take away the pass, Tech is better able to gouge them with the run.
It helps that Harrell is working behind a huge, talented, veteran offensive line. The Red Raiders did not get lucky against Texas last Saturday. Tech won because it dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That's another reason I expect them to improve to 10-0 and move to No. 1 in the BCS rankings this weekend (Because, you see, 'Bama's going down in the Saban Bowl). Yes, the Cowboys are loaded with NFL-bound skill guys. But they don't rush the passer well. Okie State has a borderline-pathetic 11 sacks on the season. You do not want to give Graham Harrell five, six, eight seconds to find an open receiver.
Because he will. Whether it's Crabtree, in the driver's seat for his second straight Biletnikoff award; or speed merchants Tremain Swindell and Eddy Britton, or the "Evil Elf." That would be 5-foot-9 inside receiver Eric Morris, who scored Tech's second touchdown against Texas on an out-cut that nearly broke the ankles of a young Texas corner. "He corners really well, with his low center of gravity and his little feet and whatnot," said Leach. "So it worked out good."
It was Leach who slapped the "Evil Elf" handle on Morris, an ex-high-school quarterback from nearby Shallowater High. Leach sees Morris as less of an adorable, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer kind of elf, and more as a Bad Santa kind of elf. Coaches are still wondering what to make of a Morris interruption from earlier this season, when the 23-year-old, decked out in full elf regalia, stormed into the meeting room.
"He had on the full elf costume -- little hat and everything," recalls Leach. "He hops up on the table, does a little elf dance, and leaves. He's a prankster type."
There are more stories on this roster than in the Naked City. Aside from Colby Whitlock, the Noble, Okla., native who left cleatmarks on Colt McCoy's flak jacket, Tech's best player on defense last Saturday may have been senior free safety Dan Charbonnet, who baited McCoy into a pass that Charbonnet picked off and returned 18 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. A native of The Woodlands, Texas, Charbonnet played one season for a two-win Duke team in 2004. Homesick and sick of losing -- "I wanted to go someplace where they won a lot of games, and played in bowls," he told me -- he transferred to Tech and was invited to walk-on. The coaches couldn't keep him off the field. Said Leach, "All he did was make plays."
Only at Tech would you have a kicker who was pulled out of the stands at a home game after winning a placekicking contest. On Sept. 20, between the third and fourth quarters of the Red Raiders 45-21 win over UMass, sophomore Matt Williams connected on a 30-yard attempt as part of radio station promo.
Watching from the sideline, Leach could not help admiring the height Williams got on the ball. "I'd just got done raising hell about why can't we get the ball up on PATs," the coach said. "This guy comes out, takes one step, the thing goes straight up like a sand wedge, splits the uprights. I grabbed an equipment guy and said, 'Go get him.' " A month later, the kid Tech pulled out of the bleachers was 9-for-9 on extra points at Kansas.
Williams' story is no more incredible than the fact that the center of the college football universe will be out in west Texas for the second straight Saturday, where a motley crew of elves and pirates, cast-offs and contrarions have become the story of this season by just doing their jobs.