IT WAS No. 1versus No. 7; "Hook 'em!" versus "Guns up!"; Bevo versus amasked rider on a black quarter horse. It was old money from the state capitaltaking on this nouveau riche outfit from the dusty South Plains. It was themainstream, conventional wisdom of Longhorns coach Mack Brown versus thequirky, contrarian musings of his counterpart, Mike Leach. ¬∂ And on the finalplay from scrimmage in the best game of this college football season, it wasjust plain unfair. There is little doubt that Curtis Brown, a sophomorecornerback making his second start, has a bright future at Texas. But witheight seconds left, with the Longhorns desperately defending a one-point leadover the nation's No. 1 passing team, Brown found himself staring across theline at Michael Crabtree, the defending Biletnifkoff Award winner, a 6'3",214-pound All-America widely regarded as an all-but-certain top 10 selection ina future NFL draft.
This is an article from the Nov. 10, 2008 issue
It must have beena lonely feeling.
Afterward theLonghorns' coaches insisted that Brown had not been left on an island withCrabtree, that Tech's best player had been double-covered. Red Raidersquarterback Graham Harrell saw it differently. "They tried to man upCrab!" he shouted on the field after the game, meaning Texas had Crabtreesingle-covered. "There's not anyone in the country can man upCrab!"
As the redshirtsophomore accelerated past his victim, Harrell slung the high-risk pass onwhich the 2008 college football season turned.
There arecountless superb offensive plays, Leach likes to point out. "Thechallenge," he says, "is choosing which ones you're going to do verywell. Otherwise you're going to be mediocre at all of 'em."
Among the handfulof routes Leach, Harrell and the Red Raiders receivers have chosen to be verygood at is the fade-stop that worked all night against the Longhorns and workedone final time on the play that gave Tech a 39--33 victory.
Harrell wasthrowing to a spot—"at the receiver's a-- cheek away from coverage," asLeach puts it. Twenty-two yards up the field Crabtree jammed on the brakes,turned toward the sideline and plucked Harrell's perfectly thrown pass from thenight sky. Rather than seek the safe harbor of the boundary (Tech needed only afield goal to win), he fought to stay inbounds. Spinning counterclockwise, heshed Brown's feeble tackle attempt, felt a flash of gratitude as safety EarlThomas zoomed past, having overrun the play, then dug hard for the end zone,crossing the goal line with a second left.
Those heroicsunleashed the first in a three-wave set of field stormings by a mob ofblack-clad, face-painted Tech faithful, who had to be cleared off the turftwice before the game ended. While the program had enjoyed unprecedentedsuccess during Leach's nine-year reign—a bowl appearance every season whilebeing the only Big 12 school to have a winning record every year since theconference began play in 1996—its fans were unaccustomed to seeing their RedRaiders knock off the No. 1 team in the nation. Which explains, in part, theirdifficulty in grasping the principle that the best time to storm the field isafter the teams are finished using it.
The end of thisInstant Classic, the third and final storming of the field, marked a sea changeon the plains. Tech is 9--0 for the first time in 70 years. Under Leach, apioneer of the spread passing attack, the Red Raiders have long aggravated theacid reflux of defensive coordinators around the conference. While they couldbe counted on to ambush a top 10 team every season, they could likewise berelied on to lose three or four games and finish anywhere between second andfourth in the Big 12 South. Now Leach & Co. find themselves in terraincognita, vaulting to second in the BCS rankings, sitting alone atop thedivision, the toughest in any conference in the nation. Texas fell to No. 4 inthe BCS. Beneath the Horns lurk ninth-ranked Oklahoma State and sixth-rankedOklahoma—who happen to be Tech's next two opponents.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURSafter the biggest victory in school history, Leach sat in his office, alreadypanning for soft spots in Oklahoma State's defense. Perpetually distracted,prone not only to digressions but also to digressions within his digressions,the coach was pleased to offer details on how acupuncture helped him stopdipping smokeless tobacco and the general wholesomeness of Texas quarterbackColt McCoy. ("He's got a real Opie Cunningham quality.") Under nocircumstances would he be drawn into a discussion about Tech's chances ofgetting to the Big 12 title game, to be played on Dec. 6 in Kansas City,Mo.
"We gottafigure out a way to get past Oklahoma State," he mumbled over the phone. Itwas against the Cowboys in September 2007 that Tech gave up 610 total yards ina 49--45 loss. After that game, Leach replaced his defensive coordinator, LyleSentenich, with assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill. That move would've drawnfar more attention had it not been overshadowed by Oklahoma State coach MikeGundy, whose postgame "I'm a man!" tirade made national news.
McNeill did twothings that produced immediate, drastic improvement: He increased the intensityin practice while scaling back the difficulty. Instead of taking eight or 10calls into a game, "we'd go with half that many," he told SI before theseason. He wanted players reacting, not thinking. As he often says, "Aclear mind means fast legs."
These guys comeafter you on defense in a way Tech has not during Leach's tenure. Ask McCoy,who was sacked four times and afterward looked like he'd gone three rounds withChuck Liddell. "I got busted in the face a couple times," said thequarterback, by way of explaining his bloody lip.
Some of thatblood was spilled by sophomore nosetackle Colby Whitlock, an ex-wrestler fromNoble, Okla., who finished with eight tackles, an absurdly high number for adown lineman. Whitlock's first tackle—for a safety on the Longhorns' openingplay from scrimmage—set the tone for a surprisingly physical game. "He'sgot a real quick first step," says Leach. "He's country strong, likescombat and is lucky enough to be able to engage in it legally. I've found thatif you're playing Texas, it helps to have a kid or two from Oklahoma."
Tech's defensiveline outnastied the Longhorns' hogs for 2 1/2 quarters. Which is not to saythat all the Red Raiders' heroes were down linemen. Midway through the thirdquarter, senior safety Daniel Charbonnet read McCoy's eyes and returned hisfifth interception of the season 18 yards for a TD.
Like so many RedRaiders, Charbonnet took an indirect route to Lubbock. A native of TheWoodlands, Texas, he played one season for a two-win Duke team in 2004.Homesick and sick of losing, he transferred to Tech and was invited to walk on.Though he is neither very big nor very fast, the coaches couldn't keep him offthe field. "All he did was make plays," recalls Leach.
IT WAS not in thenature of the Longhorns, however, to stay on the canvas. As the cobwebs inMcCoy's head cleared after his most vicious collision with Whitlock, thequarterback started looking like his former self. On successive possessions heconnected with redshirt freshman wideout Malcolm Williams for touchdowns of 37and 91 yards. Vondrell McGee's four-yard touchdown run gave Texas its firstlead, 33--32, with 1:29 left. As valiantly as it had played, McNeill's defensewas fried.
The Horns, itseemed, would survive their inhuman gantlet: four straight games against teamsin the top 11. The problem for Texas was that no one told Harrell any of this.The senior from Ennis, Texas, was smiling as he jogged onto the field at theTech 38. "Game on the line, minute and a half left, you score, youwin," he said on Monday. "If you don't love that situation,quarterback's probably not the position for you." What of the 83 seconds hewould have to work with? "Plenty of time."
And so itappeared to be, as he crisply moved the chains. Four consecutive completionsmoved the ball to the Texas 28. Then near disaster. On the play before thegame-winning pass to Crabtree, Harrell threw one of the uglier balls of hiscareer. Seeing his quarterback scramble left, wideout Edward Britton dutifullypeeled back to block. He definitely was not expecting the pass Harrell flung inhis direction. "He gets his hands out at the last second andvolleyball-sets it straight up in the air," says Harrell. "The kidcomes running underneath it. Now everything's in slow motion, and I'm thinking,Surely we're not gonna lose like this."
Order would berestored. Tech would descend to its accustomed place in the Big 12 hierarchy.Texas would have a clear path to the BCS title game. McCoy, not Harrell, wouldsolidify his position as the Heisman front-runner. But "the kid,"freshman safety Blake Gideon, could not process his good fortune, dropping theball and keeping hope alive for the home team.
The next callfrom the Tech sideline was Ace Six—which stands for the number of points it'sdesigned to score. It calls for four receivers to run vertical routes or, inthe parlance of sandlot football, "go deep." After snatching the ballin front of his helpless defender, Crabtree stayed inbounds—and here hechanneled his head coach, notorious for his disdain for field goals—then wonthe game.
Itsfield-storming fans having drawn two penalties, Tech kicked off from its owneight-yard line with one second to play. "The plan," says Leach,"was to squib-kick it to a fat guy. Of course the fat guys at Texas arenimble, and they have good hands."
There was nomiracle for the Longhorns. This time, when the Tech partisans stormed thefield, no one bum-rushed them toward the sideline. Like the Red Raiders in theranks of college football's elite, it looked like they might be there for awhile.
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