One of the most anticipated college football games of the 2008-2009 season will take place this Saturday when the 2nd ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders travel to Norman, Oklahoma to face the 5th ranked Oklahoma Sooners. The winner of this game likely controls their own destiny in their road to not only the Big 12 Championship game, but the BCS National Championship game as well.
If Oklahoma wins out, and Texas Tech wins next week against Baylor, and Texas wins out, there would be a three-way tie atop the Big 12 South standings. Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech all would all be sitting at 7-1 in conference. The tie-breaker that determines who would go to the Big 12 title game is which team is ranked the highest in the BCS rankings. The team that would represent the Big 12 South in such a case would likely be the Oklahoma Sooners. At this point it is pure guess work and speculation, but it could end up being a reality in a few weeks. If Texas Tech wins out, then there is no doubt they would be the Big 12 South representative in the Big 12 Championship on December 6th in Kansas City, Missouri.
This game features two of the most prolific passing attacks in all of college football. The Red Raiders own the best aerial assault in the land(433.7 ypg.) while Oklahoma’s aerial assault is not far behind at 3rd in the nation(355.5 ypg.).
As you might imagine, both teams are blessed with golden-armed gunslingers commanding their respective offenses. Senior Graham Harrell and sophomore Sam Bradford are both air-assaulting assassins who have put up video-game like numbers from the signal caller position this season. Not surprisingly, both players will likely end up being Heisman Trophy finalists in December.
The numbers for both quarterbacks this season have been so gaudy they are almost unbelievable. Consider this—Harrell and Bradford rank among the nation’s top 10 quarterbacks in five passing categories: passing efficiency, total offense, points responsible for, passing yards per game, and total passing yards.
Here’s exactly how they rank in those categories among college football’s quarterbacks: Graham Harrell ranks 7th in passing efficiency(169.2), but perhaps the most impressive stat is he is the nation’s leader in four passing categories: total offense(407.2 ypg.), points responsible for(25.6 ppg.), passing yards per game(407.7 ypg.), and total passing yards(4,077). Sam Bradford is no slouch either, as he ranks 2nd in the nation in passing efficiency(188.9), 4th in total offense (343 ypg.), 2nd in points responsible for(25.2 ppg.), 3rd in passing yards per game(340.6 ypg.), and 5th in total passing yards(3,406). Those numbers are astronomical—to say the least. Harrell has completed 332 of his 463 pass attempts(71.7%) for 4,077 yards, while tossing in 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions, whereas Bradford has completed 224 of his 330 pass attempts(67.8%) for 3,406 yards, while tossing in 38 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Both quarterbacks are not known for their ability to gash opposing defenses with their legs, but they’ve both rushed for multiple touchdowns this season, Harrell with six, Bradford has found the end zone four times on the ground.
A quick scouting report on both quarterbacks—Sam Bradford is much more comfortable with the five-step drop and you’ll see him do that quite often on Saturday, although Oklahoma does operate out of the shotgun a great deal, they run a no-huddle offense at times to keep the defense off-balance. Bradford’s footwork is unparalleled and his feet are so calm and quiet in the pocket, it truly is a thing of beauty. He seems to slide his feet along the turf with such ease. He’s also blessed with a quick release, excels in his pump fakes, ball placement, and the ball just rolls off his hand to throw a beautifully spun tight spiral.
Graham Harrell has perhaps the best ball placement of any quarterback in all of college football. He is excellent at placing the ball where the only player that can make a play on the ball is his receiver. He operates exclusively out of the shotgun in head coach Mike Leach’s well publicized spread attack. He stands tall in the pocket and is excellent at improvising and finding the open man even when he is flushed out of the pocket. The Texas native can also throw on the run remarkably well and he’s incredibly good at finding the open man. One of his best passes is the screen pass, Texas Tech runs this play perhaps better than any other team in the country. The Red Raiders’ spread attack is predicated on spacing, if you watch their running backs you’ll see that head coach Mike Leach drags the backs to the edges of the field, thus driving the linebackers out of the middle of the field. This clears the middle of the field for Texas Tech’s plethora of receivers. The Red Raiders’ receivers are excellent at keeping their proper spacing throughout the play, forcing the defense to cover them one-on-one, which increases the chances for somebody to get open.
Behind every great quarterback there is usually a great offensive line and both teams are blessed with two of the top offensive line units in the nation. Oklahoma has two gargantuan offensive linemen by the name of Duke Robinson(6’5, 330 lbs.) and Phil Loadholt(6’8, 337 lbs.) that as one publication so eloquently put it “block out the sun”. They’ve kept Sam Bradford’s jersey squeaky clean all season long and have helped pave the way for a running attack that helps to add excellent balance to the Sooner offense. Through 10 games, the unit has only allowed 9 sacks. They’ve also paved the way for a dynamic Sooner rushing attack that has chewed up over 1,900 yards on the ground this season, ranking them 24th in the nation in that category. More on them later.
Texas Tech’s offensive line is no slouch either, in fact you could argue it’s slightly better than Oklahoma’s, when it comes to pass protection at least. The Red Raiders’ offensive linemen have extraordinarily large splits, a key cog in their spread attack. The philosophy is that if you have larger splits among the linemen, the defensive ends will have a greater distance to travel to the quarterback. If you want beef up front, the Red Raiders’ offensive line is certainly not short on it by any stretch of the imagination. Left tackle Rylan Reed is one of the most talented offensive linemen in all of college football. Tipping the scales at a hefty, 6’7, 305 lbs. Reed bench presses over 500 pounds. Then there’s the mountain of a man that is Brandon Carter, who stands at an eye-popping 6’7, 354 lbs. The Red Raiders’ offensive line has been instrumental in keeping Harrell’s jersey clean all season, only allowing only 5 sacks in 499 pass attempts. The buffet busters up front have also allowed Texas Tech to do something many critics argued they could not do over the years: run the football. The Red Raiders have gashed opposing defenses for over 1,400 yards and 25 TDs on the ground this season. While those are not the highest numbers, the threat of running helps to add balance to the Red Raider offensive attack, crucial for any offense. I’ll have more on the running backs in a bit.
The Oklahoma running back that is easily the most electrifying and most dangerous running back in this game is a man that I like to call “Reggie Bush reincarnate”, sophomore standout Demarco Murray. He’s an ultra-elusive running back who excels when he was the ball in space and can turn on the burners and leave defenders in his wake in a hurry. According to an article written by Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News, Murray’s teammates say he’s the hardest player on the team to tackle. “He has three exit routes. He can run you over, he can shake you, or he can outrun you,” OU linebacker Keenan Clayton said. Blessed with a 41-inch vertical and a 4.4 40 yard dash time, there isn’t a better athlete in the nation at running back than Mr. Murray. He’s an all-purpose threat who can take it the distance any time he gets his hands on the football. This season, Murray has juked and jived his way to 804 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground on 146 attempts. He’s also displayed his soft set of hands, hauling in 26 passes for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Las Vegas native is also a dynamic threat in the kick return game, gaining 548 yards on 20 attempts, averaging a blistering 27.8 yards per attempt. He’s already piled up over 1,600 all-purpose yards this season, ranking him 8th in the country in that category. All of the praise for Murray is not to take away from the talent of his fellow running back, Chris Brown. The speedy junior can pick up yards in a hurry and is an excellent complement to Murray. This season he’s gashed opposing defenses for 782 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground on 128 carries, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Look for sophomore stud Mossis Madu to see some action as well as he’s rushed for over 300 yards for the Sooners this year. The Oklahoma running attack is a key to this game because it will help the Sooners keep the Texas Tech defense honest. The Sooner offense’s tremendous balance is a huge factor in this game and cannot be overstated enough.
The Texas Tech running backs, while not quite as dangerous as the Sooners’ unit, fit remarkably well into the spread attack that the Red Raiders’ run. Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach has long been hailed as a passing genius and his offensive record speaks for itself. Senior Shannon Woods will split carries with sophomore stud Baron Batch throughout this game. Both backs are excellent in the Red Raiders’ zone-read play, which is their bread-and-butter on offense. Woods and Batch both have the initial burst through the line of scrimmage that is needed to hit the gaps of the defensive line. Batch leads the team in rushing yards with 667 yards on 93 attempts(7.2 ypc.), while also racking up five touchdowns. In the 2008 season, Woods has gashed defenses for 588 yards on 116 attempts(5.1 ypc.), while also scooting his way to 11 touchdowns. Both running backs won’t likely break the big one, but they can easily get six to seven yards each play out of the zone read. In the passing game, both running backs are utilized extremely well out of the backfield. As mentioned earlier, Texas Tech loves to send their running backs out horizontally, stretching the linebackers to the edges of the field and clearing space for their receivers in the middle. Batch and Woods will likely get their fair share of screen passes on Saturday, because Harrell runs it extremely well. This season, Woods has hauled in 21 balls for 267 yards(12.7 per catch) and 2 touchdowns, whereas Batch has snagged 32 passes for 374 yards(11.7 per catch) and 1 touchdown. Both running backs are excellent receivers and will have to be accounted for by the Oklahoma defense.
A big part of why the Oklahoma aerial assault has such big play ability is its plethora of dynamic, home-run hitting wide receivers. Receivers like Juaquin Iglesias, Ryan Broyles, and Manuel Johnson all have superb hands and can stretch the field vertically. They are all threats to take it the distance on any given play because of their electrifying speed. Iglesias is the Sooners’ top receiving threat, corraling 51 passes for 853 yards(16.7 ypc.), and six touchdowns. Broyles and Johnson both have excellent acceleration and once they put the gas pedal to the floor, the defender simply has no chance to catch them from behind. Johnson has hauled in 34 passes for 587 yards(17.3 ypc.) this season while finding the end zone eight times and Broyles has snatched 30 balls for 502 yards(16.7 ypc.) and 5 touchdowns. Even though he’s not listed as a receiver, senior tight end Jermaine Gresham is just as dangerous as any other receiver on the roster because he plays like one. Gresham is one of the top tight ends in the country and has caught 36 passes for 553 yards(15.4 ypc.) and nine touchdowns this year.
The Texas Tech pass catchers as a unit may not be as dangerous as the Sooners’ in terms of big play ability, but they do have greater depth on their unit and they also have the nation’s best receiver in the scintillating sophomore that is Michael Crabtree. Crabtree not only has the best set of hands in the land, but what makes him so dangerous is his ability to pick up yards after catch. He’s far more dangerous after the ball is in his hands and is a threat to take it to the house on any given play. He’s blessed with perhaps the best package of leaping ability, body control, speed, acceleration, and hands in the country. Crabtree has also demonstrated his willingness to block downfield on numerous occasions. He’ll likely be a top 5 draft selection in the 2009 NFL Draft if he decides to leave Texas Tech after this season. In the 2008 campaign, Crabtree has snagged 78 balls for 1,010 yards and 18 touchdowns. He leads the nation’s receivers in touchdowns and ranks in the top ten in two other categories: sixth in receiving yards per game(101 ypg.) and fifth in receptions per game(7.8). He’ll likely land his second straight Biletnikoff Award at the end of the year. It’s the award given to the best wide receiver in the country. Crabtree is deserving of every second of attention given to him, but there are plenty of other talented receivers in this Texas Tech receiving corps. Sophomore Detron Lewis is having a huge year, hauling in 57 passes for 730 yards(12.8 ypc.) and one touchdown. Eric Morris, dubbed “The Elf”, has snatched 56 passes for 595 yards(10.6 ypc.) and six touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Tramain Swindall has snagged 36 passes for 456 yards(12.7 ypc.) and one touchdown. Junior Edward Britton has corraled 29 balls for 482 yards(16.6 ypc.) and four touchdowns. In all, the Texas Tech receiving corps’ has seven players who have hauled in over 20 passes or more this season. The excellent ball distribution in this offense is yet another reason why this Red Raider offense is so difficult to defend. The receivers in this offense don’t run alot of vertical routes, they run alot of crossing routes that stretch the defense horizontally. They also like to run alot of receiver screens, so I would look for plenty of those as well. Look for them to attack the middle of the Oklahoma Sooner defense, it is their biggest weakness because Texas exploited it earlier this year.
On defense, I would say that Texas Tech has the edge but not by much. Both Oklahoma and Texas Tech have given up generous amounts of real estate and points on defense this season. Sophomore linebacker Brian Duncan is the leader for the Red Raiders’ defensive unit, racking up 74 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 5 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception this season—simply ridiculous numbers by anyone’s standards. Safety Darcel McBath is another man to watch for in the Texas Tech defense, he’s hauled in six interceptions, 56 tackles, and seven pass breakups so far this year. Junior Jamar Wall is one of the Red Raiders’ best cornerbacks and he leads the team with nine pass breakups. He’s also snagged two interceptions. Yet another safety, Daniel Charbonnet has posted big numbers for Texas Tech, racking up 53 tackles, three tackles for loss, six pass breakups, and five interceptions. Like I said earlier, the Red Raider defense has improved, but has still been generous, surrendering 244 yards per game(98th in the nation) in the air, while yielding 22.2 points per game(46th in the nation). I’d look for defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill to play alot of zone defense and just try and keep the Oklahoma receivers in front of them. Neither of these teams is talented enough defensively to play alot of man coverage, nor could they afford to with the level of offensive talent they are matched up against.
Oklahoma’s defensive unit has many talented players, they are just extremely weak across the middle of their defense in the linebacker area. Like Texas Tech they’ve been generous in surrendering real estate and points, yielding 23.6 points per game(57th in the nation) and 238 yards per game through the air(93rd in the nation). Losing linebacker Ryan Reynolds in the Texas game was a huge blow to this defense, but I think even with him this defense is extremely vulnerable in the middle. Redshirt freshman Travis Lewis leads the team in tackles from the linebacker position, racking up 104 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions already this season. Defensive back Brian Jackson leads the team in pass breakups with eight and has hauled in one interception. Defensive back Nic Harris is a seasoned veteran of this team and he’s notched 44 tackles, four pass breakups, and recovered one fumble so far this year. Defensive lineman Gerald McCoy will be crucial in getting pressure on Graham Harrell—he’s notched a team-leading six sacks and nine tackles for loss thus far this year.
Final Prediction: This game will be one of the best football games of the entire 2008-2009 college football season. I’ve been looking forward to this one for two weeks and anybody that likes good offensive football is probably right there with me. This game is oozing with a level of offensive talent that likely won’t be seen in any other match up this season. Sam Bradford and Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and Juaquin Iglesias, Shannon Woods and Demarco Murray, the list goes on forever folks. This game is very evenly matched, but the factors I like in Oklahoma’s favor are three-fold: revenge, home field, and offensive balance. Oklahoma lost to Texas Tech last season in a shootout and they will be gunning for revenge. They will jump at their shot to get back in the BCS national championship race. The home crowd in Norman is another factor that I’m very big on. Texas Tech won both of its big games against Texas and Oklahoma State at home in Lubbock. I think they’ll have trouble being away from their home crowd. The Sooners’ offensive balance is a little bit better than the Red Raiders and I look for that balance to cause problems for the Texas Tech defense. Running back Demarco Murray presents a wide variety of problems and I think he’ll have so much space that he and Chris Brown will have a bigger impact on this game than Shannon Woods and Baron Batch. In the end, the Sooners prevail victorious in front of their home crowd in “The Aerial Assault for the Ages” and get one step closer to the 2009 BCS National Championship.
Oklahoma 49 Texas Tech 45