Air Raiders Descend As Texas' BCS Hopes Soar

Rated No. 5 in the current BCS polls, listed among the Top Ten in both major wire service rankings, a national broadcast against Texas Tech’ air raid offense: it’s a familiar story for Texas but one that needs a happier ending than last year’s disappointment in Lubbock.

Head coach Mack Brown said he has never seen his team more excited, now that they are on the cusp of not only the last home game of 2003 but also potentially his first BCS Bowl invitation during his six-year tenure. Then again, the Horns were just as excited this time last year when their injury-depleted defense suffered that 42-38 heartbreak in Lubbock.

"We’re more mature right now than last year’s group because we were at the same place in our season last year and then we didn’t respond at Tech like we needed to," Brown said. "I think the experience of last year has helped this football team understand it’s about how we play Saturday."

The difference is that this year Texas has a running game, a phenomenal freshman QB, a healthier defense, plus it’s a home game. The $64,000 Question (not yet adjusted for inflation) is whether Texas can sustain a pass rush against QB B.J. Symons who, with an average game (by his standards) could break Ty Detmer’s NCAA single-season passing record (5,188) set in 1990.

"With their ability to throw it, we’ll probably miss church," Brown said. "It’s going to be a 16-hour game. And the game’s never over because the clock doesn’t run with them. They could have 100 plays very easily. It’s preparing for a totally different offense than any other that we play."

And, ideally, a totally different outcome than in 2002.

RECENT HISTORY

Not many realize that the Texas Tech series has been, for the past decade, UT’s most competitive series aside from Oklahoma. The series is deadlocked at 5-5 the past 10 years. (Texas is 4-5-1 against the Sooners during that span). Texas leads 38-14 overall and is 24-5 against the Sand Aggies when the game is played in Austin. Tech’s last road win against Texas came during John Mackovic’s swan song in 1997, but Texas has won by an average of 48 points during its last two home meetings against the Lubbock school.

Texas Tech is 7-3 on the season, with all three losses coming on the road (N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Missouri). The Raiders, however, outdueled QB Eli Manning in a 49-45 win at Ole Miss.

TEXAS TECH OFFENSE

The Raiders run one of college football’s quirkiest and most prolific offenses, leading the nation at 612.9 ypg. (Texas checks in this week averaging 439.8 ypg, NCAA No. 20). Actually, the Raiders don’t "run" their offense as they do "throw" it. And throw it. And throw it. It’s passing game leads the NCAA, averaging 508.7 yard through the air.

"They throw the ball 50-to-70 times a game so your pass rushers get really tired," Brown said. "They have great speed."

For the Raiders, it all begins up front. The huge splits in the offensive line spreads the defense and makes it difficult to blitz and generally makes it difficult for down linemen (especially the DE) to get to the QB.

"They don’t get sacked much," Brown said, "but you’ve got to get them off their rhythm. (Former QB Kliff) Kingsbury got on a rhythm and we never got him off. He stayed hot. Same way with Jason White at Oklahoma. He just got hot and stayed hot. We didn’t do anything about it."

Note: while true, Brown isn’t saying that just to scare you. He is setting up the Tech game as if it were an Oklahoma rematch. He made the same comparison to Arkansas when Nebraska came to town. Still, it’s all about disrupting the QB with Tech’s offensive scheme.

"If you get inside, they throw their quick screens to the outside," Brown noted. "If you blitz, they block down and run their little outside sweeps. They do a great job with their scheme."

Symons (who looks like one the NSync boy band members, or so says my daughter) leads the nation with 474.1 passing ypg, and needs 477 during the next two games to break Detmer’s record. Symons will be playing with a gimpy knee but the senior is not about to miss his first, and last, start against Texas. And, after starting just one season, Symon’s 5,286 career passing yards ranks No. 7 in Big 12 history.

"B.J. is a great competitor," Brown said. "He’s never played against Texas, so he’ll be pumped up and ready to go for this weekend. He’s got a national stage to do it on."

Tech’s quick-hitting passing attack is predicated upon getting receivers into space against man coverage and features an amply dose of bubble screens, slants, some run-and-shoot and will sprinkle in some runs to keep the defense honest.

"They play the one-minute offense the whole game," Brown said, "so you’re never out of this game until the game’s over. Look at their scores: they were down at halftime, 35-14, against Oklahoma State and it ended up 51-49 (OSU). The game may last until Sunday morning. It will be a shootout that will not be over until the last play."

While USC coordinator Norm Chow has the reputation for distributing the ball, nobody spreads it as thick as Tech. Fifteen different Red Raiders have caught a pass this year. In short, everybody on their offensive team that touches the ball has a chance to score.

Speaking of scoring: the DKR jumbotron (or whatever they’re calling that big, electronic thing in the south end zone these days) should light up like a pinball machine Saturday when two of the nation’s top five scoring offenses are on the same field. Tech’s 44.9 ppg is second best in the country while Texas’ more balanced attack is not far behind at 42.4 ppg (NCAA No. 4).

"They get 200 yards out of the short stuff," Brown said. "It’s like their running game. Then they have the ability to come at you deep with their speed."

Speaking of their running game, Tech rushes for just 104.2 ypg (NCAA No. 104) and is more one-dimensional offensively than is Nebraska (at the polar opposite end of the spectrum). Yet, Tech is remarkably efficient on third down conversions for a passing team. The Raiders lead the league in this category, converting 70-of-132 attempts (53 percent), an area where Kingsbury broke our hearts last season.

Afterwards, defensive coordinator Carl Reese spent nearly two weeks throwing up arms bemoaning how he tried everything to get to Kingsbury but absolutely nothing worked. A year later, it begs the question: how do you defend the Air Raiders?

"You can’t stay in the same stuff (defensive scheme) against these guys," Brown said. "We did a great job here two years ago changing up and it kept them off-balance. But if you let them have a rhythm, they’ll beat you to death. That’s what they did last year. We couldn’t get them off the field."

Added Brown, "We don’t need to start slowly in this game. We need to go attack and be aggressive and make our plays early because every play in this game is so key because they have the ability to score so quickly."

WLB Derrick Johnson will be key Saturday to Texas‘ underneath pass coverage, and needs to show why he is Texas’ first Butkus Award finalist

"He has the ability to run with the back out of the backfield, which Tech will do a lot," Brown said. "He can do the things a defensive back can do on backs and tight ends and still play linebacker."

Of course, CB Nathan Vasher (a Thorpe Award semifinalist) will have to do as bang-up of a job Saturday as he did in Stillwater last weekend. In fact, don’t be surprised if Vasher comes up with the two picks needs to break Noble Doss’ 52-year old school record for career interceptions.

"I got on Nathan because he had only interception against Oklahoma State," Brown said, "and he told me wanted to break the record at home."

The best defense against Tech is the Texas offense. The Horns need to get out of the gate quickly, unleash a steady onslaught of QB Vince Young and RB Cedric Benson, run the clock, plus give the receivers a chance to shine on Senior Day.

"They’re going to move the ball and get some yards so you’ve got to try to force some turnovers," Brown said. "You’ve also got to do a great job in the red zone. And you can’t get discouraged when they’re making plays because they’re going to make them."

LITTLE BIG MAN

One of the biggest seniors on the field Saturday will be one of the smallest. Texas Tech receiver/punt returner Wes Welker stands all of 5-9 but stands taller in the record books.

"He’s hurt us every year he’s played us but he’s hurt everybody else," Brown said. "He’s so good with his hands on the ball and you’ve got to treat him like a running back. That’s their running game: throw a little bubble screen to him and he can make eight real quickly."

While Carlos Francis leads the team in receiving yards (1,024), Welker leads the Big 12 in receptions (7.3 per game). His 5,404 career all-purpose yards ranks No. 2 all-time in the Big 12 (second only to Texas’ Ricky Williams 5,992 all-purpose yards). Welker already holds NCAA records for career punt return yards (1,745) and career punt returns for TD (8). Not bad for an Oklahoma City kid that went virtually unrequited out of high school.

"He shows that recruiting services don’t always have all the answers -- and coaches," Brown said. "He’s a guy who’s just a football player. Some people would probably say he’s too small, and would ask where he would play. The guy is just a player. He’s more than paid his way, and he’s a great message for other guys that are overlooked in recruiting to not give up."

FAMILY FUED

Roy Williams wants to go out in style Saturday, but this time it’s personal. Roy’s brother Lloyd Hill was a two-time All-SWC receiver at Texas Tech from 1990-1993. Although Roy has taken two-of-three from his brother’s alma mater, the bragging rights have shifted since Texas’ loss in Lubbock last season.

"My brother was talking trash for 364 days," Roy said. "Hopefully, by the time I leave, we’ll be 3-1 (against Tech). Hopefully, it ain’t 2-2 (or) he’ll bash me the rest of my life."

MISTER LONELY

If it weren’t for all those PATs from their respective high-scoring offenses, Texas FG kicker Dusty Mangum and Tech FG kicker Keith Toogood would be the loneliest guys in college football. Fact of the matter is neither squad typically settles for field goals.

On the season, Toogood is 6-of-9 FG (NCAA No. 93) while Mangum is 5-of-7 (NCAA No. 98).

"Sixteen field goal attempts between two teams after 20 games isn’t very many," Brown noted.

TEXAS TECH DEFENSE

Definition of oxymoron: Texas Tech Defense.

While leading the nation in passing, Tech is No. 111 nationally (and dead last in the Big 12) in total defense, surrendering 460 ypg. The Raiders are yielding 198.8 yards on the ground (NCAA No. 102) and 262.1 yards through the air (NCAA No. 101).

One of Brown’s coaching commandments is never to criticize an opponent, yet the Obi Wan of coach-speak probably was challenged this week to find something positive to say about a Tech team that allows 33 ppg.

"Both defenses won’t get talked about this week so both defenses will be mad," Brown said. "People aren’t giving their defense enough credit for the improvement they’ve made the last two weeks."

Yeah, playing Baylor sure makes a defense look improved. I asked Brown what specific improvements he saw in Tech’s defense.

"Their defense really won the game at Colorado," Brown said. "They held them to 20 points and 290 yards, and Colorado’s got a good offense. That was very impressive. They did the same thing at Baylor. They just seem to playing with a lot more confidence. They’ve been overshadowed by their offense and they’ve got some new defensive staff members, so it’s probably just taken them a while to get comfortable with the scheme."

Note: Colorado’s "good offense" includes the Big 12’s worst ground game (94.8 ypg), not to mention the nation’s worst pass defense (310.8 ypg, NCAA No. 117).

"I told our offense that they better get ready for a mad, talented defense that no one’s talked about coming in here on Saturday," Brown said.

One bright spot for the Tech defense (and a definite sore spot for Texas) is DB Ryan Aycock. His six INT this season ranks No. 8 nationally. Aycock, you’ll recall, is the kid who intercepted Chris Simms fourth quarter pass intended for FL B.J. Johnson to seal Tech’s upset win.

But perhaps Cedric Benson summed it up best when he said: "A lot of teams have had success on them (Tech defense) but that won’t guarantee our success. We’ve still got to put things out here on the field during practice and execute on Saturday."


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