Out of fairness to Reese, half of his starters were sidelined with injuries by the end of the 2002 Tech game and his D led the nation just one year earlier. (DT Marcus Tubbs and DE Kalen Thornton didn't even make the trip to Lubbock, CB Nathan Vasher and WLB Derrick Johnson were injured during the course of the game, and four freshmen DBs saw significant snaps.)
Longhorn coach Mack Brown has noted on several occasions that you can't use injuries as an excuse at a place like The University of Texas. Nor can you allow Tech QB B.J. Symons to engineer a near-upset on your own field by completing 32-of-56 for 365 yards in 2003, just more than one month after Oklahoma leveled a historic 65-13 shellacking on your program. It was enough to convince Brown that the only thing standing between his Longhorns and that elusive championship season was a defensive upgrade. (There was nothing wrong with the offense in 2002-2003, Brown insisted.) Texas, of course, rented Greg Robinson for a season after the Kansas City Chiefs (ahem) opted not to renew his contract. The former coordinator brought some much-needed swagger to the defense and parlayed the 11-1 Rose Bowl season into a (so far) miserable first year as Syracuse's head coach.
Brown went on a three-week search before hiring Robinson but wasted no time in landing his replacement. Chizik privately accepted the Texas job just hours after publicly accepting the Frank Broyles Award honoring the nation's top assistant.
Chizik has maintained the swagger and intensity on a veteran Longhorn defense that leads the league in yards allowed (240.0 ypg, NCAA No. 3), points permitted (14.0, NCAA No. 7) and against the pass (147.7 ypg, NCAA No. 6). He favors a more aggressive scheme that has unleashed the front four to (ideally) wreak havoc upfield, a departure from Robinson's read-and-react preference for containment and directing the flow of the play toward linebackers. Chizik places a premium on pressuring the QB, sometimes springing an outside linebacker from the LOS. He shares Robinson's fondness for zone blitzes but is bringing cornerbacks and safeties at a rate unprecedented for the Mack Brown era. The secondary has shown more of a dime package the past two ballgames than the first four combined.
Overall, Chizik has raised the bar by raising the level of accountability he expects from his troops. One quick glance at last year's depth chart, or last spring's, or even last month's, and you see that playing time is not contingent upon either seniority or previous starting assignments. As Chizik said the week after Missouri, there are "no sacred cows" among his Longhorns.
So dominant is the Longhorn D these days that you could see the unit fighting boredom during the second half of every game this year other than Ohio State and OU. To Chizik's credit, his group typically plays hard from start to finish. To Tech's credit, the No. 8/10 Red Raiders genuinely have Texas' attention.
"Personally, I think about Tech every year from the beginning," LCB Aaron Ross said. "I know I'm going to have the opportunity to make plays. They're going to give us the opportunity to get a whole bunch of picks."
Likewise, LCB Tarell Brown had his game face on as early as Monday afternoon.
"We never shy away from competition and we never shy away from a challenge," Brown told me. "That's us. We live up to challenges. We go out there to make plays and to be the best secondary in the country. And that's what we're going to do."
And then he said: "Come at me! You can come at me as many times as you want. Ain't nothin' gonna happen. I'm not worried about it."
Texas is 56-6 under Mack Brown when it scores first and has drawn first blood on every opening drive this season. Meanwhile, Tech has outscored opponents 73-3 in the first quarter this season. As such, Chizik jokingly directed Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis to string together a series of those 16-play, 90-yard drives (that took approximately 7:30 off the clock) during Texas' opening drive against Colorado.
Chizik may be the most important occupant in the DKR press box, but the busiest will be the fellow operating the scoreboard. It's a Saturday when the Big 12's top offensive leaders collide while boasting two of nation's top four scoring machines. Tech is leading the nation by averaging 53.7 ppg while Texas' 45.7 ppg is rated No. 4 nationally. Tech is generating 572.8 yards of real estate per outing (NCAA No. 2) while the Horns have been good for 494.5 ypg (NCAA No. 8).
It's also the first Top Ten conference matchup that Texas has hosted in 25 years.
"You've got no choice but to get hyped for this game," said SE Limas Sweed. "If you can't get excited about this game, you're in the wrong sport."
TEXAS TECH OFFENSE
The nation's No. 4 QB in passing efficiency will be on display Saturday to work additional wonders with his an up-and-coming corps of wide receivers. Oh, and Texas Tech QB Cody Hodges will be there, too.
Hey, we all know that Tech's flavor-of-the-month QB is going to lead the nation in total offense no matter who he is and Hodges is no exception with his 410.8 average. He's completed 192-of-268 attempts (that's nearly 72 percent, folks) for a crazy 2,461 yards in six outings. We also know that Tech does most of its damage with the YAC that follow intermediate routes, but let's give some props to freak-of-nature Vince Young who continues to elevate his passing game to where it can be mentioned in the same breath as his 5.5 yards-and-a-cloud of dust rushing average. VY is 93-of-138 passing (67.4 percent) for 1,357 yards including 12 TDs and five INTs. His efficiency rating stands at 171.4 following his career-best 336 passing yards on a school record 25-of-29 passing day against Colorado.
"What a show that everybody's going to get to see," Brown said of the dueling QBs.
It seems like Tech breaks some sort of offensive record every time they step on the field. For example...
...Joel Filani recorded 255 receiving yards on 10 catches Saturday. That's a Big 12 record.
...Four different pass catchers posted 100+ yards in receiving Saturday. That's a NCAA record.
...RB Taurean Henderson notched ten receptions, giving him 272 for his career. That's an NCAA record.
...QB Cody Hodges threw for 643 yards. Heck, that's not even a Tech record. And that's scary.
"You're in a one-minute ballgame the whole game," Brown said, "You never have enough points because they can score so easily."
Tech currently has the four most productive receivers in the Big 12.
Filani is the trend-setter with his team-best 38 receptions and league-leading 111.5 ypg but has averaged 209 yards the past two games. It was Filani who caught the 10-yard TD pass on 4th-and-2 with 12 seconds remaining to upend Nebraska in Lincoln, 34-31. His 17.6 ypc is also tops for his team. Junior Jarrett Hicks broke the school record for career TD receptions with his 23rd against Kansas State on Saturday. Junior Robert Johnson, who made the transition from QB to WR during the spring, is the team-leader with 38 grabs. He trails only Filani in receiving ypg with 92.5.
"There's not really one guy you have to defend because they spread the ball around really evenly," Chizik said. "There's no way you can double a guy here or double a guy there because they'll go to the other guy. The timing that they've formed with the offense is really clicking well."
A noticeable difference this season is that Tech's receivers are bigger, mitigating the perception that Red Raider pass catchers are a bunch of 5-9, 160-pounders that no one else wanted. Johnson stands at 6-2, 202 pounds, Hicks is 6-3, 210, while Filani tips the scale at 6-3, 222 pounds.
"They're big guys that are giving people fits with man coverage," Brown said. "They've played with little guys that they got into space and you can't tackle them. Now, these guys are tall enough to catch it over the tops of your heads."
Hodges is the latest interchangeable part at QB, representing the fourth senior in as many seasons to line up behind center. It prompted Brown to say that "the most successful thing" Tech coach Mike Leach has done during his five years in Lubbock is to "convince quarterbacks to come and sit for four yeas to play for one. He tells them that if they stay with him and learn the offense, they'll have one great year."
No Longhorn is more acquainted with Hodges than TE David Thomas, whose Wolfforth Frenship squad faced Hodges' Hereford team three times during their prep star days. (Hereford won two regular season games but Frenship won "when it counted" during the playoffs, Thomas noted.)
"I remember from high school that he was always calm in the pocket," Thomas said. "Even when he was on his way down to the ground, he'd find a way to get it out. He'd either throw it away or even complete them half the time. He's a really smart and mature quarterback. He's going to be a tough test for our defense."
The old football adage is that it all starts up front, and that is especially the case with the Red Raider offense. The spacing between Tech's O-linemen is so wide that DEs play 10-to-15 yards away from the QB rather than five.
"That's the reason a lot of people don't get a good pass rush on them," said DE Brian Robison said. "It's such a long way aways. You can't make a lot of moves. You've got to go with one move and just get up the field. When you see a team like Tech that passes on nearly every play, you definitely think about sacks. But the main thing we're thinking about right now is disrupting (Hodge's) throwing lanes and, hopefully, having him make some mistakes."
Yet, for all the fawning over Tech's offense, the scheme couldn't be more one-dimensional. Tech's rushing offense is ranked dead last in the Big 12 with its 100.5 ypg average (NCAA No. 99). The Red Raiders are running the ball, on average, about 24 times per game (or, nearly half of Texas' 46 rushing attempts per game). Then again, Tech coaches consider shovel passes and screens to the running back as part of their running game.
Even so, nearly every guy on Texas' two-deep chart will see meaningful snaps Saturday against the Texas Tech offense
"They totally wear you out if you don't substitute because you can't pass-rush 74 times," Brown said, before adding, "When you come into this one, you figure you're going to play everybody. You have got to play six linebackers. You have got to keep four defensive backs fresh. When they beat us 42-38, we didn't have enough defensive backs to go nickel and dime that year."
This year, Texas does.
"We don't want anybody catching balls on us," said Ross, "and it's no different just because it's Tech."
TEXAS TECH DEFENSE
The rub on Tech is that if it ever had a remotely competent defense, then the program might actually find itself ranked, say, at No. 8 or No. 10. The unit that improved to No. 46 nationally (yielding 357 ypg) last season is now surrendering 301.8 ypg (No. 18 nationally). But how much of that is attributed to its weak-sister schedule and how much of that is actual improvement? Probably a little of both, as an older, wiser Tech defense returned nine starters from last year but has nursed injuries on its defensive front.
"I feel like they've gotten an identity," Brown said. "At one time, it was all Tech's offense and they didn't talk about defense. People laughed at their defense and you no longer do that. The team concept is much stronger now than it was a few years ago."
The headknocker on the Red Raider defense is senior FS (and appropriately named) Dwayne Slay.
"He will slay you if you come across the middle," Davis said. "Slay's the best hitter I've seen at Texas Tech. You can tell he like its."
Slay leads the team in tackles (47) while his six forced fumbles is tops in the Big 12. He notched a career-best 12 tackles and forced a fumble at Nebraska. SS Vincent Meeks missed the first two games of the season, posting 20 tackles and two INT in the past four contests.
"They do a good job of putting their hands on receivers. They do a good job of disrupting routes and changing the timing. All that creates more time for the quarterback to hold the ball."
Senior linebacker John Saldi leads the team with 6.5 TFL from the outside and with three PBU. He is Tech's most experienced defensive player, having seen action in 43 games. Fletcher Sessions made the move from outside linebacker to the middle three games ago. His 27 stops makes him Tech's second-leading tackler.
Experienced junior DE Keyunta Dawson has seen action in 31 games and has 16 tackles on the season, including a season-best seven at Nebraska. Senior Randall Cherry has started at both DE and DT this season to help shore up depth due to injuries.
The Red Raiders rarely blitz, sending players approximately 12 percent of the time.
"They blitzed us a little bit more than that last year (20 percent)," Davis said. "Their deal is to play very sound and they do a great job with pattern-reading underneath. It forces the quarterback to hold the ball."