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Continued: Tech's rise had its roots in comeback against U

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 11, 2008 - 12:52 AM

Texas was rated No. 1 in the country when it came to Lubbock to play Texas Tech on Nov. 1. The Longhorns scored with 1:29 left to take a 33-32 lead. A victory would have put them in complete control of college football's nastiest grouping of teams: the Big 12 South.

And then Graham Harrell, Texas Tech's senior quarterback, drove the Raiders from their 38. No. 6 Tech pulled off a 39-33 upset when Harrell connected with Michael Crabtree for a 28-yard touchdown with one second remaining.

When it was over, the Longhorns seemed to accept the idea that losing late was a risk that comes when facing Harrell and the Tech offense.

This acceptance was not visible two years earlier, when Harrell led Tech back from a 31-point second-half deficit at the Insight Bowl in Phoenix. The Gophers were the victims of this comeback, losing 44-41 in overtime.

Glen Mason was notified the next day back in Minneapolis that he was being fired as coach after 10 seasons.

It doesn't do anything for Mason's coaching career to now realize that finding Harrell to be unstoppable was less of an embarrassment than it seemed at the time.

Harrell came into the Insight Bowl with 376 completions, 4,110 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in Tech's 7-5 regular season. He added 36 completions, 445 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Gophers.

The question isn't how did the Gophers allow five scoring drives and 31 points to Harrell in the final 23 minutes of regulation. What we have to wonder after watching Harrell operate against Texas and Oklahoma State the past two weeks is, how did the '06 Gophers hold Tech to a touchdown in the first half?

"First of all, when we drew them for the Insight Bowl, my friends from that conference called and said, 'Good luck, because this isn't the team you want in a bowl game,' " Mason said by phone Monday.

"We always had our defensive woes, of course, and Tech's a team with a very unorthodox offense. So, the decision we came to was that there was no way we could approach it with an orthodox defense.

"There's a rhyme and reason to everything Tech does. They have a shallow route with a guy going across the field, and another receiver trailing him into the hole, and they always have a deep threat. There are so many pieces to it, if you run a straight zone, you're going to get carved up, and if you try a man defense ... there's no chance.

"We had an extra month to game plan, and we came up with sort of a modified zone. We had a guy to play the cutter, a hole guy. ... We walked through it with the defense for an hour at the start of every practice.

"All of us liked the look of it. I finally asked my coaches the question: 'What happens when they figure out what we are doing?' The answer was, 'We hope they don't find out too fast.' "

What the coaches hoped Tech wouldn't see before it was too late were the spaces being vacated in the zone as the Gophers concentrated on cutters and trailing receivers.

Leach and the Red Raiders started finding those spaces in the middle of the third quarter. Harrell triggered four touchdown drives, and finally Alex Trlicka made a tying 52-yard field goal as time expired.

Harrell, running back Shannon Woods and left guard Louis Vasquez were offensive starters in December 2006 and on this year's 10-0 team. Two other members of Harrell's massive wall of protection were '06 second-teamers: right guard Brandon Carter and right tackle Marlon Winn.

"Crabtree is a great receiver, and Harrell has other good ones, but when I watch Tech, it's the offensive line that really impresses me," Mason said. "Harrell's protection was solid a couple of years ago, but not like this. Most of the time, he can slide around and wait for a receiver to come open, throw it on the money, and there's still no pass rusher around him."

Mason laughed slightly and said: "That is some offensive machine. Shucks, if we had beaten them in overtime, I probably deserved a raise."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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