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November 21, 2008

Chemistry makes Raiders different this year

MORE: Inside look: Texas Tech-Oklahoma

If you listened carefully, in-between all the stories about pirates, meeting Donald Trump, his love of the TV show "Silk Stalkings" and the AC/DC song "Hell's Bells," Texas Tech coach Mike Leach told just about anyone who would listen that this season's version of the Red Raiders were different.

They had chemistry. Lots of it.

"If you see one on campus, you see 20 of them," Leach said. "They just really get excited about playing with each other."

Leach can appreciate good chemistry. Two years ago, his team had lost it all, and Leach needed an ice cream social and four-square tournament to get it back. That was after a 30-6 loss at Colorado in which his team all but quit. They rallied and even drew tears from their coach after a 31-point comeback victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl that season.

Leach learned a valuable lesson. More than pinpoint passing and receivers with fly-paper fingers, he needed to better value team-building. Leach started paying more and more attention to guys such as Dick Tomey, whose team-building exploits allowed him to win big at Hawaii, Arizona and even go 9-4 in his second season at San Jose State.

Privately over the past year and a half, Texas Tech coaches pointed to 2008 as a potentially special season and constantly reminded the players they would have to play for each other to accomplish anything. It has worked thus far. Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, a passionate, blue-collar sort, has helped.

"We understand that the Big 12 Conference is a tough conference, and you're going to play some of the elite teams in the country every year," Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell said. "We don't think about, 'We've never done this, we've never done that in the same season.' Since any of us (Tech players) has been alive, we'd never been 10-0, but we've done that."

If Texas Tech can become just the third team to beat OU in Norman in Bob Stoops' 10 years as coach, the Red Raiders will clinch the Big 12 South title and earn a date with Missouri in the Big 12 Championship Game on Dec. 6 in Kansas City. Obviously, a win in that game would mean a berth in the national title game.

"We've got to finish," Harrell said. "This is a tough conference, with the toughest teams in the country here."

Who gets the edge?

Texas Tech run offense vs. Oklahoma run defense
If Oklahoma had MLB Ryan Reynolds (season-ending knee injury) and DE Auston English (knee), it probably would be an easy check mark to the Sooners. But OU's defense is reeling a little bit. While Texas Tech doesn't run it a bunch (just 257 rush attempts, third-fewest in FBS), it does run effectively (5.1 yards per carry).
Edge: Texas Tech

Texas Tech pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense
The Red Raiders' passing game appears to be in the same rhythm as Bill Walton in the 1973 NCAA tournament final against Memphis State, when Walton went 21-of-22 from the floor. Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and Co. seemed to be in the zone scoring 56 against Oklahoma State. OU's secondary struggled with passes over the middle against Texas, and that's where Texas Tech makes its living.
Edge: Texas Tech

Oklahoma rush offense vs. Texas Tech rush defense
The Sooners have pulled it together the past four games, rushing for 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns against Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas A&M. Or maybe they've just feasted on inferior competition. Texas Tech is giving up a fraction less on the ground (107.4 ypg) than OU (107.5). Either way, Texas Tech will make it hard on OU - which struggled to run against TCU and Texas. Sooners RB DeMarco Murray said the run game will come down to OU's offensive line being motivated, and the Sooners are at home.
Edge: Oklahoma

Oklahoma pass offense vs. Texas Tech pass defense
This is where Sam Bradford, Manuel Johnson, Juaquin Iglesias, Ryan Broyles and Jermaine Gresham have set themselves apart. The Sooners have scored on everyone, including five TD passes by Bradford in a 45-35 loss to Texas. Texas Tech's pass defense is better than people think, but Bradford on his home turf should be lethal.
Edge: Oklahoma

Texas Tech special teams vs. Oklahoma special teams
Murray has done a nice job on kick returns (27.4 yards per return) for the Sooners, while OU's Broyles (12.2 yards, one TD) and Tech's Eric Morris (11.5 yards, one TD) have been solid on punt returns. Neither team punts well. OU is horrible defending kickoffs (108th nationally, giving up 25.6 yards per return) and has allowed three returns for touchdowns (tied with Tulsa for most allowed this season). OU kicker Jimmy Stevens is 4-for-7 on field goals, while Tech has a walk-on who won a contest (Matt Williams is 2-for-3). We'll give the tiebreaker to Tech special teams tackling machine L.A. Reed, who had eight special teams tackles in a game this season.
Edge: Texas Tech

Texas Tech coaches vs. Oklahoma coaches
Mike Leach's only other game with the Big 12 South title on the line came in 2002, when his Red Raiders were dismantled in Norman 60-15. Leach has been more willing to punt on fourth down lately and also patient enough to stick with the run. Stoops has only lost two games at home in 11 seasons and has played for the Big 12 title six times.
Edge: Oklahoma

X-factor: Oklahoma's home crowd. Remember, OU is 59-2 at home under Stoops.

Texas Tech will win if: Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and Co. continue to play pitch-and-catch without disruption.

Oklahoma will win if: The Sooners get back to who they were to start the season running the football, mashing people with that offensive line and putting up points.

Expert picks

Olin Buchanan: Texas Tech 49, Oklahoma 42
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma 44, Texas Tech 35
David Fox: Oklahoma 42, Texas Tech 35
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma 42, Texas Tech 37
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma 45, Texas Tech 28

Chip Brown is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at cbrown@rivals.com.

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