December 31, 2006

Insight Bowl: Signals from the static

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LEACH BALL: I am hardly convinced that Mike Leach is the man to lead the Red Raiders to the Promised Land (a BCS bowl), but I am certain that he produces the most entertaining and exciting football teams that exist at any level. Period. And the 2006 club is the ultimate proof of that statement.

When Leach's Red Raiders take the field everything is possible. Now they usually beat the teams they should and lose to those they should, but how they go about getting there is the fun part. And the maddening part. Embarrassing personal disclosure: if I hadn't been on the job, I probably would have turned off the Insight Bowl when Tech fell behind 28-0 and gone for pizza. As it was, I looked on fatalistically, halfway expecting a modest comeback, but knowing full well that it wouldn't be enough. You just don't bounce back from a 31-point deficit with less than two quarters to play. I should have known better.

I should have known better because we've seen it all before. We've seen Leach's teams fall behind by huge counts only to come storming back to victory. We've seen them conjure last-ditch, game-winning drives with merest seconds left on the clock. We've seen Lyle Setencich's defense transmute from sieve to stonewall. We've seen that offense buck and wheeze and then belch fire, lightning and napalm. And in the Insight Bowl we saw all of the above plus something we'd never seen before-an Alex Trlica field goal from 53 yards out on the game's last play to send it into overtime.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more normal town than Lubbock, Texas. It's the Peoria of the Plains. And within that town is hands-down the most bizarre football program in the nation. Delicious irony. And delicious fun.

IT'S ALL PART OF THE MADNESS: I suppose one of the reasons that Leach's teams routinely stage furious comebacks is because they get so many opportunities. And they get so many opportunities because they inflict so many wounds upon themselves. They do it to themselves more than having it done to them by the enemy. Tech's foibles are not so much a function of physical inability as they are a result of a lack of common sense. Case in point: Tech's opening drive. The Red Raiders go for it on fourth-and-one from fairly deep in their own territory. And not only do they go for it, they call the dreaded quarterback sneak, which Graham Harrell runs with all the success of a Norwegian fisherman's wife in a habanero pepper eating competition in Terlingua. Predictably, the sneak fails, the Golden Gophers stroll into the end zone and the Red Raiders are down seven early. Not that I minded the call, but for the love of all that is holy, Mike, give us something besides that sneak! As Charlie Brown would say, "Ugh."

REVERSAL OF FORTUNES: It really was not supposed to happen that way. Tech performing lights out in the second half, that is. The most dominant trait of the 2006 Red Raiders, particularly on offense, has been to come out like gangbusters in the first and second quarters, only to lay down like lambs in the third and fourth. Hence, prior to the Insight Bowl, Tech had scored more points in the second quarter of games than they did in entire second halves! And it is for this reason that the history-making comeback against Minnesota was all the more improbable. Down 35-7 at the break, a 70-10 loss did not seem out of the question. Certainly it seemed more likely than a comeback victory.

But how to explain it? Trying to figure out Leach's teams is more difficult than attempting to comprehend Martin Heidegger after consuming that fifth blast of Scotch while the neighbors across the street blast Slim Shady louder than a B-52. That said, I'm now convinced that Leach's offense is about rhythm more than anything else. When rust or mental malaise or whatever else has set in, the Air Raid is a gun with no ammo. When, however, the rust falls away and the players focus, rhythm is achieved and the offense is, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable. Well, the Red Raiders got their groove back in the second half and at that point Minnesota's only hope was that Tech's defense would continue to falter.

But that did not happen. Lyle's guys, too, came out of their shells. And explaining this is also difficult. My sense is that the Red Raiders ran a pretty basic defense in the first half with the intention of containing the run and pass equally. They contained neither. In the second stanza Lyle decided to sell out on the run. He guessed-rightly-that Minnesota would sit on the huge lead and run the ball and the game clock into oblivion. To counter this, Tech put more men in the box, called multiple run blitzes, and gambled that the defensive backs would hold up against the odd pass. This ploy freed up the defensive linemen, particularly Keyunta Dawson, and the Red Raiders proceeded to snuff the Gophers.

Now back to Heidegger and the Scotch.

AND THAT TAKES THE CAKE: I'm sure many a Red Raider fan had a lump in his throat as Shannon Woods crashed over the goal line for the winning touchdown and the Tech football team entered the bowl history books. That lump may have been a chicken fried steak or a fajita coming back up, but it was lump nevertheless. Only natural given the circumstances. But in a moment of concluding strangeness on a night filled with it, Mike Leach actually got choked up in the post-game interview. This, I did not expect.

Leach has always seemed a veritable automaton. Not a cold fish, mark you, but the sort of guy who wills his emotions into somnolence, the sort of coach who talks about blue teams and red teams and pretends that one game is no more important than any other. It's all part of Leach's method. But underneath that blasÚ fašade there apparently exists a threshing machine of emotion, just like the one you and I have. And it took a 31-point comeback in a bowl game to cause that emotion to spill over. I would say mark it down because you'll never see it again. But where Mike Leach is concerned, you never say anything for certain.

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