JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Texas Tech didn't score 40 or more points, as it had all season. Through three quarters, the nation's top passing offense couldn't score much at all.
But Graham Harrell stayed with it, finishing 44-of-69 for 407 yards and three TDs, and the Red Raiders scored just enough to overcome a 14-point deficit and stun No. 21 Virginia 31-28 on a late field goal in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.
Alex Trlica hit from 41 yards, despite swirling wind, with 7 seconds remaining. It was the third game-winner of the senior kicker's career, and came at an appropriate time: Earlier in the game, Trlica became the first kicker in school history to score at least 100 points in a season.
"I think it gets easier with every time," Trlica said of winning field goals. "Compared to the first time I had to do it and this time, I was a lot more calm. I knew they were going to call timeout."
Virginia coach Al Groh did, but it didn't faze Trlica.
Tech overcame several mental errors, including pivotal penalties and a fumble, to come back from a 28-14 fourth quarter deficit. Its aggressive pass offense couldn't score much for three quarters, but Harrell still managed to rack up Gator Bowl records for yards, completions and attempts.
In the final period, the Red Raiders finally found the end zone as they were accustomed to all year. Twice, actually, and Trlica's field goal did the rest.
"I was thinking, 'Hey, if we can just get into field goal range we're probably going to win this," Harrell said. "But I wanted to go throw it myself. When we kick, I just hate kicking. You're no longer in control."
Just a few minutes earlier, the Cavaliers seemed to be in control. A Tech drive kept alive by two fourth down conversions sputtered with 8 minutes left, and All-American Michael Crabtree couldn't haul in a prayer in the end zone on fourth-and-1 with 3:16 remaining.
But a few minutes after that, Harrell found him in the same spot against the same defender, and this time it worked - despite a pass interference call.
Then, Virginia gave Tech a gift. The ball was knocked out of backup Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich's hands at the 4 yard line, Tech recovered and Aaron Crawford's run a play later tied it at 28.
"Those guys are hard to hold down, and we held them down for a long time," Cavaliers coach Al Groh said. "There were two possessions where we should have had the ball that we didn't - the onside kick to start the second half and fumble at the end of the game."
The Red Raiders overcame a tremendous effort by Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson, who ran for 170 yards on 20 carries - including a NCAA bowl-record 96-yard TD run - and caught another touchdown. Pretty impressive, considering he was playing receiver for the Cavaliers until backfield injuries pressed him into service in October.
Virginia's offense wasn't the same after losing Jameel Sewell at the start of the fourth quarter. His statistics weren't outstanding - 14-of-23 passing for 78 yards and a TD - but he commanded the offense well. Not known for running, the second-year quarterback had nine carries for 32 yards, and his mobility was key to Virginia's first score.
Sewell kept that drive going with two rushes for first downs, one of them on third-and-8, before a 2-yard TD pass for Virginia's first score.
He was tackled near the line of scrimmage at the start of the fourth quarter and came up favoring his left leg. Sewell had to be helped off the field and didn't return until Virginia's last possession, when Tech came back and tied things up.
By then it was too late - the Cavaliers couldn't move the ball or stop Harrell, a different story from early in the game.
"It's still shocking right now to know that we were up 28-14 and couldn't hold it," Simpson said. "We knew they had an explosive offense, but our defense was playing good the whole game. The turnover late in the game really hurt us."
Virginia forced one of the country's most prolific and efficient passers into two safeties in the first half. They happened similarly - Harrell was backed into his end zone and desperately tossed the ball toward his linemen, earning two grounding calls that counted for safeties.
The second time he shouldn't have been in that position anyway. Tech got the ball at its own 11, then was set back to the 6 with a delay of game penalty. It was one of numerous mental mistakes the Red Raiders overcame.
There was also an unsportsmanlike conduct call that gave Virginia new life in Tech territory, and a defensive offsides call that ruined a third-down stop, both in the fourth quarter. An illegal block in the third quarter pushed the Red Raiders back to their own 8, and Grant Walker fumbled with less than a minute left in the third quarter and Tech driving.
"We had quite a few bad breaks, a lot of which we created ourselves," Tech coach Mike Leach said.
Crabtree, the nation's leading receiver, had nine catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. He hauled in a 20-yard score to put Tech back in the game despite a pass interference penalty. He also beat double coverage to nab a 29-yarder that put Tech in the red zone with about 9 minutes left and trailing by 14.
Groh said scouts warned him Crabtree was even more impressive in person than on film.
"We thought he was pretty good (before the game), and obviously he was very good for their team today," Groh said.