Red Raiders look for balance in opener

Texas Tech has had one of the most prolific offenses in the nation for years, but success on only one side of the ball has yet to put the Red Raiders among college football’s elite teams.

With an improved defense backing up one of the most dangerous quarterback-receiver tandems in the country, No. 12 Texas Tech hopes to make that leap in 2008.

The well-rounded Red Raiders look to defend their highest preseason ranking in 31 years and start what they hope will be a breakthrough season Saturday when they host Eastern Washington.

Texas Tech has ranked in the Football Bowl Subdivision’s top 10 in scrimmage yards per game in six straight seasons, but the Red Raiders have finished each one as an afterthought in the Big 12 South and no higher than No. 18 in the country. They went 9-4 in 2007, including 4-4 in conference play to finish in a third-place tie in the division.

The Red Raiders, though, have reason to be optimistic this could be the year they emerge as contenders in a division won exclusively by Oklahoma and Texas since 1999. Texas Tech enters the season with its highest preseason ranking since it was No. 8 in 1977.

Coach Mike Leach acknowledged this year’s team “has a chance” to be the best in Lubbock in a long time.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Got a good starting point, but that’s a starting point to improve from. If you don’t improve from there then you really haven’t accomplished much. And if they quit working, then they’re just going to be a statistic.”

A lot of the burden will fall on a defense that showed signs of improvement after Ruffin McNeil took over as defensive coordinator four games into last season.

After giving up more than 600 yards per game against mostly second-rate opposition, the Red Raiders held opponents to an average of 495.7 over their last nine games, including matchups with Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma - ranked 16th, 14th and fourth, respectively, at the time of those games.

“Not only do we have an offense that we feel can put up points against anyone, we have a defense that we think can stop anyone,” quarterback Graham Harrell said. “When you combine those two it makes for a special season if things can fall into place.”

Texas Tech welcomes back eight starters on defense, and junior college transfers McKinner Dixon and Brandon Sesay are expected to make an immediate impact on the line.

The duo that everyone will have their eyes on, however, will once again be Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree. The tandem was a primary reason the Red Raiders were second in the FBS in yardage (529.6 per game) and seventh in scoring (40.9 points per game).

Harrell, the nation’s active leader with 10,682 career passing yards, led the nation with 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns in 2007, and also ranked fourth with a 71.8 completion percentage.

A conference-record 22 of those TDs went to Crabtree, who had six more touchdown receptions than any other player in the FBS and also led the nation with 1,962 receiving yards. Though they’ve played just one season together, Crabtree and Harrell are nine touchdowns shy of the all-time Big 12 record between a quarterback and a receiver, set by Josh Fields and Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State from 2001-03.

“He’s a special player that doesn’t come around very often,” Harrell said of Crabtree.

Eastern Washington boasts its own dynamic duo in quarterback Matt Nichols and receiver Aaron Boyce, who helped the Eagles go 9-4 and advance to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals last season.

Nichols was the Big Sky Conference offensive MVP after throwing for 3,744 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns, while Boyce caught 85 passes for 1,308 yards and 10 TDs. Overall, the Eagles ranked seventh in the FCS with 462.3 yards per game.

As well as the team fared last season, first-year coach Beau Baldwin knows the Eagles have their work cut out for them in their first meeting with Texas Tech.

“It’s going to be a challenge, there’s no question,” said Baldwin, who spent last season as Central Washington head coach after four years as Eagles offensive coordinator. “But our coaches and players are excited about the opportunity. And we’re very confident.”

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