Texas has remained undefeated by answering each challenge in a series of games against ranked teams that’s coming to an end this week.
Texas Tech has put together its own unbeaten start, but its tough stretch is just beginning.
The top-ranked Longhorns look for their fourth straight win over a team ranked 11th or better on Saturday night when they visit the No. 6 Red Raiders, who are hoping to protect their highest ranking in 32 years in the second of four consecutive games against Top 25 opponents.
Texas (8-0, 4-0 Big 12) took over the top spot after defeating then-No. 1 Oklahoma on Oct. 11. The Longhorns followed that up with a 56-31 victory over then-No. 11 Missouri on Oct. 18 and a 28-24 win over then-No. 7 Oklahoma State last Saturday, becoming the first team to earn a unanimous No. 1 ranking in consecutive weeks since Ohio State did it in the last three regular-season weeks of 2006.
Texas coach Mack Brown admits that his team is feeling the effects of facing elite competition over its last several games.
“We’re telling our guys to get in bed, get off your feet … we’re trying our best to make sure they can handle this stretch physically and emotionally,” he said. “These kids are enjoying playing and what they’ve accomplished and they’re having fun. That really helps.”
The Longhorns’ tough stretch continues with this meeting against the Big 12 South rival Red Raiders (8-0, 4-0), but none of Texas’ final three opponents are currently in the Top 25.
The Red Raiders, however, have plenty of challenges ahead of them. They hadn’t faced a Top 25 team until last week, but meet Texas, No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Oklahoma over their next three games.
Texas Tech looked perfectly capable of surviving that stretch in last Saturday’s 63-21 rout of then-No. 19 Kansas. Graham Harrell was 34-for-42 for 386 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Red Raiders scored 49 straight points after ending the first quarter in a 14-all tie.
“We went out and executed well,” said Harrell, leading the country with 256 completions and 3,147 passing yards while ranking fifth with 28 touchdowns. “When we play like that, we’re tough to beat.”
The Red Raiders have made a habit of playing like that during their first 8-0 start since 1976, the last time they were ranked this high. They’re second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 556.9 scrimmage yards per game and third with 48.0 points per contest.
Coach Mike Leach, who said before the season began this could be his best team since taking over in 2000, downplayed the hype when asked if this was the biggest game ever for Texas Tech.
“No bigger than the eight that led up to it,” he said. “There wouldn’t be the sensation around this one if it wasn’t for the other eight.”
Those first eight games make this a critical contest for the Red Raiders, who are in position to reach their first Big 12 championship game and first BCS bowl.
“Everybody tries to keep their nose out of the newspaper and not watch the news,” senior defensive end Jake Ratliff said. “In years before we’ve always lost one we shouldn’t have. I think we’ve done a decent job so far of keeping our eye on the prize.”
The Longhorns have done the same in their hunt for their second undefeated season in four years. The 2005 national champions are ninth in the FBS with 486.5 scrimmage yards per game and fifth with 45.6 points.
Their biggest weakness, however, could be even more glaring against the Red Raiders. Texas’ young secondary is giving up 265.5 passing yards per game, ninth-most in the FBS. That bodes well for Harrell and pass-happy Texas Tech, which leads the nation by averaging 418.4 yards in the air.
Luckily for the Longhorns, they boast a strong passing game of their own. Colt McCoy leads the country with a completion percentage of 81.8, and has thrown 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
McCoy completed a school-record 38 passes for a career-high 391 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s win over Oklahoma State, but also threw his first interception in 101 attempts and fumbled a ball away near the OSU goal line in the fourth quarter for the Longhorns’ first turnovers since their Big 12 opener against Colorado on Oct. 4. Mistakes like those could prove costly against the Red Raiders when there’s pressure to make every possession result in points.
“Those things can get in your head,” said McCoy, who led the Big 12 with 18 picks last season. “To be able to put it behind you is something that you can learn, and I’ve definitely learned that in the last two years.”
Texas has averaged 48.0 points in winning five straight against Texas Tech. McCoy was 21-for-30 for 268 yards, four touchdowns and one interception as the Longhorns won 59-43 in Austin last Nov. 10.
Harrell completed 36 of 48 passes for 466 yards, five TDs and one interception in that game, which dropped Leach to 1-7 against Texas. The Longhorns lead the all-time series 42-14.