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November 2, 2008

Yeager: Not Just Another Great Game

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The Texas Tech Red Raiders not only grabbed the national championship race by the throat in defeating the Texas Longhorns, they also burned their image into the historical consciousness of college football.

In the immediate aftermath of the monumental victory, we have heard that it was the greatest win in the history of Texas Tech football. ESPN.com's Tim Griffin told RedRaiderSports.com' Chris Level that it was the greatest game in recent college football memory.

But I will up the ante. Tech's upset of the No. 1 Longhorns is one of the greatest games in the history of college football. And Graham Harrell's 28-yard touchdown heave to Michael Crabtree with one second remaining, will become one of college football's iconic moments.

Much like Doug Flutie's Hail Mary to defeat the Miami Hurricanes in the month of November, in the year 1984, Harrell-to-Crabtree will be replayed again and again in the coming decades whenever college football retrospectives are aired.

It was not just a play. It was a moment.

And the context was and is everything.

More so than with the Miami/Boston College clash, the build-up to Texas Tech/Texas 2008 was epic. And it was colossal.

National media scrutiny was intense.

Raiderville, the tent town of Tech students that sprang up on the outskirts of Jones AT&T stadium captivated America's sports public and testified to the meaning of this game for the citizens of West Texas.

Matt Williams, a heroic everyman who parlayed a made field goal in a kicking contest into a key position on one of the best college football teams in the land, fired imaginations from Hollywood to New York.

Then there was the reality of two undefeated teams from the same state set to do battle.

The mighty top-ranked Texas Longhorns, only three years removed from a national championship, looked poised to claim another if they could get past Texas Tech.

And what of Texas Tech? Sure, the Red Raiders were positioned at No. 7 in the BCS rankings, but the little tortilla school out on the high plains had never defeated a No. 1 team in the 84-year history of its football program. Moreover, they entered the contest with Texas trailing in the series record by a massive 42-14 margin. And sure enough, the mavens of Las Vegas had installed the Longhorns four to six point favorites.

This rich stew of peripheral storylines and intrinsic importance tempted ESPN's College GameDay to sojourn to Lubbock for the first time in that program's 15-year history.

And what a wise decision it turned out to be.

On a glorious Saturday morning in West Texas, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler decamped to Texas Tech's engineering key and were greeted serried ranks of thousands upon thousands of frenzied Tech faithful. Legendary basketball coach Bob Knight joined ESPN's crew on stage and delivered a pungently comedic performance worthy of Don Rickles or Andrew Dice Clay.

Then the piece de resistance. In the show's most anticipated moment, Corso donned the headgear of Tech mascot Raider Red, fired two muskets into the brilliant blue, and in so doing, prophetically declared Texas Tech to be the night's victor.

The Red Raider crowd went into a maddened frenzy. Bob Knight turned scarlet and appeared to tear up.

All that remained was to play the game.

The crowd, vibrating with pent up anticipation, burst the dykes. The denizens of Raiderville, looking like so many thousands of fragments of coal in accordance with "black out" clothing marching orders, stampeded into the stadium to grab the choicest seats. 56,333 football-loving souls packed the arena overfull 30 minutes before kickoff.

ABC was there to broadcast the proceedings to a nation awaiting in fascination. The old king, Brent Musberger was there, along with the young prince Kirk Herbstreit.

The game kicked off at 7:12 central standard time, and proceeded to unfold with a drama that cannot be equaled outside the confines of sport.

Tech's Colby Whitlock struck the first blow, decking Texas running back Chris Ogbonnaya in the end zone for a safety and the game's opening points.

Whitlock's mates on a Tech defense beset by doubters, then authored the unthinkable, shackling Heisman Trophy frontrunner Colt McCoy and the lethal Texas offense, holding them to six points in the first half. The Red Raiders led at the break 22-6.

But unease was gathering at the corners of the old stadium. For only two years before, McCoy had rallied the Longhorns from a three-touchdown deficit to nip the Red Raiders. And this team was ranked #1 for a reason. They would not go quietly. Was heartbreak once again in the offing for the home crowd?

Texas' Jordan Shipley took a punt at the Tech 45-yard line, sprinted to his left, and lanced into the end zone. And at this point one could foresee an emotional catastrophe about to unfold.

Texas Tech's Daniel Charbonnet appeared to delay the agony with an interception for a touchdown to make the score 29-13 midway through the third quarter. But two Malcolm Williams touchdown receptions later the score was 29-26 and a sickening sensation began to flow freely.

Tech's Donnie Carona hit an improbable 42-yard field goal to make the score 32-26.

But Texas got the ball back with around six minutes remaining and there was frankly no doubt that the Longhorns would score a touchdown to take the lead, and probably spoil what had been a week out of dreamland for the Red Raiders and West Texas. The only question was, would Texas leave any time on the clock for Tech to mount a desperation comeback drive?

Yes.

Inevitably, the Longhorns took the lead, but left 1:28 on the game clock.

Tech's Jamar Wall took the subsequent kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the Red Raider 38-yard line to keep hope alive. Graham Harrell began working his magic and methodically marched his team into enemy territory.

But then it looked as though all was for naught.

Harrell, avoiding pressure, stepped up in the pocket and fired a shot that ricocheted off a receiver's hands and into the arms of Texas safety Blake Gideon. The freshman dropped the dagger, however, and the Red Raiders had one more card yet to play.

With eight seconds left from the Texas 28-yard line, Harrell dropped back to pass with excellent protection from the stalwarts up front. Rather than toss a quick out to get into better field goal range, however, Harrell unbelievably unleashed a thunderbolt in the direction of double-covered Michael Crabtree at the Texas six-yard line. The ball singed the fingertips of a Longhorn defender and somehow reached the mitts of Crabtree, who shrugged off a tackler and sprinted into the end zone with one second remaining.

Bedlam!

Blinded with delirium, Tech fans swarmed onto the field to celebrate. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Red Raiders was the result.

Matt Williams kicked the extra point, and again the fans rushed the field. Another flag, and there was still a second to be played.

Because of the two penalties Tech was forced to kick off from their own seven and a half-yard line. And in a game as insane as this one, who was to say that something bizarre and savage was not still in store for the Red Raiders?

Alas, the final kick return proved stillborn and Tech escaped with a pulse-pounding 39-33 victory.

In the post-game press conference, Tech running back Baron Batch made it a point to first praise God and to mention his belief in the power of prayer. It was only fitting. Because this was not merely a football game, it was a quasi-religious experience.

But then isn't college football? Notre Dame has Touchdown Jesus. There was Boston College's Hail Mary. And with Harrell-to-Crabtree in what can only be described as a mystical setting, Texas Tech too has authored a book in the holy scripture of the American rite known as college football.


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