Tech appears more ready to contend with Longhorns

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

As Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach surveys the scene outside Jones AT&T Stadium this week, he can't help but feel a little bit rewarded by what he has been able to accomplish over the last few seasons.

The winding line of student tents around the stadium is tangible proof of his school's appeal heading into Saturday's game against No. 1 Texas. It's a game many are calling the biggest game in the 84-season history of Tech's football program.

And Leach has been the biggest reason, turning this once sleepy school on the fringes of the South Plains on its ear during his nine-season coaching tenure.

His entertaining passing offense and quirky musings have gained the attention of admirers as diverse as Donald Trump -- sometimes even overshadowing what the Red Raiders have been able to accomplish on the field.

"People forget we're the third-best winning record in the conference over that time," Leach said.

Ah, but that's the rub. Mainly because the two schools in front of him have been Texas and Oklahoma, one of which has every South Division championship during Leach's coaching tenure.

That's why Saturday's game is so important for the No. 7 Red Raiders.

A victory would give the Red Raiders credibility and a chance to stand with the other BCS contenders as they play out a killer schedule that still includes games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Tech's 8-0 start is its best since 1976 and has stretched a 10-game winning streak that is tied for the best in the nation. The Red Raiders will be taking a perfect record into November for the first time since 1938. But the program will still have doubters until it can topple Texas and climb into the BCS discussion.

To get there, Leach appears to have his best team.

The biggest area of improvement is defensively. The Red Raiders have developed depth in the trenches, which has been a significant problem in previous games against the Longhorns.

In the last four seasons, the Longhorns have never averaged fewer than 4.6 yards per carry against the Red Raiders as Texas has piled up an average of 266.5 yards per game. That has enabled them to dictate the tempo of the game, no matter how many yards Leach has been able to roll up with his passing game.

And the last two Texas-Texas Tech games have really encapsulated the Red Raiders' defensive challenges against the Longhorns.

Texas has clicked on 17 of 27 third downs against Texas Tech and a perfect 5 for 5 on fourth down plays. In essence, the Red Raiders have only produced five true stops against Texas in those two games.

At the same time, Tech has struggled running the ball, producing nine net yards in 20 carries in the two games.

Even as Graham Harrell has completed 78 of 110 passes for a staggering 985 yards in those two games alone, it hasn't been enough. And it's been the reason that Leach has had to tweak his team to stay up with the Longhorns.

Tech's defensive front is playing better than at any previous time, allowing opponents only 101 yards rushing per game, good for 14th nationally. They are also deeper, getting big performances from seven or eight players.

The Red Raiders secondary has been particularly strong in recent weeks. Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet both had three-interceptions games earlier this season. And Jamar Wall's big pick against Nebraska sealed that overtime victory in Tech's biggest challenge to date.

"I hope we have enough depth," Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. "Texas does such a great job. Our kids aren't worried about who they are playing next. And they'll be ready to play."

But recent second-half performances against Kansas and Texas A&M have convinced McNeill that this group might be different than some he has sent on the field against Texas.

Tech's defense has allowed only 23 points in the last six quarters. During a span of 19 defensive possessions during that span, the Red Raiders have allowed only three scoring plays and forced six turnovers.

"We hope we get to the point where we're playing as well as we can," McNeill said. "But we're still far away from that point. And we better get there quick because this is a pretty good team that will be coming in this week."

Harrell appears to be a more mature leader. Texas coach Mack Brown calls him the best quarterback he's seen at Tech during his time with the Longhorns.

The Tech running game is better with Shannon Woods and Baron Batch alternating at tailback. The Red Raiders are averaging 138.5 yards per game and rank 64th nationally. They've never produced more than 107.5 yards per game in any of Leach's previous eight seasons and they've never ranked higher than 104th nationally.

Will that be enough to beat Texas?

It might be, as long as Leach doesn't have to depend on a long field goal from his struggling kicking game.

And that's another story.