NCF Nation: Cory Fowler
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Welcome to Memorial Stadium, where Mike Leach's grand experiment about special teams will be played out today.
Texas Tech walk-on kicker Matt Williams, who less than a month ago won an in-game kicking contest at Jones AT&T Stadium for a month of free rent, will get his shot today at an even bigger prize. Williams will start the day kicking extra points for the Red Raiders in what should be an offensive shootout.
After missing six extra points and four field goals this season, Leach decided he needed a change for today's game against Kansas. It will mark Leach's third different kicker for extra points in three weeks, as he benched scholarship kicker Donnie Carona after struggles against Nebraska two weeks ago and Cory Fowler after he had two kicks blocked last week against Texas A&M.
Leach told me earlier this week that he's confident in Williams, but still might consider going for two points after each touchdown, depending on how the Red Raiders' kicking game progresses.
"I'm thinking it might not be such a bad idea," Leach said. "I guarantee you that you would make it more than half the time if you work enough on those plays. All you are doing is getting the ball from the 3-yard line. We do that all the time."
That confidence provides Leach with assurance that his teams would convert a two-point play at least 50 percent of the time. And that would equal the points that would accrue with kicks after touchdowns.
"If you could put up with the streaks, it would be the big thing," Leach said. "You might not hit two or three in a row. But I'm thinking you'd be more successful than not. And the ultimate idea is putting more points on the board, isn't it?"
Sometimes, I'm not sure when Leach is having a stream-of-consciousness thought and when he's pulling my leg. So it will be interesting to see how the Red Raiders approach their kicking game today.
I have no idea what would happen if the Red Raiders need a crucial conversion in a potentially tight contest later this afternoon.
Here are some other things I'm watching for:
Kansas' patience running the ball: The Jayhawks had much offensive success with Jake Sharp running against Oklahoma last week. After pulling within 31-24 on a drive early in the third quarter after Sharp was featured prominently, he was pulled from the game because of his blocking deficiencies. Oklahoma blew the game open at that point. Kansas coach Mark Mangino must be more patient than that today.
Tech's running game: The Red Raiders are averaging 5.5 yards per carry and have a nice two-back rotation in Shannon Woods and Baron Batch. But Tech hasn't run against a Big 12 defense that figures to be as stout as Kansas will be, making this challenge even more pressing. The Red Raiders last five opponents have ranked 109th (SMU), 98th (Massachusetts, FBS), 100th (Kansas State), 48th (Nebraska) and 106th (Texas A&M) against the rush. So it will be much tougher for them today.
Improved Kansas tackling: The Jayhawks noticeably tired last week when they played Oklahoma. After a full week of contact in practice, Kansas players say they are better suited for what will be a similarly tough offense challenge against the Red Raiders.
Something's got to give: Tech has a nine-game winning streak that is tied for the longest in the nation along with Penn State and Utah. The Red Raiders' most recent loss came last Nov. 10 at Texas.
Kansas comes into the game with a 13-game home winning streak. That streak includes six Big 12 foes during that period, although none have been ranked. The Jayhawks' most recent home loss came on Nov. 13, 2004, when Vince Young and Texas pulled out a miraculous 27-23 triumph.
The Series: Saturday's game will match two coaching protégés of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Mangino and Leach were on Stoops' first coaching staff at Oklahoma, where Leach was the passing game coordinator and Mangino directed the offensive line.
Leach is 2-0 in his previous games against Mangino. And Tech is 9-1 against Kansas in the history of the series, including all five previous games in Lawrence.
Injuries: Today's game will match two of the most secretive programs in the Big 12 in terms of releasing injuries. But a few notable players have been dinged up in recent games. The biggest concern is Tech All-American wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who sprained his ankle while returning a kickoff last week against Texas A&M. He played through the injury and is expected to play today. Starting defensive tackle Rajon Henley has missed the last two games with a knee injury and is considered questionable.
Kansas defensive tackle Caleb Blakesley is considered questionable with a leg injury.
Weather: It's an almost perfect day without a cloud in the sky. I finally felt my first cold snap coming into the stadium this season and it was great. Temperatures should be in the high 40s at kickoff and rise into the low 60s as the game progresses. Wind could be a factor with gusts of up to 20 mph from the west throughout the day. There is no chance of rain.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are 10 things I'll be watching for around the Big 12 on Saturday.
1. The matchup between Oklahoma State's offensive line and Texas' defensive front -- The Cowboys have the most underrated offensive line in the conference, keying the most multi-faceted offense in the Big 12. But OSU's talented front will be tested by Texas' surging line led by defensive end Brian Orakpo and defensive tackle Roy Miller -- two likely all-Big 12 performers if the vote was taken today. Oklahoma State must be balanced in order to give Zac Robinson a chance to take advantage of Texas' youth in the secondary with play-action passes -- something that Chase Daniel wasn't able to do last week until it was too late.
2. Texas Tech's sputtering special teams -- After benching kickers Donnie Carona and Cory Fowler in back-to-back weeks, the Red Raiders could turn to walk-on Matt Williams as their primary kicker against Kansas. Could Williams, a former winner of an in-game kicking promotion at a Tech game earlier this season, really provide a key field conversion or field goal that would extend the Red Raiders' BCS hopes? And could quirky Tech coach Mike Leach really follow through with his intention of possibly going for two points after every touchdown because of his kicking woes? We'll see.
3. Robert Griffin's interception streak -- The Baylor freshman has thrown 155 passes without an interception to set an NCAA record for freshmen at the start of his career. Can Griffin keep it going against a Nebraska defense that has produced only five interceptions this season -- a figure way below expectations when Bo Pelini took over as head coach.
4. The Oklahoma running game against the weak Kansas State run defense -- The Sooners failed to produce 50 rushing yards in two of their last three games before erupting for 206 yards last week against Kansas. The Sooners will be facing a struggling Kansas State defensive front that has allowed an average of 229.2 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in its last five games.
5. Missouri's response to its recent two-game losing streak -- Losses to South powers Oklahoma State and Texas have shown that Missouri might have been a paper tiger and virtually crushed Chase Daniel's Heisman hopes. A start for the Tigers against Colorado would be grabbing a lead, something they haven't done in the last two games. During the first five games of the season, the Tigers trailed for a total of 13 seconds. In the last two games, Missouri has trailed for a period of 92 minutes, 14 seconds.
6. Texas A&M's struggling running game -- With the return of players like Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane back from last season's offense that ranked 13th nationally in rushing, the Aggies were expected to be able to consistently run the ball. But they floundered again last week, producing 20 yards against Texas Tech -- the lowest for any A&M team in nearly nine seasons. A&M's rushing offense ranks 100th nationally. Can it be resuscitated against an Iowa State run defense that ranks 95th in the country?
7. Will Oklahoma State finally break down the door against Texas? The Cowboys have blown huge leads in three of the last four seasons against the Longhorns, including a 21-point advantage early in the fourth quarter last season against them in Stillwater. OSU obviously has confidence it can make big plays and have success against the Longhorns. But can the Cowboys hold a lead if they get one Saturday in Austin with that mental baggage still around them?
8. The matchup between Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Kansas wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe -- Crabtree and Briscoe were almost college teammates as Crabtree considered attending Kansas before opting to go to Tech. Crabtree won the Biletnikoff Award last season and is poised for a big game against Kansas' leaky secondary. And Briscoe is coming off a school record-breaking 12-reception, 269-yard game last week against Oklahoma. The Big 12 record for single-game receiving yards is 300 yards set by Oklahoma State's Adarius Bowman against Kansas in 2006. It might be challenged by either Crabtree or Briscoe on Saturday.
9. Colorado's quarterback rotation -- Coach Dan Hawkins navigated the ticklish situation of benching his son, Cody, for freshman quarterback Tyler Hansen last week. The combination helped lead the Buffaloes to a gritty victory over Kansas State. How will Hawkins handle juggling his quarterbacks against Missouri in a virtual North Division title elimination game for the loser?
10. Josh Freeman's slump -- The Kansas State quarterback has struggled recently and has not thrown a touchdown pass since the opening possession against Texas Tech on Oct. 4. Since then, Freeman has gone 92 passes without a touchdown pass during a span that has stretched for nearly three games. He'll be facing an Oklahoma pass defense that has struggled recently before storming back to force five straight punts down the stretch to seal the victory against Kansas last week. Freeman must find his groove if the Wildcats have any hopes of notching the upset over the Sooners.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Only a few weeks ago, Matt Williams was watching Texas Tech games from the stadium and wondering where he and his friends would be heading for post-game parties.
But after winning a kicking contest during the Texas Tech's Sept. 20 game against Massachusetts with an impressive showing, Williams now could be kicking for the Red Raiders in their game Saturday at Kansas.
Talk about a wild few weeks for Williams. He attempted to become a walk-on kicker at Tarleton State but quit without appearing in a game.
He caught the attention of Tech coach Mike Leach when he drilled a 30-yard field goal in the in-game promotion, winning free rent for the month from a Lubbock apartment complex. But Williams has turned down that prize because it would have been a violation of NCAA rules, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Tech officials told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that Williams was granted a one-time exception to the NCAA transfer rule because he was neither recruited by nor ever on scholarship at Tarleton. When that information was found out earlier this week, Williams become immediately eligible. Tech officials received the confirmation in writing and cleared Williams on Monday.
His arrival comes after kickers Donnie Carona and Cory Fowler have slumped miserably in the last several games. Tech kickers have had seven kicks blocked so far this season. Leach said (not facetiously) he might consider going for two points after every touchdown because of his team's struggles with placements.
Tech special teams coach Clay Maguire told the Avalanche-Journal that either Carona or Williams will be kicking for the Red Raiders Saturday against Kansas, depending on how they perform at practice this week.
Kansas coach Mark Mangino chortled when he learned of Williams' emergence.
"Hey, in this profession, you gotta do what you gotta do," Mangino told the Kansas City Star. "If there are a couple of guys running around our stadium here that could cover (Texas Tech's Michael) Crabtree, we would like them to come down. I think that's great. That's vintage Mike Leach there."
Tech's kicking saga adds another layer of intrigue to what should be one of the most interesting games in the country on Saturday.
Until then, here are a few links from around the Big 12 to get you ready for Saturday.
- Texas' roster is dotted by many key players who have bounced back from subpar 2007 seasons, according to Jimmy Burch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
- Mad Mike DeArmond of the Kansas City Star's latest video leaves little doubt about when Colorado and Missouri will be playing on Saturday.
- The Kansas student newspaper has recommended two new options for a school chant at football games. The school has taken unprecedented steps to do away with an explicit chant that had been popular at games this season that was lifted from the movie "The Waterboy."
- Oklahoma State's much-maligned secondary has given itself a nickname "D-Block" to build camaraderie, the Oklahoman's Andrea Cohen writes. But that togetherness will be supremely tested Saturday by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.
- Despite NFL talent analysts tripping over themselves to hype his draft standing, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford tells Jake Trotter of the Oklahoman that he's not thinking about declaring early for the NFL draft.
- John Mackovic of the La Quinta (Calif.) Desert Sun -- yes, that John Mackovic -- writes that Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy has caught his attention for one of the most underrated coaching jobs in college football this season. Mackovic writes that he advised Gundy to go back to calling his own plays after watching the Cowboys struggle offensively earlier in Gundy's coaching career.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
New Baylor coach Art Briles is facing the challenge of his coaching career as he attempts to resuscitate a program that hasn't made a bowl trip since 1994.
The Big 12's South Division will never be a picnic for the Bears, who face the yearly challenge of playing schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
So it's understandable that a relatively problematic quandary like picking his starter for the Aug. 28 opener against Wake Forest isn't that big of a deal for the new Baylor coach.
Briles has a lot of ways to go in deciding whether to start record-breaking QB Blake Szymanski, transfer Kirby Freeman from Miami or heralded freshman Robert Griffin as his starter.
All have shown flashes in training camp.
Waco Tribune-Herald beat writer John Werner thinks Briles' wavering as far as choosing a quarterback is a good idea. It will make Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe prepare in a lot of different ways when he considers whether Szymanski (the better passer), Griffin (most explosive runner) and Freeman (best combination quarterback and most experienced) will get most of the snaps.
I agree with Werner on this. Indecision might be the best decision for the next couple of weeks. And maybe even up to game time against the Demon Deacons.
Hope there's no hesitancy in diving into this steaming pile of hot links. Dig in, because dithering means you miss out.
- Jake Trotter of the Oklahoman went back to Youngstown,Ohio, to delve into Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops' early football background. "He probably would be the ideal symbol of Youngstown," his old coach Don Bucci told Trotter. "I hate to say that, because I'm sure he thinks he was pretty talented. But he was someone with just very average talent, but had a competitiveness and a toughness that nothing was going to stop him from being successful. That's Bobby Stoops, and that would be Youngstown."
- The Boulder Daily Camera's Kyle Ringo addresses the state of the Buffaloes in his weekly chat, with particular attention to uniforms, Darrell Scott and the crowded battle at cornerback.
- Iowa State struggled mightily last season with its special teams. That's leading coach Gene Chizik to considering using leading 2007 rusher Alexander Robinson as his prime kickoff returner.
- The Kansas City Star's J. Brady McCullough profiles Kansas WR/backup QB/P Kerry Meier, who might be the conference's most versatile player.
- The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Stu Durando writes about the amazing stability on Missouri coach Gary Pinkel's staff. No assistants have left Pinkel's staff since he took over in 2001.
- If it's Tuesday it's got to be time for "First downs and second guesses" from the Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel. Among the topics are the remembrances of how Tampa Bay All-Star OF Carl Crawford was almost a Cornhusker and the recent collective struggles of formerly dominant programs Miami, Florida State and Nebraska.
- Missouri offensive linemen were feeling pretty good after Monday's practice. The unit held up reasonably well against the Tigers' No. 1 defensive front and they were treated to popsicles after practice.
- Oklahoma All-Big 12 DE Auston English returned to practice Monday after missing all of the Sooners' previous work this summer while recovering from an appendectomy.
- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy says he won't decide until the weekend whether he or co-offensive coordinator Gunter Brewer end up calling plays this year. Former offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, now coach at Southern Mississippi, was the Cowboys' playcaller last season.
- Some things never change -- like hard-nosed fullbacks populating the Nebraska program. Thomas Lawson is No. 1 at the position and sophomore Joseph Mackovicka appears ready to continue his family lineage at the position, following older brothers Jeff and Joel.
- Healthy WR Adron Tennell could be ready to crack Oklahoma's receiving rotation, according to the Tulsa World's Guerin Emig.
- Veteran Omaha World-Herald Big 12 reporter Lee Barfknecht picks Missouri to win the national championship.
- Massive 250-pound converted high school quarterback Orie Lemon has emerged as Oklahoma State's likely starting middle linebacker.
- Kansas' kicking depth has taken a hit after projected starter Stephen Hoge left the team to concentrate on academics and Jacob Brandstetter's status is iffy because of eligibility issues transferring from the Air Force Academy. That leaves Grady Fowler or P Alonso Rojas as the most likely survivor at the position.
- Competition remains tight between Fozzy Whittaker, Vondrell "The Bulldozer" McGee and Chris Ogbonnaya for the starting tailback job at Texas.
- Kansas State will likely use a committee of wide receivers to help replace Jordy Nelson's school-record 122 receptions.
- The Associated Press' Eric Olson has a good story about Cody Glenn's transformation from I-back to linebacker.
- Kansas lost to Missouri in the showdown for the North Division title last November at Arrowhead Stadium. Yet Kansas still is displaying its co-championship trophy for the division title at its football complex, according to the Kansas City Star's Jeffrey Flanagan.
- Denver Post beat writer Tom Kensler blogs about the alleged Parade All-America jinx haunting Colorado this season. Watch out Darrell Scott.
- The Bryan-College Station Eagle's Robert Cessna reported that QB Jerrod Johnson was getting some work as a tight en
d in some formations. And third-string QB Ryan Tannehill made several nifty catches in the team's scrimmage. Sounds to me that Stephen McGee has a hammer lock on the starting QB job.
- Left-footed K Donnie Carona, who rushed for more than 800 yards last season in high school, is looking forward to concentrating on special teams at Texas Tech. He's in a tight battle with senior Cory Fowler to replace Alex Trlica as the Red Raiders' kicker.