December 29, 2006

Harrell the key to victory

The keys to success in any sport in which you are competing against an actual opponent are playing to your own strengths and capitalizing on your opponent's weaknesses. And that is as good a place as any to focus on when examining the Insight Bowl matchup between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota's weaknesses are few and far between; they are a very solid ballclub on both sides of the ball. Defensively, however, the Gophers are a little stronger against the run than the pass, which should play into Tech's hands. The Red Raiders, however, will once again be without the services of wide receiver Jarrett Hicks whose presence was counted upon to open up the left side of the field for quarterback Graham Harrell. Without Hicks in the lineup, exploiting the Minnesota secondary will be considerably more difficult.

That will scarcely deter head coach Mike Leach from trying, of course. In Hicks' absence Todd Walker and L. A. Reed will get the reps at the Z position. At this point neither command anywhere near the respect that Hicks did. This being the case, look for the Red Raiders to flair tailback Shannon Woods into the left flat for passes, and for inside receivers Danny Amendola and Robert Johnson to drag across that side of the field to keep Minnesota honest.

This could also free up All Big 12 receiver Joel Filani to work his magic on the Gopher corners. Jamal Harris, who has three interceptions on the season will likely draw Filani most of the ballgame. Harris is good, but he cannot handle Filani alone. Free safety Dominique Barber, a four-pick man will provide help. If they can clamp Filani off, Amendola, Johnson and Woods must have big outings in the middle and left side of the field.

Needless to say, Harrell must also play very well. As he goes, so goes the Air Raid. Harrell has played exceptionally during the second half of the season, however, so a strong outing from him may be a given. But there are certain unknown variables at work in this connection. How, for instance, will Harrell respond to his first bowl outing as a starter? The routine and the atmosphere are very different from regular-season games. Harrell must build a bubble around himself and focus on the task at hand rather than become distracted by the novelty of the circumstances.

Too, will Harrell's rhythm be thrown off by an extremely long layoff? When the Red Raiders take the field against the Gophers it will have almost a month and a half since their last down of competitive football. Harrell must quickly shake off the rust-if any-and tag Minnesota early and often. If he doesn't, the game could get dicey because, as history proves, the Air Raid doesn't score in second halves.

On defense, Tech will be confronted by a whole host of challenges. Not the least of which, Gopher head coach Glen Mason is a crafty offensive mind not unlike UTEP's Mike Price. With this much time to prepare, it is certain that he will have an excellent gameplan in store for Lyle Setencich and his troops.

If the Red Raiders can accomplish a few basic tasks, however, they should be okay. First is to pressure Minnesota quarterback, Bryan Cupito. He is a smart, veteran quarterback with an accurate arm, but he is also immobile. Unlike seemingly every quarterback in the Big 12, who has the ability to run like Gayle Sayers in the open field and often does so against the Red Raiders, Cupito is no threat in this regard, and that is a huge bonus.

The Minnesota line pass protects well, however, having given up only 16 sacks this season. Nevertheless, Keyunta Dawson, Dek Bake, Jake Ratliff and Brandon Williams could have a big day in this one.

A second defensive key will to be to control Gopher tailback Amir Pinnix. He has over 1,000 rushing yards this season and averaged five yards per carry in the rugged Big Ten. He will get his against a Tech run defense that has been fairly porous, but the Red Raiders must hold Pinnix relatively in check on first and second downs in order to fully unleash the pass rush on third down.

The third defensive key will be containing six-foot-five Gopher wideout Ernie Wheelwright. He has only 22 receptions on the year but averages 18 yards per catch. Wheelwright is more than capable of torching the Tech secondary if it becomes overly conscious of helping out in run support against Pinnix. Red Raider corners Antonio Huffman and Chris Parker will need to play smart, disciplined football.


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