IT WAS No. 1 versus No. 7; "Hook 'em!" versus "Guns up!"; Bevo versus a masked rider on a black quarter horse. It was old money from the state capital taking on this nouveau riche outfit from the dusty South Plains. It was the mainstream, conventional wisdom of Longhorns coach Mack Brown versus the quirky, contrarian musings of his counterpart, Mike Leach. ¶ And on the final play from scrimmage in the best game of this college football season, it was just plain unfair. There is little doubt that Curtis Brown, a sophomore cornerback making his second start, has a bright future at Texas. But with eight seconds left, with the Longhorns desperately defending a one-point lead over the nation's No. 1 passing team, Brown found himself staring across the line at Michael Crabtree, the defending Biletnifkoff Award winner, a 6'3", 214-pound All-America widely regarded as an all-but-certain top 10 selection in a future NFL draft.
It must have been a lonely feeling.
Afterward the Longhorns' coaches insisted that Brown had not been left on an island with Crabtree, that Tech's best player had been double-covered. Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell saw it differently. "They tried to man up Crab!" he shouted on the field after the game, meaning Texas had Crabtree single-covered. "There's not anyone in the country can man up Crab!"
As the redshirt sophomore accelerated past his victim, Harrell slung the high-risk pass on which the 2008 college football season turned.
There are countless superb offensive plays, Leach likes to point out. "The challenge," he says, "is choosing which ones you're going to do very well. Otherwise you're going to be mediocre at all of 'em."
Among the handful of routes Leach, Harrell and the Red Raiders receivers have chosen to be very good at is the fade-stop that worked all night against the Longhorns and worked one final time on the play that gave Tech a 39--33 victory.
Harrell was throwing to a spot—"at the receiver's a-- cheek away from coverage," as Leach puts it. Twenty-two yards up the field Crabtree jammed on the brakes, turned toward the sideline and plucked Harrell's perfectly thrown pass from the night sky. Rather than seek the safe harbor of the boundary (Tech needed only a field goal to win), he fought to stay inbounds. Spinning counterclockwise, he shed Brown's feeble tackle attempt, felt a flash of gratitude as safety Earl Thomas zoomed past, having overrun the play, then dug hard for the end zone, crossing the goal line with a second left.
Those heroics unleashed the first in a three-wave set of field stormings by a mob of black-clad, face-painted Tech faithful, who had to be cleared off the turf twice before the game ended. While the program had enjoyed unprecedented success during Leach's nine-year reign—a bowl appearance every season while being the only Big 12 school to have a winning record every year since the conference began play in 1996—its fans were unaccustomed to seeing their Red Raiders knock off the No. 1 team in the nation. Which explains, in part, their difficulty in grasping the principle that the best time to storm the field is after the teams are finished using it.
The end of this Instant Classic, the third and final storming of the field, marked a sea change on the plains. Tech is 9--0 for the first time in 70 years. Under Leach, a pioneer of the spread passing attack, the Red Raiders have long aggravated the acid reflux of defensive coordinators around the conference. While they could be counted on to ambush a top 10 team every season, they could likewise be relied on to lose three or four games and finish anywhere between second and fourth in the Big 12 South. Now Leach & Co. find themselves in terra incognita, vaulting to second in the BCS rankings, sitting alone atop the division, the toughest in any conference in the nation. Texas fell to No. 4 in the BCS. Beneath the Horns lurk ninth-ranked Oklahoma State and sixth-ranked Oklahoma—who happen to be Tech's next two opponents.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS after the biggest victory in school history, Leach sat in his office, already panning for soft spots in Oklahoma State's defense. Perpetually distracted, prone not only to digressions but also to digressions within his digressions, the coach was pleased to offer details on how acupuncture helped him stop dipping smokeless tobacco and the general wholesomeness of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. ("He's got a real Opie Cunningham quality.") Under no circumstances would he be drawn into a discussion about Tech's chances of getting to the Big 12 title game, to be played on Dec. 6 in Kansas City, Mo.