Instant Analysis - Alamo Bowl
Texas Tech 41 ... Michigan State 31
In a strange sort of way, Texas Tech's win over the Spartans might have
been the worst thing that could've happened to the Red Raider brass who
obviously wanted Mike Leach gone for issues far more than Adam James
being thrown in a closet. Now the powers-that-be are painted into a
Ruffin McNeill was brilliant.
McNeill is a more-than-worthy candidate to take over the head coaching
job and he is the type of coach who the players will run through a wall
for, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the best candidate. Michigan
State was depleted by suspensions and wasn't nearly the team it would've
been at full strength, but it's not like Texas Tech didn't have any
distractions of its own, and McNeill handled them perfectly. In the heat
of the game, he made the right call replacing a quarterback who had
thrown for 372 yards, he showed the guts, the calculated guts, to go for
it on a few key fourth down plays to put the game away, and he coached a
team whose offense hung 460 passing yards and showed some pop in the
running game, too. And now Texas Tech needs to hire him, or else.
If Tech doesn't keep McNeill around, he'll almost certainly get a head
coaching gig somewhere else relatively quickly (like next year the next
time a Conference USA-like opening pops up), and he'll be a success.
Meanwhile, the replacement for Leach won't just have to compete with
Leach's history, but he'll also have to compete with McNeill and the
decision that Tech made to not keep him around.
Had Tech lost, it would've been much easier to try to start fresh. Maybe
it's time to ditch the spread passing offense. Maybe chancellor Kent
Hance and board or regents big man Jerry Turner might think a different
type of attack might work better. Maybe they want to clean house,
another strong candidate is on the radar, or McNeill doesn't seem like
the right guy. If they hire anyone else, the fan base that's already
ticked off over losing Leach could go apespit, and the new guy isn't
going to be given too much of a break, if any, if he doesn't rock out of
West Virginia was in the exact same position with Bill Stewart. The
program wanted to do a big search for candidates, but Stewart guided the
Mountaineers to a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma and he became the choice
by popular demand. He has been fine, but he hasn't been Rich Rodriguez.
McNeill will formally interview for the job and he'll be terrific; he's
the kind of guy who can nail that part of it cold. And he'll be given
the chance to take over. The program has no other choice.
Mike Leach may be gone from the Texas Tech sideline, but remnants of the coach are going to be in Lubbock for a long time. How about QB Steven Sheffield, for instance?
Talk about an ace relief pitcher coming out of the bullpen. Why exactly was the sophomore not in the lineup at the beginning of the game anyway?
It's not as if Taylor Potts played poorly in the Alamo Bowl. Not at all. Sheffield, however, was a lighting rod when sent out on to the field in the fourth quarter. Like espresso with a mouthpiece, he brought the Red Raider crowd to its feet as soon as he trotted off the sidelines and promptly led the team to the go-ahead and game-clinching touchdowns. In just a couple of series, he wound up going 9-of-11 for 88 yards and a touchdown. His only two incompletions were drops. What's more, he looked like a Colt Brennan reincarnate, throwing strikes all over the field, with a wicked fastball that belies his slender frame. It's the last thing on anyone's mind right now, but whoever succeeds Leach is going to have a tough decision at quarterback in 2010 because both Potts and Sheffield are more than capable of moving this offense.
Speaking of coaches and successors, how about the gutsy and prescient decision of interim head coach Ruffin McNeill and coordinator Lincoln Riley to give the nod to Sheffield with the game still hanging in the balance? Yeah, Potts had hurt his non-throwing hand, but X-rays were negative and he was ready to go. McNeill, in particular, made a lot of gutsy calls work in the win and is obviously loved by those Tech players, both of which might work in his favor when the administration considers removing the interim portion of his job description later in the week.
1) With just over eight minutes left and a freewheeling, let-it-hang-loose Michigan State team trying to add to a 28-27 lead, a bolder-than-bold Mark Dantonio opted for a basic running play on 3rd and 12 from the Texas Tech 29. A field goal prevented MSU from gaining an eight-point cushion and forcing the Red Raiders to tie with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion.
The same Spartan coaching staff that called fake field goals and fly sweeps and end-arounds – in a very un-Big-Ten-like display – suddenly reverted to its stone-age ways when crunch time came calling. The abrupt shift from aggression to hyperconservatism eerily mirrored Oregon's Chip Kelly in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. The Oregon coach went for it on fourth downs in the first half and early in the third quarter, but then kicked a field goal on 4th and 1 when trailing by nine late in the fourth quarter.
Roughly four minutes after Dantonio coached not to lose, Texas Tech interim boss Ruffin McNeill – at the end of a very trying week in Lubbock – showed the guts that Mike Leach regularly brought to the table on game days. Leading by three (34-31) and facing a 4th and 5 from the Michigan State 30 with 4:05 left, McNeill didn't settle for a long field goal attempt. He went for the first down. Six yards later, Tech had a first down.
Then, with just under three minutes left and Michigan State out of timeouts, Tech faced a 4th and 4 at the MSU 18. While 98 percent of coaches would kick the three points, McNeill – like Leach – insisted on a first down as a gateway toward a touchdown that would seal the game on the scoreboard. After a five-yard pitch-and-catch, the Red Raiders had their second fourth-down conversion of the drive, and one play later, Tech owned a 41-31 lead on a 13-yard run by Baron Batch out of a spread formation.
Bold coaches win. Timid coaches normally lose. Michigan State and Mark Dantonio were so aggressive for three and a half quarters, but Ruffin McNeill and Texas Tech showed intestinal fortitude for 60 minutes. Guess who took control in the final eight minutes of regulation time? "Guns up" trumped Sparty because of the different paths taken by two head coaches.
2) Just when it seemed that ESPN's coverage of the "Mike Leach v. James Family" mess at Texas Tech couldn't have been more conflict-ridden or glaringly unprofessional, the production truck at the Alamodome – obviously given the green light by corporate executives and decision makers in Bristol, Conn. – further disgraced the Worldwide Leader by allowing broadcasters Mike Patrick and (Craig James's replacement) Bob Davie to talk at great length about the story in a rambling, imprecise and emotionally sympathetic manner.
Don't blame Patrick and Davie for standing by an ESPN/ABC colleague; blame the production truck – which gives its broadcast team stage directions and relevant parameters – for being a happy and willing enabler for the two men in the booth.
A lot more will (and should) be written about ESPN's disgraceful week-long performance, but the short story for now is that Patrick and Davie – in San Antonio to comment on a football GAME – should not have been allowed to say anything about the facts of the case. They had every right to comment on how Ruffin McNeill and the Tech players were affected by the firing of Mike Leach, but their constant and prolonged immersion in a story intimately linked to an ESPN employee was inappropriate by any reasonable measure. That's the production truck's fault, and such an item can't go without mention after a game that was entertaining… and after a broadcast that was anything but.