Looking for a free pick before betting? Texas Tech is going to throw the ball from the moment they walk into Sun Devil Stadium locker room. Quarterback Graham Harrell, he of the 36 passing TDs this season and 343 pass yards per game, will spread it out, run no-huddle, pay silent homage to the whiff of a running game, and send guys like WRs Joel Filani and Robert Johnson and RB Shannon Woods out into a million pass-route variants. They're going to pressure Minnesota's linebackers and secondary like it's never been pressured before.
Minnesota will seek to mix it up on offense behind QB Bryan Cupito, but will likely try and control the clock behind junior RB Amir Pinnix, who rushed for 1,093 yards and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average in 2006. Since Texas Tech was vulnerable against the run this year (their rush defense was 76th-best in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game), and since the Golden Gophers would be nutty to produce many offensive three-and-outs which would give Harrell & Co. that many more possessions, Glen Mason's Minnesota team is going to try and win time of possession by 15 minutes or more.
And the thing is: if you know all this, certainly Texas Tech and Minnesota know it, too.
So the question becomes: whom do you pick when teams' styles contrast so completely? And whom do you pick when you have to assume that each coach pretty much has a lock on what the other guy's going to do?
I mean, it'll be a pretty big shock of the Gophers don't employ at least five defensive backs on nearly every snap, right? And if they don't try and blitz like crazy, to throw Harrell off? And if the Red Raiders don't pull their linebackers forward a bit, and make Cupito beat them, that would be kind of a surprise, too, yes? Any coach's first job, especially on defense, is try and take away what the opposing team does best. So as we try and pick this game, we have to decide: which squad is better equipped to do that?
The Gophers haven't shown they can stop the pass yet this year. In their final three games of the regular season, they allowed over 300 yards passing, yet they won all three contests. For the season, they allowed nearly 254 pass yards per game, fifth-worst in all of Division I football, and that includes wins over Kent St., Temple and North Dakota St. Take out those three wimpy wins, and the passing defense number balloons to 285 yards per game (and the team is 3-6). Hoo. Mike Leach's scary pass offense at Texas Tech racked up 363 yards a game via the air, third-highest in the country. Surely, Mason and his charges will know what's coming. But will they be able to stop it?
I really don't think so. You can't just will yourself into staying with quick receivers, against an offensive line that gives its quarterback a ton of time.
Tech had its problems this year, too. Big 12 teams ran all over them, even in situations where the Raiders knew what was coming. Missouri hit them up for 160 yards. Colorado clocked them for 249. Texas created a huge comeback in Lubbock, and racked up 247 rushing yards. Oklahoma got them for 157, and in their season finale, Oklahoma St. amassed 221. While Minnesota definitely misses sophomore tailback Gary Russell, who was declared academically ineligible at the beginning of the season, Pinnix has been a good replacement, and the Raiders will get a healthy dose of him Friday.
For me, picking this game may come down to an unexpected source: the Minnesota passing game. Cupito will be without the nation's top tight end, Matt Spaeth, who will miss the Insight Bowl because of knee surgery. That means some of the Gophers' safer offensive explosiveness will be gone, which will limit Minnesota's ability to come back if and when Texas Tech begins racking up early points. Plus the bottom line is: Minnesota just isn't that good. They went 6-6 this year, including their 10-9 victory over I-AA North Dakota St.; the combined record of the I-A teams they beat this year was 22-38, and with three weeks left in the year, their record stood at 3-6 (and 2-6 against I-A teams, if you can call Kent St. and Temple I-A teams). Yes, finishing strong against Indiana, Michigan St. and a vastly disappointing Iowa squad got them a bowl appearance, but it doesn't win them many points with me. Meanwhile, Tech probably should've beaten Texas, and did topple an underrated Oklahoma St. team to give them a 4-4 record in the Big 12.
Is Texas Tech flawed? Absolutely. Would I be surprised to see Minnesota win time of possession in this game, and see the Gophers score a goodly number of points? Absolutely not. But Harrell and his 67% completion percentage move the ball like poop through a Christmas goose against good defenses, and this pass defense simply isn't good. It's young, and will probably be better in '07, but for now, I can't see them offering enough resistance to keep Harrell down. For this reason, I'm taking Texas Tech (-6.5) over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
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