Savvy veteran that he is, Texas Tech safety D.J. Johnson sensed what was about to happen and looked for safer ground. Four years had elapsed since Red Raiders fans last saw fit to full-on rush the field after a victory.
For the Texas game, 2008, Johnson was a visiting recruit. Saturday was Texas Tech’s biggest home win since then — 49-14 against No. 5 West Virginia — and Johnson knew the drill.
“When they beat UT, I was on the sideline, and they made us go up the tunnel,” he said. “I knew what it was going to be like. I knew it was going to be crazy. I tried to stay out of it.”
An hour after the fact, Johnson and fellow defensive back Eugene Neboh were the last guys left in a quiet, empty Texas Tech interview room. Neboh had spent part of the afternoon successfully chasing West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey, not shutting him out exactly, but making more plays (four pass breakups) than did Bailey (one touchdown).
In the post-game maelstrom, he somewhat threw caution to the wind.
“I got hit in the head,” Neboh said. “People were jumping, trying to tackle me from the back. I was running, trying to find my brother and my mom and dad. It was exciting. It let me know how much this meant to them.”
To two seniors, it was an afternoon they’ll never forget.
Tech cast doubt on the greatness of Geno Smith, certainly not eliminating the West Virginia quarterback from Heisman Trophy consideration, but knocking him down a peg. Watching through my binoculars, it was apparent Tech defensive coordinator Art Kaufman wanted to show Smith a variety of looks from one down to the next.
“That’s definitely what we wanted to do,” middle linebacker Blake Dees said. “We wanted to show him seven or eight looks. We wanted to show him a bunch of stuff we saw (on video) that a bunch of teams that played him hadn’t done.”
On the back end, the Red Raiders thought they could disguise coverages better than the Mountaineers’ earlier opponents. Up front, they ran a couple of defensive line twists that worked. They blitzed the safeties, Cody Davis and Johnson, from time to time.
What the Red Raiders did most often was to show blitz from two or three defenders and back out. That meant they were rushing Smith with three or four players and covering with seven or eight.
None of which the Mountaineers reacted to particularly well.
Now, come draft time, I feel sure Smith will be able to sit in that film room with Jon Gruden, watch himself fire one terrific pass after another, and point out on the projector what he sees on this play and that play.
On Saturday, he had the vision of a man driving through a car wash.
“I was off,” Smith said. “I wasn’t hitting my targets, wasn’t hitting my reads.”
Play every down as if it were third down. That’s what Kaufman told Tech defensive players they were going to do.
“Coaches said if we would show (blitz) that it would single up the linemen, and we thought our linemen could beat their linemen,” Dees said. “Coach Kaufman’s great. He’s smart, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Kent Hance must have had a ball.
Some Tech fans felt sure this would be a humiliating day for the Red Raiders, even selling their tickets to sit this one out. Former Red Raiders assistant Dana Holgorsen was going to display his mind for offense, maybe even run up the tally to settle an old score on behalf of Mike Leach.
And there’s still time for that.
But not Saturday.
At the half, it was 35-7. The wheels were set in motion for West Virginia’s worst loss in 11 years, not to mention Tech’s most lopsided win over an opponent ranked in the top five.
Now, I wasn’t covering games in the ’60s, but Burle Pettit vouches for this story, and it’s worth a periodic retelling. Back in 1966, a lot of fans sat back and listened on radio as a 3-6 Red Raiders team rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit to upset No. 6 Arkansas 21-16, knocking the Razorbacks out of the Cotton Bowl.
From all over Lubbock, they dashed to Jones Stadium in the second half to watch the finish unfold. Traffic chaos ensued. If I remember correctly, Burle once said folks “parked just anywhere.”
At halftime Saturday, I wondered if those who stayed away from Tech-West Virginia, expecting the worst, might do the same.
They had time to join the post-game celebration, if nothing else.