Doing the research in the days leading up to Texas Tech-TCU last week, I reminded myself you had to go back to 1989 to find the last time the Red Raiders beat a nationally ranked team in week three or earlier.
Of course, Mike Leach tried not to play nationally ranked teams early if he could help it. Spike Dykes, maybe with some prodding from athletic director T. Jones, played plenty of marquee intersectional games in September. He had some near upsets to show for it at places such as Ohio State and Penn State.
The exception was the 1989 season opener, probably because 1989’s was such an exceptional team. Those Red Raiders were picked sixth in a nine-team Southwest Conference and finished 9-3. They started six walk-ons, including — incredibly, given their success — two offensive linemen and one defensive lineman. They beat four Top 25 teams, starting with No. 20 Arizona on opening night.
They embodied, more than any other Red Raiders team, what Tech folks view as their identity: underdogs beating the odds.
Closely parallelling the one identity was another unique to that particular team: James Gray taking toss-sweep pitches and weaving his way behind an offensive line with seven seniors who played prominent roles.
If you’re a Texas Tech fan and that team doesn’t rank high among your favorites, the only explanation is you came along later.
I’m not sure any others will ever replicate what those Red Raiders achieved. Exclude from this discussion those teams between 2005 and 2008. Those teams’ high win totals were in line with what was expected.
Who expects to beat two Top 25 opponents with fourth-quarter touchdown passes, both, by coincidence, on third-and-26? That was another angle to the fairy-tale 1989 season.
So the 2013 Red Raiders took a step Thursday night, knocking off No. 24 TCU. That snapped Tech’s oh-for-13 streak in games against ranked opponents in the first three weeks of the season.
Other elements are in place, at least, for this team to similarly endear itself to Red Raiders fans. They were picked seventh this summer in the 10-team Big 12. The upcoming schedule gives them a chance to build confidence. In comparison to the 1989 team, they don’t have so many walk-ons in the starting lineup, but they do have a walk-on at the most visible position, quarterback.
And when Baker Mayfield got kicked in the thigh Thursday night and came hobbling to the sideline, another freshman quarterback came in and threw a game-winning touchdown pass on third-and-long in the fourth quarter.
Mayfield and-or Webb will have to make many more such plays to match Jamie Gill’s crunch-time performances.
This is not to suggest Kliff Kingsbury’s first Tech team will reach the bar that group set 24 years ago. Who has?
You could find a lot worse standards to aim for, though.
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