When top-ranked Texas meets No. 6 Texas Tech on Saturday night in Lubbock, the eyes of the nation will focus on the high-profile quarterback clash between Texas’ Colt McCoy, the Heisman Trophy favorite, and his counterpart, Heisman dark horse Graham Harrell.
But the game’s key matchup will occur in the trenches, where Will Muschamp’s sack-happy Texas defensive line squares off with the college game’s most dominant offensive front.
Led by All-American defensive end Brian Orakpo, the Longhorns (8-0) are second in the nation in sacks (29), averaging 3.6 per game. Texas Tech (8-0) counters with a six-man rotation of upperclassmen on the offensive line, which averages 6-foot-6 and 321 pounds and has allowed just three sacks this season in 391 pass attempts.
“We have a dynamic bunch up front - just ask them,” Mike Leach said.
The quirky, ninth-year Texas Tech coach placed a gag order on Harrell and record-setting wideout Michael Crabtree heading into this week’s showdown with the Longhorns, whom the Red Raiders haven’t beaten since 2002. But not even Leach would try to silence his Halloween-worthy collection of oddball offensive linemen.
Left tackle Rylan Reed is practically Leach’s contemporary after he spent five years as a pitcher in the Chicago White Sox organization.
“The guys used to call me Pops,” said Reed, who will turn 27 on Nov. 18. “I prefer the Incredible Hulk.”
Given his program-record 625-pound bench press, Reed has a right to the latter. The unit’s unofficial spokesman, he draws the toughest assignment of the bunch Saturday in Orakpo, a relentless force off the edge who leads the Big 12 with 8.5 sacks.
“Orakpo is amazing,” Reed said. “He’s got it all - speed rush, bull rush, spin, swim. You’ve got to watch everything with him.”
But blocking the top pass rusher in college football won’t be anything new for Reed, who spent last season’s Gator Bowl stifling Virginia defensive end Chris Long in Texas Tech’s 31-28 victory. Selected by the St. Louis Rams with the second pick in April’s NFL draft, Long had just three tackles and no sacks against the Red Raiders.
But Reed is hardly a one-man show. On his right is Louis “Big Chief” Vasquez, a 6-6, 335-pound guard who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season. At the other guard slot is the biggest, boldest of the bunch: 6-7, 354-pound junior Brandon Carter.
It’s impossible to miss Carter on the field, because the pro wrestling devotee paints his face to resemble his idol, Mick Foley, the wrestling star better known as Mankind. With his size, modified mohawk, tattoos, facial piercings and war paint, Carter is a daunting sight - especially when he pulls to lead a sweep or screen against an overmatched defensive back.
“I think he looks ridiculous, but I imagine most 200-pound safeties tend to disagree,” Reed said. “He’s a freakish athlete with looks and personality to match.”
If Texas can’t solve the Tech offensive line and fluster Harrell, the Longhorns could be in for a long night. Texas starts two freshman safeties and sophomore Curtis Brown made his first start last week in place of injured corner Chykie Brown for a Texas secondary that ranks 110th nationally against the pass (allowing 265.5 yards per game).
At 8-0 for the first time since 1976, the Red Raiders lead the nation in passing offense (418.4 yards) and rank third in scoring (48.0 points).
“I think our best is good enough to beat anyone in the country,” Reed said. “There’s a vibe around this team. We have an understanding that this is something special. We have a big opportunity ahead of us, and we’re just ready to make the most of it.”