"We gotta figure out a way to get past Oklahoma State," he mumbled over the phone. It was against the Cowboys in September 2007 that Tech gave up 610 total yards in a 49--45 loss. After that game, Leach replaced his defensive coordinator, Lyle Sentenich, with assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill. That move would've drawn far more attention had it not been overshadowed by Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose postgame "I'm a man!" tirade made national news.
McNeill did two things that produced immediate, drastic improvement: He increased the intensity in practice while scaling back the difficulty. Instead of taking eight or 10 calls into a game, "we'd go with half that many," he told SI before the season. He wanted players reacting, not thinking. As he often says, "A clear mind means fast legs."
These guys come after you on defense in a way Tech has not during Leach's tenure. Ask McCoy, who was sacked four times and afterward looked like he'd gone three rounds with Chuck Liddell. "I got busted in the face a couple times," said the quarterback, by way of explaining his bloody lip.
Some of that blood was spilled by sophomore nosetackle Colby Whitlock, an ex-wrestler from Noble, Okla., who finished with eight tackles, an absurdly high number for a down lineman. Whitlock's first tackle—for a safety on the Longhorns' opening play from scrimmage—set the tone for a surprisingly physical game. "He's got a real quick first step," says Leach. "He's country strong, likes combat and is lucky enough to be able to engage in it legally. I've found that if you're playing Texas, it helps to have a kid or two from Oklahoma."
Tech's defensive line outnastied the Longhorns' hogs for 2 1/2 quarters. Which is not to say that all the Red Raiders' heroes were down linemen. Midway through the third quarter, senior safety Daniel Charbonnet read McCoy's eyes and returned his fifth interception of the season 18 yards for a TD.
Like so many Red Raiders, Charbonnet took an indirect route to Lubbock. A native of The Woodlands, Texas, he played one season for a two-win Duke team in 2004. Homesick and sick of losing, he transferred to Tech and was invited to walk on. Though he is neither very big nor very fast, the coaches couldn't keep him off the field. "All he did was make plays," recalls Leach.
IT WAS not in the nature of the Longhorns, however, to stay on the canvas. As the cobwebs in McCoy's head cleared after his most vicious collision with Whitlock, the quarterback started looking like his former self. On successive possessions he connected with redshirt freshman wideout Malcolm Williams for touchdowns of 37 and 91 yards. Vondrell McGee's four-yard touchdown run gave Texas its first lead, 33--32, with 1:29 left. As valiantly as it had played, McNeill's defense was fried.
The Horns, it seemed, would survive their inhuman gantlet: four straight games against teams in the top 11. The problem for Texas was that no one told Harrell any of this. The senior from Ennis, Texas, was smiling as he jogged onto the field at the Tech 38. "Game on the line, minute and a half left, you score, you win," he said on Monday. "If you don't love that situation, quarterback's probably not the position for you." What of the 83 seconds he would have to work with? "Plenty of time."
And so it appeared to be, as he crisply moved the chains. Four consecutive completions moved the ball to the Texas 28. Then near disaster. On the play before the game-winning pass to Crabtree, Harrell threw one of the uglier balls of his career. Seeing his quarterback scramble left, wideout Edward Britton dutifully peeled back to block. He definitely was not expecting the pass Harrell flung in his direction. "He gets his hands out at the last second and volleyball-sets it straight up in the air," says Harrell. "The kid comes running underneath it. Now everything's in slow motion, and I'm thinking, Surely we're not gonna lose like this."
Order would be restored. Tech would descend to its accustomed place in the Big 12 hierarchy. Texas would have a clear path to the BCS title game. McCoy, not Harrell, would solidify his position as the Heisman front-runner. But "the kid," freshman safety Blake Gideon, could not process his good fortune, dropping the ball and keeping hope alive for the home team.