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January 1, 2009

Cotton: Ole Miss hopes to pressure Harrell

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

When the Ole Miss front seven strolls to the line of scrimmage in Friday's Cotton Bowl, it will notice the massive splits employed by Texas Tech's offensive line and could find them inviting to attack.

That's just what the Red Raiders want.

COTTON BOWL

Ole Miss (8-4) vs. Texas Tech (11-1)

WHEN: 2 p.m. Jan. 2.
WHERE: Cotton Bowl, Dallas.
TV: Fox (Pat Summerall will do play-by-play, with Brian Baldinger as the analyst).
THE LINE: Texas Tech by 4.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Ole Miss 3-4, Texas Tech 5-1.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Ole Miss 29th, Texas Tech 14th.
BCS RANKINGS: Ole Miss 25th, Texas Tech 7th.
COACHES: Ole Miss − Houston Nutt (2-5 in bowls); Texas Tech − Mike Leach (5-3 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is a chance to watch one of the nation's most exciting offenses (Texas Tech), led by perhaps the best passing quarterback in America (Graham Harrell). Remember: The Red Raiders did tie for the ultra-competitive Big 12 South title. Ole Miss has been a surprise under first-year coach Nutt. The Rebels beat Florida and took Alabama to the final minute.
KEY STAT: Texas Tech is No. 1 in the nation in pass offense (417.3 ypg); Ole Miss is 60th in the nation in pass defense (209.8 ypg).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Harrell wasn't a Heisman finalist, but he gets another chance to show folks he indeed is one of the nation's top players. With two more touchdown pass, he'll become the NCAA career leader with 132.
If defenders surge at the gaps, Tech's linemen are given a good angle to attack and deflect defenders off the line of scrimmage. If defenders do the correct thing try to beat their man one-on-one there is a much better chance for success at disrupting the timing and rhythm of what is, in many ways, the ultimate timing-and-rhythm offense.

There are basically three types of spread offenses. One is pass-oriented, which is the version Texas Tech employs. This version typically features five receivers and needs the quarterback to make the correct play call at the line of scrimmage based on what type of alignment the defense is featuring.

Another version of the spread is built around the run. This style requires a mobile quarterback. It's also necessary for the linemen to be able to pull, trap and generally move well to execute the needed blocks in a version of the scheme that features lots of misdirection. This is the style of spread that Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez utilizes, and many compare it to the old triple-option offense.

A final version of the spread is called the "Pistol," which most credit Nevada coach Chris Ault with developing. This version features the quarterback lining up about three yards behind the center for an abbreviated shotgun snap. And it's common for different players to take a direct snap and run with the ball.

Regardless of which style of spread an offense uses, they all have one thing in common: wide splits by the offensive linemen. It's not uncommon for the splits between the center and guards and between the guards and the tackles to be as much as four feet.

To those defenses playing against Texas Tech, it all gets back to getting pressure on quarterback Graham Harrell. If he has time to sit in the pocket and survey the field, he will pick apart a defense. But as with any other quarterback, when Harrell is pressured, he isn't as effective.

Getting to Harrell, who has been sacked just 11 times, has been difficult for defenses all season. He is protected by a veteran line, and Harrell has vast experience in the offense. He almost always gets Tech in the correct play call, then makes a smart decision with where to go with the football.

Tech has rolled up 535 points and 6,434 yards. Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree are the ultimate pass-catch combo. Harrell is 406-of-568 for 4,747 yards and 41 TDs, while Crabtree has caught 93 passes for 1,135 yards and 18 scores. And it all starts with those wide splits that Tech knows will be tempting for the Rebels' quick and athletic defensive line to want to attack.

"They're pretty big guys, and for their size, they're really quick," Tech guard Brandon Carter said of Ole Miss' defensive front. "They're good with their hands and they look pretty strong. I think the best thing about them is that they play really hard, and there's no better credit than to tell someone that they play hard."

Who has the edge?

Ole Miss run offense vs. Texas Tech run defense
Cordera Eason is a strong runner who is complemented by WR Dexter McCluster in a variety of rushing plays. Ole Miss likely will use three tailbacks, and the Rebels should find ample room to run vs. the Big 12's No. 7 rush defense (133.5 ypg). Edge: Ole Miss.

Ole Miss pass offense vs. Texas Tech pass defense
Houston Nutt never has had a quarterback like Jevan Snead, which is why Nutt has embraced the pass. Snead is an NFL-caliber quarterback who can stretch defenses vertically with WR Shay Hodge. Mike Wallace and McCluster also are capable receivers. The Rebels will be tested by a solid Tech secondary led by free safety Darcel McBath.
Edge: Ole Miss.

Texas Tech run offense vs. Ole Miss run defense
Tech running backs Baron Batch and Shannon Woods are adept at taking advantage of the wide gaps the spread attack creates. Each also doubles as a dangerous pass catcher. But space could be limited against an aggressive Ole Miss defense that ranks second in the SEC vs. the run (83.9 ypg). Tackle Peria Jerry is a load in the middle.
Edge: Ole Miss.

Texas Tech pass offense vs. Ole Miss pass defense
There's nothing left to be said about Harrell and Crabtree. Ole Miss also must deal with receivers Detron Lewis (71 catches) and Eric Morris (64). In all, Tech has seven players with at least 30 receptions. Ole Miss is tied for sixth in the nation with 37 sacks and fifth with 3.1 sacks per game. Jerry and ends Greg Hardy and Kentrell Lockett need to bring the heat. But Tech has allowed just 11 sacks, the third-fewest total in the nation. Hardy, a junior with 8.5 sacks in eight games, could decide to enter the NFL draft. A strong performance in this one could earn him some big money.
Edge: Texas Tech.

Ole Miss special teams vs. Texas Tech special teams
If this game comes down to a field goal, Tech is in trouble. Conversely, Ole Miss has a good kicker in Joshua Shene, who has hit 16-of-19 field-goal attempts. Each team has game-breakers in the return game, with Tech featuring Morris and the Rebels boasting Wallace and Marshay Green. Ole Miss' coverage units have been good, while Tech's have been mediocre.
Edge: Ole Miss.

Ole Miss coaches vs. Texas Tech coaches
Nutt and Texas Tech's Mike Leach too often get overlooked when discussion about the nation's best coaches take place. Each has done a phenomenal job, combing a mastery of Xs and Os with an unmatched ability to motivate.
Edge: Even.

X-factor: Florida's Tim Tebow and Georgia's Matthew Stafford stole most of the quarterback headlines in the SEC. But Snead was the third-rated passer in the conference. And the native Texan who transferred to Ole Miss from Texas is excited about returning to his home state to display his talents.

Ole Miss will win if: The Rebels must get consistent pressure on Harrell. If any team can do it, it may be the Rebels, who led the SEC with 35 sacks. If the Rebels who yield just 17.8 points per game can get after Harrell, they will have a chance to at least slow down the Red Raiders' potent offense.

Texas Tech will win if: If the Red Raiders can run, they will win. While Ole Miss has a good defense (294.8 yards per game), it will be too much to ask to defend the run and the pass against the Red Raiders. Stretched horizontally and vertically, the Rebels' defense would crumble.

The picks
Tom Dienhart: Ole Miss 44, Texas Tech 41
Mike Huguenin: Texas Tech 35, Ole Miss 28

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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