MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A good many game watchers tuned in to the Liberty Bowl Tuesday night expecting to see one team run up the score.
And sure enough. Texas Tech folded, spindled and mutilated Mississippi State 34-7, just the opposite sort of runaway from the one so many were forecasting. Mississippi State came in with the No. 3 passing offense in the FBS, and the Red Raiders held the Bulldogs to their lowest point total of the season.
Only Alabama gained more yards against MSU this season than Tech's 512, and no team put more rushing yards on the Bulldogs than the Red Raiders' 260. Tahj Brooks, with 107 yards on 16 carries, and SaRodorick Thompson, with 80 yards on 14, had a field day against the FBS' 10th-ranked rushing defense, especially early, when they ran through the Bulldogs with astonishing ease.
Among the folks wearing scarlet and black in the crowd of 48,615, though, none of those details meant as much as the big one:
The Red Raiders put a whoopin' on ol' Mike Leach
The Pirate had many of his best days in coaching on the South Plains, which won him a legion of fans and admirers. Some Red Raiders still swear by him. A few showed up to the historic Peabody Hotel, the SEC team's headquarters this past week, to greet Leach upon check-in Saturday evening.
But Mike has turned off even more Red Raiders fans by trashing the Tech higher-ups who fired him in December 2009, taking advantage of many an open mic to keep the feud public for the past 12 years.
How long, he was asked Monday, does he plan to keep waging legal war against Tech?
"Forever," he said. "Why not? I mean, what have I got to lose? They cheated me out of $2.6 million, plus four years remaining on my contract."
Now, a 6-6 team beating a 7-5 team won't rank very high on a list of important bowl victories but, in Tech's case, it was way up there in terms of the most satisfying.
For that, the Red Raiders should thank ...
Coaches who kept their minds on their jobs
While Leach-versus-Tech served as a natural storyline for the Liberty Bowl and while the Pirate fired more verbal artillery leading up to the game, members of the Red Raiders' lame-duck staff quietly went about their business, the way they had been for two topsy-turvy months.
It's remarkable that Tech played some of its best football this season — upsetting Iowa State and Mississippi State, taking Baylor to the wire — under coaches who understood after Matt Wells' dismissal on Oct. 25 that they were out the door, too. Nature of the business.
When Louisiana Tech hired Sonny Cumbie on Dec. 1, Tech AD Kirby Hocutt asked Cumbie and the rest of the staff to stay through the bowl game, and they all did except one. Hocutt said Mark Tommerdahl, now working at TCU, also would have stayed, but Hocutt thought it unwise to keep a coach who had been hired by a Big 12 rival.
It was known on Nov. 29 that new coach Joey McGuire offered only Cumbie and running backs coach DeAndre Smith positions on his staff. The rest? While you look for jobs, can you keep coaching the guys for another month?
It was fair to wonder how attentive and dedicated those men would be. But the answer? Remarkably attentive, commendably dedicated.
Again on Tuesday, the Red Raiders looked sharp and well-prepared.
Even the Pirate was impressed.
"You kind of admire the artistry of what somebody's doing," Leach said. "It's a little tough if you're getting your (butt) kicked to do that. If somebody goes out there and plays really well, it's hard to dismiss and not appreciate it."
By routing Mississippi State, Tech snapped a five-year stretch of losing seasons and won a bowl for the first time in eight years. The Red Raiders made the best of a chaotic situation.
"Our players all along, man, they just never stopped believing," Cumbie said. "Just excited for our program, the administrations at Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech to allow us to come back and finish this season. And the way we did, with these players, has been a lot of fun."
Tuesday's outcome, coupled with McGuire's success on the recruiting trail, means the Red Raiders can look forward to the off-season with excitement.
Another reason is that ...
The skill-position players finished with a flourish
Top receiver Erik Ezukanma declared last week for the NFL draft, a big loss. But even though he Ezukanma was on the sideline in street clothes Tuesday night, the Red Raiders did OK without him.
Brooks' and Thompson's big nights put them both over 500 yards rushing for the season. They were knowns already.
But the Red Raiders were encouraged to see young receivers Jerand Bradley, J.J. Sparkman, Myles Price and Trey Cleveland have their moments against the Bulldogs. With Ezukanma along with Kaylon Geiger gone, the young receivers are going to be needed. When 2022 rolls around, the Red Raiders can't afford for them not to emerge.
That unit, based on youth and number of catches returning, will be a question.
But not the only ones.
How many veterans will return?
Center Dawson Deaton, receivers Ezukanma and Dalton Rigdon and quarterback Henry Colombi have all decided not to stick with the Red Raiders in 2022.
Over the next few days and weeks, a dozen seniors will decide whether to return for another season, nearly all having the additional COVID year of eligibility. (Safety Marquis Waters can apply for a medical hardship waiver.)
Most notable among the dozen are defensive linemen Devin Drew, linebacker Krishon Merriweather, defensive backs Adrian Frye and Waters and kicker Jonathan Garibay. Holding on to those five would be an off-season win.
The Red Raiders got a boost last winter when linebackers Colin Schooler and Riko Jeffers, cornerback DaMarcus Fields and other starters decided to hold off on turning pro.
Who starts at QB in 2022?
The bet here is that original starter Tyler Shough, his season derailed by a broken collarbone in the Big 12 opener, will reclaim the job. Tall, strong-armed and mobile, he has more tools than anybody. That's saying something, given the promise of Liberty Bowl MVP Donovan Smith and blue-chip 2021 signee Behren Morton.
All three guys can wing it and run it.
Smith made a splash with his 322-yard, three-TD performance against Iowa State and he helped himself Tuesday night, shaking off some missed throws early with a big second half. Just when he was making fans restless, the big redshirt freshman uncorked darts for 39 yards to Travis Koontz, 52 yards to Jerand Bradley, 48 yards to Price and put one up for lanky J.J. Sparkman to snatch over shorter defenders for a 14-yard touchdown.
Shough and Smith now have an experience edge. No one doubts Morton's ability either. If the 2021 season reminded Tech fans of anything, it was that the quarterback depth chart can take unpredictable twists and turns.
That there are at least two and probably three viable alternatives is sure to make it the most talked-about topic of the off-season.
And because the Red Raiders go into these upcoming months with a demolition of Mississippi State — thorough, unexpected and serving as a take-that to Mike Leach — this winter looks much more bearable than the past few.
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: College football: 5 Takeaways from Texas Tech's Liberty Bowl victory over Mississippi State