Improved running game boosts Tech's hopes

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Having two prolific weapons like Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree tends to overshadow almost every other element of Texas Tech's offensive arsenal.

With good reason, considering the Red Raiders' potent passing game that leads the nation with an average of 433.7 yards per game.

But the Red Raiders have quietly developed more balance than any of Mike Leach's previous teams with the installation of a formidable running game heading into Saturday's pivotal South Division showdown at Oklahoma.

Texas Tech's running game averages 132.6 yards per game, good for 73rd in the nation. A two-pronged attack featuring Shannon Woods and Baron Batch have helped the Red Raiders' running game become more than just an afterthought.

Running behind a massive line that averages 313 pounds per man, the Red Raiders have produced more yardage and a higher yard-per-carry average than any previous team in Leach's nine-season tenure.

"It's clear we're running the ball more consistently than we have since I've been here," said Batch after the Red Raiders' 56-20 victory over Oklahoma State where they rushed for 113 yards. It was the 10th straight game that the Red Raiders produced at least 100 yards rushing.

Batch (667 yards, 7.2 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Woods (588 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 11 TDs) both are on pace to better the Red Raiders' rushing total produced as a team last season. Texas Tech ranked dead last nationally, averaging only 59.3 yards per game and 3.13 yards as a team as they produced 771 yards during the season.

"Last year, we struggled a little bit in consistently running the ball for a lot of reasons," Texas Tech running backs coach Seth Littrell said. "During the offseason, coach Leach came to me and said we wanted to work on improving the running game. And we've tried to do that."

One reason for the struggles last season were that both Batch and Woods struggled through disappointing 2007 seasons. Batch redshirted last season after he tore a ligament in his ankle that required surgery. His rehabilitation took a hit when a bone infection developed in the injured ankle. His football career was in jeopardy after he underwent seven surgeries to repair the ankle.

But he attacked his recovery with zeal and started turning heads during his late-season work with the practice squad after his recovery was complete.

"You could see he was ready to come back," Littrell said. "He really came on with our scout team last year and probably could have played with us but we didn't want to take his redshirt off late in the season. There wasn't much doubt he would come back, but he came back stronger than we would have ever thought after what he went through."

Woods battled his way in and out of Leach's doghouse last season after a strong sophomore season in 2006. He went from leading the Big 12 in all-purpose yards to being benched for the final four regular-season games last season. Additionally, Woods was sent home from the Gator Bowl because on an undisclosed violation of team rules late last season.

"It was hard, there ain't no lying about it," Woods told reporters earlier in the season. "It was tough to play and then not to be able to. That was hard. But I'm happy with myself. I stuck with it."

Woods returned for his senior season with renewed purpose that was clear to Leach from the beginning of spring practice.

"I think he was officially out of the doghouse as soon as I saw how hard he worked," Leach said. "And he just kept getting better as the season went on."

The improved running game has caught the attention of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who said the running game makes it more difficult to defend the Red Raiders.

"We always felt in playing them that handling their running game is a factor. This year, in particular," Stoops said. "Their backs do a great job working in space and they're great at finding seams. They just do a great job running the football."

Littrell, a starting fullback on the Sooners' 2000 national championship team, knows a little about running the ball. He said the Red Raiders finally are fulfilling his goal set before the season to build more reliability in their rushing attack.

"I challenged them and myself to work hard to get more production out of the position," Littrell said. "At times we had done some good things, but we hadn't consistently had gotten it done. We're more consistent this year than any since I've been here."