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January 3, 2010

McNeill leads Raiders to Alamo Bowl win

SAN ANTONIO - No questions about Mike Leach. No questions about Adam James.

Those were the ground rules Texas Tech quarterback Steven Sheffield laid down Saturday night after saving the day in a thrilling Alamo Bowl victory that his fired head coach would've loved.

Let him enjoy it somewhere else, the Red Raiders said. This isn't his team anymore.

"I looked up in the stands and I saw signs about Team Leach. Bring Leach back," running back Baron Batch said. "Leach ain't coming back. That's how it is."

After a week like that, the Red Raiders can finally unwind a little.

With everyone still talking about Leach -- and who can blame them? -- the Red Raiders blocked out the distractions and rallied to beat Michigan State 41-31 in front of an anxious, almost angry crowd that clearly wanted their "Head Pirate" back on the sideline.

They also wanted James gone. Texas Tech fired Leach on Wednesday amid allegations that he mistreated James, son of ESPN analyst Craig James, after the sophomore wide receiver was diagnosed with a concussion.

James declined comment after a night in which fans booed him so loud, it drowned out the marching band at halftime. He was flanked by two security guard as Texas Tech (9-4) celebrated and looked relaxed for the first time since arriving in San Antonio.

The Red Raiders heard the boos. They saw the posters -- "Man up, Adam!" among them.

But offensive lineman Brandon Carter had a message for fans: James isn't the one to blame.

"This was not the first situation," Carter said. "This was just the last straw. Sooner or later, something was going to come out. Adam is part of our family. Hopefully, this washes over for Adam and he can stay and he won't have to go."

Interim coach Ruffin McNeill said he also was disappointed in James' reception.

"I wish the fans would not boo our kids," McNeill said. "Things happen in life. They're kids, man."

The tone of the crowd changed after the win. A chorus of "Ruffin! Ruffin!" went out in a thank-you to Leach's defensive coordinator, who navigated the Red Raiders through a week the school is desperate to forget.

The controversy surrounding Leach didn't even quiet long enough to let Saturday belong to the game.

Hours before kickoff, Texas Tech released an affidavit in which school athletic trainer Steve Pincock says he told James he was "sorry" for having placed the player inside an equipment shed near the practice field. Pincock told Tech officials he didn't agree with that "form of treatment for anyone."

Just another layer to a bowl game that cornered the market on turmoil.

No bowl teams in the country kicked off with more upheaval than Texas Tech and Michigan State (6-7). Leach's firing did Michigan State the favor of drawing attention from its own black eye: 14 players who didn't make the trip in the wake of a Nov. 22 dormitory brawl.

Nine Michigan State players face charges of misdemeanor assault. But the short-handed Spartans held their own.

They took a 28-27 lead into the fourth quarter, and appeared to get a break when Tech quarterback Taylor Potts left the game with a brief loss of vision. He left with an Alamo Bowl-record 372 yards and two touchdowns.

But this was still a Leach-built team. And in his offense, quarterbacks thrive.

With Tech down 31-27, Sheffield marched the Red Raiders downfield in eight plays, the last an 11-yard touchdown pass to Detron Lewis. Batch tacked on a 25-yard touchdown run to put it away.

Texas Tech will savor this win -- especially because the future may not be so rosy.

Leach vows he's not done with Texas Tech, and a nasty legal battle likely looms. The Red Raiders also must find a successor to the winningest -- and perhaps most popular -- head coach in Texas Tech history.

McNeill wants the job, and this win might help. Players were unanimous in wanting McNeill back, too.

"With Coach Ruff, the sky's the limit," Batch said. "I love that guy."

But Leach will be a hard act to follow.

It was just a year ago that Leach had the Red Raiders unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in late November. Even Texas Tech's toughest critics were finally acknowledging the Red Raiders as a legitimate contender, and no longer just a gimmicky pest that withered against the nation's elite.

A four-loss encore this season was a letdown, to be sure. But Leach still brought Texas Tech to a ninth bowl game under his watch, more than any of his predecessors.

A mostly full Alamodome crowd of more than 64,000 showed their appreciation.

In Leach vs. Texas Tech, there was no doubt where the fans sided Saturday.

Pirate flags fluttered in the parking lot. Posters venerating Leach and dogging James -- "EVERY SUCCESSFUL PIRATE KNOWS BETRAYAL" hanged prominently behind the Texas Tech bench -- were en vogue in just about every aisle.

Gray-haired alumni made "Fire (Texas Tech AD Gerald) Myers" stickers a popular accessory, and scores of Texas Tech students arrived in "Team Leach" T-shirts. Even a 10-year-old wore a shirt taking a shot at the James family.

If Adam James noticed, he didn't act like it.

He wandered the sideline wearing his No. 82 jersey and a black stocking cap, standing mostly off to the side with other inactive players.

James might have been on the Red Raiders' sideline for the last time. Acting offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley stopped short this week of saying he wanted James back -- and that was after Riley said far worse things about the 21-year-old in e-mails to university administrators.

Riley wrote James was "unusually lazy and entitled" in an effort to save Leach's job. He sent it on Dec. 26.

A week later Saturday, Texas Tech was ready to go home. And leave everything else in San Antonio.

"To the world outside Tech football this week was chaotic," running back Eric Stephens said. "But inside Tech football everyone knew coach Ruff had this team under control."


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