Key Cotton Bowl Matchup: Can the Landsharks Get to Graham Harrell?

Derek StephensSenior Analyst IDecember 30, 2008

Houston Nutt and No. 20 Ole Miss will face off against the No. 7 Texas Tech Red Raiders (11-1) on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. CT in Dallas in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.

Since the matchup was announced on Dec. 7 on the Bowl Selection Show, many fans have labeled this game as a top non-BCS, even overall, intriguing matchup.

The key matchup can be argued, but many believe the key to the game for each team is the wide split offensive line of Texas Tech versus the fierce Ole Miss defensive line, who, with two projected first round draft picks, have been labeled "Landsharks" for their aggressive approach.

Statistics don't lie as well.  Ole Miss currently ranks fifth in the NCAA in sacks per game (3.08), and Texas Tech currently is tied at sixth in the NCAA in sacks per game allowed (0.92).

Ole Miss defensive lineman Kentrell Lockett, who has 11 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this year for the Rebels, has tons of respect for the offensive lineman for the Red Raiders.

"Just watching them on TV, they're pretty much like celebrities," Lockett said Sunday during a Cotton Bowl news conference. "With their offensive line, each of them having nicknames, it's like those guys are celebrities. Now we're on a stage with them."

Along with Lockett on the defensive line, Ole Miss boasts two future NFL prospects, Peria Jerry and Greg Hardy, who both have been projected in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2009, although Hardy could opt to stay in school as an underclassman. 

Hardy and Jerry have combined for 14.5 sacks despite missing five games and have helped Ole Miss currently rank first in the NCAA in tackles for loss.

"They're pretty big guys and, for their size, they're really quick," Red Raider guard Brandon Carter said. "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.

"We have our eyes on everybody, but yeah, those two guys are really good and we're preparing for those guys."

Texas Tech's offensive linemen have been known for their success against the pass rush by using wide splits.  Peria Jerry commented this week that he expects the offensive line of Texas Tech to narrow the splits when "they see how quick some of the guys are." 

Graham Harrell, one of the nation's best QBs, had nothing but praise for his offensive line's production.  "They've got a great defensive line," Harrell said. "But we have one of the best offensive lines in the country. They've done a great job the whole season and the past few seasons protecting me. It'll be a great matchup."

Texas Tech's OL coach Matt Moore said this week that he compares Ole Miss's defensive line to the likes of Oklahoma and Texas, although he claims that he thinks Ole Miss's line has more depth than Texas. 

I would take that in high regard, as Oklahoma used their tough defensive line to get to Graham Harrell on their way to a rout, and Texas lost on a last-second play to Texas Tech 39-33.

Ole Miss's defensive line will face a challenge, as Texas Tech offensive linemen Rylan Reed, Brandon Carter, and Louis Vasquez each receive some form of all-America recognition this year.

So, how will the matchup, in the end, affect the game?  If Ole Miss can limit time for Graham Harrell to pass, as we've seen against Oklahoma, it can really affect the Red Raiders's creativity offensively. 

If, however, the front four for Ole Miss allows Graham Harrell extended time to throw the ball downfield, it's safe to assume who will be the winner, as Ole Miss ranks 11th in the SEC in passing defense, giving up over 209 yards per contest. 

Lockett, as mentioned earlier, commented when asked what the matchup will be like, "It's going to be a battle, period."

Derek Stephens is the Community Leader for Ole Miss.  He can be reached on his Bulletin Board or by commenting in the comment box below.  Please leave any feedback, suggestions, questions, etc. 

Special thanks goes to Parrish Alford from the Daily Journal, Aaron Dickens from, and Don Williams from the Lubbock Journal, for their quotes from the players.