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The legendary Michael Crabtree TD, explained 10 years later by the man who threw it

Graham Harrell breaks down the pass that shocked the Longhorns.

On the first day of November 2008, a few days before a presidential election, Michael Crabtree scored one of the most memorable touchdowns in football history.

His catch to lift No. 7 Texas Tech over No. 1 Texas right before the buzzer landed that meeting in the top 10 of our list of the most beloved games of the century.

Full video with sound’s here, if you just want to watch the whole ending sequence.

It accelerated Tech toward one of its best seasons ever and robbed Mack Brown’s Longhorns of a title shot.

Ten years after the fact, the quarterback who threw the pass remembers everything about the play better than I remember what I had for breakfast Tuesday. That QB, current North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, went through it in detail with SB Nation.

Texas Tech was down one and had the ball at the Horns’ 28 with eight seconds left. But kicking was never a serious option.

Texas Tech had a couple of kickers. Neither was a sure bet from distance. The one Mike Leach trusted for shorter kicks was Matt Williams, a walk-on who got the job after Leach saw him win a kick-for-rent contest after the third quarter of an earlier game. Leach sent a coach to talk to him, “and Monday, the kid shows up,” Harrell says. Williams had also missed earlier in the night, and all college kicks are a risk.

“So from the 28, we definitely didn’t feel good about it,” Harrell says. “I don’t know what the coaches or anyone on the sideline was thinking, but I know that offense, with the team we had — we were an older team, an experienced team that had high expectations of ourself — our only thought was, ‘We’re not leaving this game in the hands of a kicker.’”

The winning play was the same one Leach has made a career of calling: four verticals. Tech called it Six and ran it out of a formation called Ace.

“I guess way back in the day,” Harrell remembers, “Coach Leach said, ‘If you send four guys vertical, you score a touchdown.’ So he called it Six.”

The one-back (hence Ace) formation put two receivers on either side of Harrell:

Tech had a good idea of how Texas would defend the play. The Horns lined up with four corners, one responsible for man coverage against each split-out receiver. There were two safeties — one you can see in the broadcast angle above, and one hidden beyond the top left part of the frame. Texas’ safeties were in cover 2, ready to close on the ball when Harrell threw it.

“I mean, it was pretty obvious what they were gonna do,” Harrell says.

“They were playing 2/man, and that’s a good coverage if you’re trying to throw the football against it. That’s hard to throw against. I mean, any way you go with the football, it’s gonna be tight.”

The play before, the game almost ended. Texas had been a similar coverage, though Tech had trips receivers to the right. With just a four-man rush, the Horns got pressure up the middle on Harrell, who scrambled and threw to Edward Britton, who’d just turned to block. The ball popped up in the air, and everyone except Harrell, who had a straight-on angle, thought it was a game-ending pick. But safety Blake Gideon dropped it.

Harrell knew the Horns couldn’t turn up the pressure any more than that. If the line could hold with five guys against four, the quarterback would get a shot the next play.

“You’re not gonna bring pressure with that coverage, just because you’ve gotta bring six in coverage and one for the back,” Harrell calculated. “So you can really rush four and then maybe delay rush a fifth one, because he has the back.”

One thing about Texas’ coverage might’ve been a pleasant surprise for Harrell.

If a defense has two deep safeties, the whole idea of four verts is to make one safety shadow two receivers. (Likewise, if the D is in cover 3, running two different receivers up the seams can can force the same kind of conflict.) But when you’re playing the 2008 Red Raiders, one of the receivers you have to cover is Crabtree.

“If I were them,” Harrell says, “I would’ve gone and put one guy right in Crab’s face and one guy about 10 yards on top of Crab and said, ‘You’re gonna throw it anywhere but here.’ But they didn’t do that.”

Instead of shading toward Crabtree, Texas’ strong safety (a redshirt freshman named Earl Thomas, Crabtree’s future NFL rival) parked between Crabtree and slot receiver Detron Lewis, who was also darting upfield. Thomas was fast enough to break on the throw to Crabtree, but him also spying on the slot receiver gave Harrell a brief window of single coverage.

Cornerback Curtis Brown, guarding Crabtree, was playing a trail technique, relying on Thomas to close off anything into the end zone. But Brown wasn’t watching the ball, and Harrell and Crabtree both knew Crabtree’s back shoulder was the target.

“Anywhere’s gonna be tight, but you might as well throw it to arguably one of the best receivers to ever play college football with a guy trailing him, when Crab can see the ball and he couldn’t see the ball,” Harrell reasoned.

Now, Crabtree could’ve gone out, and Tech could’ve kicked.

“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Step out of bounds. We’re only down by one,’ because from there, I feel pretty good about kicking it. That’s basically an extra point. Just don’t run out the time and not get in,” Harrell says.

“But Crab had better plans.”

After Crabtree scored with a second left, repeated false starts (by the crowd) led to what’s gotta be the fastest field-storming in modern history.

They rushed the field before the kickoff, then had to be ushered off, because there was still a second on the clock. That moved the ensuing kickoff back to Tech’s 15.

Then they did it again, still before Tech could kick off. They had to be ushered off again, and that pushed Tech back half the distance to the goal, to its own 7:

“I’ve never seen anything like it, probably never will again,” Harrell says. “It was almost like we were playing Arena Football with a wall of humans guarding the boundary instead of a little wall.”

Tech eventually kicked off. The clock ran out. And finally, all those people wearing black were able to celebrate without penalty. Already with inside leverage against the field’s outer wall, the fans got into their break quickly and ran one big slant route to midfield.

“If you let everybody already on the field, the rushing of the field can happen pretty quick,” Harrell says. “So that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”