Cumbie looks to lead Red Raiders to first bowl win since 2013 against Leach, Miss. St

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MEMPHIS, Tennessee — It will be an instance of student against teacher Tuesday when Sonny Cumbie leads Texas Tech onto the field against Mike Leach and Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl.

Cumbie was the starting quarterback for Leach’s Red Raiders in 2004, throwing for 4,742 yards and leading the team to a Holiday Bowl victory over Aaron Rodgers and Cal.

That game marked the fifth-straight season that Texas Tech had made a bowl game. It would go on to make six more before finally missing out in 2011.

Saturday’s contest comes under different circumstances. The Red Raiders are bowling for the first time since 2017, and it took a miraculous 62-yard field goal by Jonathan Garibay to get them there.

Cumbie said in his press conference Monday that he had addressed the team, asking players to stand up if they’ve won a bowl game at Texas Tech. The entire room stayed seated. The program hasn’t won a bowl game since 2013 and the players are excited to have the opportunity to change that.

“It’s been fun,” Cumbie said of the practices ahead of the bowl game. “The emotion has been really energetic, enthusiastic, very inspiring.”

Freshman quarterback Donovan Smith will be under center for the Red Raiders Tuesday after he started the final three games of the regular season.

Smith lit up Iowa State for 322 yards in his first start, struggled mightily against an elite Oklahoma State defense in his second and nearly led Texas Tech to a gritty upset over Baylor in its regular season finale.

Tuesday provides him with a chance to build some momentum for himself to win the starting quarterback job in 2022. Tyler Shough will be healed by then and, barring a transfer, will compete for the job. So will fellow freshman Behren Morton. Henry Colombi will not — Cumbie announced Monday that he is no longer with the team.

With a few games of experience under his belt, Cumbie is confident in how Smith will finish the season Tuesday.

“To me he looks relaxed, he looks refreshed, he looks confident,” Cumbie said. “I think he had a chance… to kind of catch your breath and to take a step back and gain from the experience.”

Smith will have to perform against a defense that has been battle-tested by a grueling SEC schedule. The Bulldogs have notched wins over three ranked teams in 2021, holding No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 12 Kentucky to 150 passing yards or fewer.

On the other side of the ball, they are the kind of explosive Mike Leach offense that Tech fans are accustomed to seeing. Quarterback Will Rogers threw for 4,449 yards, tied for the second-most in the nation. Five of their pass-catchers have more than 400 yards, led by Makai Polk with 989.

As is often the case with bowl games in recent years, opt-outs will be a factor Tuesday. Texas Tech will be without leading-receiver Erik Ezukanma, meaning Smith will have to rely on younger pass-catchers.

On the Bulldogs’ side, offensive tackle Charles Cross — a potential top-10 draft pick — will not suit up. Defensive back Martin Emerson opted out as well.

Tuesday’s game will be the last one Cumbie coaches at Texas Tech before he takes over as the full-time head coach at Louisiana Tech. He is tasked with delivering the program its first bowl victory in nearly a decade, and must do so against his former mentor.

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl kicks off at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.

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