Thu Jul 02 02:40pm EDT
Everybody loves Texas this summer, for obvious reasons -- namely, it's likely to take 35 points to beat the Longhorns, and the only two teams that hit that mark on them last season finished first and third nationally in scoring offense. (And it still wasn't enough to put Oklahoma over the top.) Still, every giant has his Achilles heel, and as hard as it is to find fault with an offense very likely to top 40 points per game again, in the case of Texas' offense, the target is a fat one: The running game. Quick -- name the 'Horns' starting running back this fall. Even Texas fans might be slow on the draw with that question because it's not clear that they have one, or, after their performance in last year's underwhelming rotation, that one will emerge.
It's also not clear that it matters, given the absurd heights of the passing game, which incorporates plenty of safe throws of the "long handoff" variety. I went much further in his critique earlier this season:
... the Longhorns' backs certainly don't want a repeat of last season, when quarterback Colt McCoy pulled a Vince Young and led the ground attack with 561 yards and was the only member in the backfield to have 100 carries, with much of his run production coming primarily on scrambles in the spread attack.
It's understood the Longhorns will have to make a dramatic improvement running the ball this season if they seriously hope to compete for a national title. Their inability to effectively run and possess the football was probably what stood between them and the BCS title game last season.
The no-name running backs are fair game for skepticism, but both of those assumptions seem a little out of place when referring to a team that a) Presumably has "a serious hope" of competing for a national title even without dramatically improved rushing numbers, because it seriously competed for a championship last year despite mediocrity on the ground, and b) Finished second in the Big 12 and eighth nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for 15 minutes longer than Oklahoma, 13 minutes longer than Missouri, seven minutes longer than Oklahoma State, five minutes longer than Kansas and Texas A&M and almost 17 minutes longer than Baylor. The game Harris cites as a failure of the Longhorns' ability to control the clock with the run, the loss at Texas Tech, was one in which UT was scrambling to make up a 22-6 deficit at the half, after the Longhorn defense allowed Raider drives of 37, 52, 96, 83 and 46 yards that ate more than 20 minutes off the clock. After the 'Horns' first carry of the game -- a missed assignment that led to a Red Raider safety, and a subsequent Tech touchdown that put UT two scores in the hole after a single offensive snap -- the "ball control" approach wasn't exactly viable.
I do feel where Harris and similar critics are coming from, when Mack Brown's offenses for so long were based on either burly workhorses or Vince Young's having descended from the planet Freakalon 9, both of which have been conspicuously absent the last three years, and last year especially. I mean, there must be something wrong with this trend:
If you include Young's 1,000-yard season in 2005, all of Brown's offenses have featured one go-to back who handled in the neighborhood of three-fourths of all the carries -- Ricky Williams, Hodges Mitchell and Cedric Benson ran themselves ragged between the tackles before Young's talents forced a greater emphasis on the shotgun and zone read. That was a perfect vehicle for Jamaal Charles' big season in 2007, but McCoy had vastly less support in 2006 and almost none to speak of last year -- obviously no one of Charles' caliber -- when he handled most of the business himself.
Texas' position toward this, I think, is as follows: They're fine with it. When you're in front, you don't shift gears; you hit the gas. As middling as it looked in the big picture, the committee approach was still above average by Big 12 standards and had solid efforts -- over 150 yards on at least four yards per carry -- in the wins over Oklahoma, Missouri, Baylor, Kansas and Texas A&M. Beyond that, as the time of possession numbers here clearly demonstrate, "ball control" does not always mean "grinding running game," if your robot quarterback is the most consistent passer in NCAA history. Look at Colt McCoy's completion percentages -- the guy hit at least 80 percent of his targets in seven different times last year, including all three wins in the Oklahoma-Missouri-Oklahoma State gauntlet that put UT back on the national map at midseason. At nine yards a pop, that's a better success rate than handing off has ever had, no matter who was in the backfield.
McCoy only looked human once, in that loss to Texas Tech, and still almost left Lubbock with the game-winning touchdown drive under his belt. So the only thing that is clearly "understood" about Texas' running game is that its major function -- other than picking up a crucial yard here and there on third or fourth down -- is just keeping defenses honest as long as McCoy is pulling the trigger.
In fact, if there's any incentive to shift a heavier burden to the running game, it's keeping McCoy upright; he's never been seriously injured, but after well over 300 carries through the years by a guy who doesn't know how to slide, there have to be fewer sands left in that hourglass. Texas can't afford to lose its quarterback, which seems like a good enough reason to shift some of McCoy's carries to the backs. But that's just spot relief. Assuming they still let Colt throw at least 30 times a game, the results speak for themselves: The Longhorns' title drive is only going to be derailed by another offense -- like Texas Tech's last year -- explosive enough to set the pace, or at least keep up with it. Unless McCoy's arm goes limp between now and October, there's no reason for Texas to let off the pedal.