Texas running game struggles to consistently produce against Kansas

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The median runs for the two primary backs didn't gain much ground.

The Texas Longhorn managed five yards per carry against the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday, but head coach Mack Brown on Monday expressed his concern that many of those attempts went for little or no gain.

In fact, of the 38 carries for primary running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown, 27 went for three yards or less -- four is the primary threshold of success for most teams in regular down-and-distance situations. Taking out the two carries for Brown that went for touchdowns of two and three yards, respectively, that means that 25 of 38 were basically unsuccessful, with only one more of those short runs a short-yardage conversion on third or fourth down.

In all, that means that over 63% of the Texas runs did not achieve the desired results against the nation's 102nd rush defense.

The positive, to the extent that there is one with his evaluation, is that Kansas did not manage to stop any runs behind the line of scrimmage for a loss and the total yards per carry for Texas was above the season average given up by the Jayhawks.

On the other hand, Texas ran the ball four times at one point in the first half and failed to pick up a first down, as Gray was stopped short on 4th and 1, in part because center Dominic Espinosa missed on his run block.

But don't blame the offensive line and the tight ends for the overall struggles, either. The tight ends had another flawless week of blocking and the offensive line was beat on only four run blocks.

So what happened? Kansas had their best defensive player back in linebacker Ben Heeney, who missed the previous two weeks and returned with nine tackles, five of the solo variety. In his absence, Oklahoma ran for 5.22 yards per carry and Baylor 6.95 yards per carry. And the Jayhawks were extremely aggressive in coming downhill from the safety positions to take away the run.

Considering that opponents typically have just over seven running plays a game go for 10 or more yards against Kansas, the performance from Dave Campo's defense was one of its more solid efforts on the season, as Texas managed six total, with two of them (Joe Bergeron's 13-yard run and Tyrone Swoopes' 18-yard run), coming on the final possession.

Two of the three long runs from Malcolm Brown, a 24-yard effort and his 30-yard touchdown run, came on the drive prior.

So the Horns definitely achieved their goal of wearing down the thin Kansas defense, but the inability to produce explosive running plays for the rest of the game is something the team will go back and evaluate this week in preparation for West Virginia, which is giving up 4.25 yards per carry, but has held Maryland, Oklahoma State, and TCU to under three yards per attempt this season.

The play calling for Texas is also rather predictable at this point -- the Horns ran the ball 11 times on first down in the first half compared to five passes, several of which were jet sweep push passes to Daje Johnson. In the second half, there was a bit more balance with seven runs and five passes. Overall, that means that Texas ran the ball on first down on 18 of 28 first downs, not counting the final series under back-up quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

Brown has talked a lot about wanting to be a balanced team. At the end of the Colt McCoy era, that meant trying to find better ways to run the football. With Case McCoy at quarterback in the last three games since Iowa State, the tendencies have been clear -- run the ball almost exclusively on first down, continue to do so stubbornly on second down, all in a effort to run the ball again on third down.

It's also worth noting that McCoy threw both of his interceptions on first down, as well, a fact that probably didn't spur play caller Major Applewhite to abandon the run. Success on first down was much like success overall -- there wasn't a lot of it consistently. In the first half, eight of the 10 runs on 1st and 10 went for three yards or less, though three of seven went for four yards or more, highlighted by Malcolm Brown's 24-yard run.

The major lesson from this weekend appears to be that the Texas offense is bumping up on some limitations -- even with good efforts across the board from the seven primary blockers, it takes some incredible plays from running backs to find legitimate success with predictable play calls against a defense that is loaded to stop those plays, even if the front seven is not a particularly strong group.

This is the new identity of the Texas offense, an identity that was good enough to bludgeon two good defenses like Oklahoma and TCU, but wasn't good enough to push around lowly Kansas. With two top-50 rush defenses in yards per carry allowed coming up, it looks like some changes will be necessary to find similar success against Oklahoma State (No. 18 nationally) and Texas Tech (No. 49 nationally).

And that will mean Major Applewhite will have to earn his paycheck to unearth some more upside in the running game.

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