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Rice Breakdown: Tailbacks

Introduction Last week, we complained that Greg Davis underutilized a running game that was running successfully on Ohio State. The offensive line play, as well as the performances from Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles, were consistently excellent. Well, one of the things we need to talk about is this team's identity, as well as the concept of balance. Let's take those one by one and tie it in to the performance of the tailbacks Saturday against Rice.

Team Identity During his Monday press conference, Mack Brown talked about this team working to find its identity. It's an important point that we didn't discuss in enough detail as we sorted through the disappointment of our first defeat.

Going into the Ohio State game, the identity of this team wasn't clear. One of the biggest worries I heard from both Chip Brown and Geoff Ketchum was team identity. As successful as this year's group of Longhorns can be, there's simply no question that the identity of last year's team was Vince Young. With his departure, the identity of the post-Vince Longhorns was a mystery.

And it hurt against Ohio State. There was an attempt to balance the number of pass and run plays - a characteristic of the Vince-led offense. Without an offensive identity, the Horns struggled to find a rhythm on offense. Part of that was solid play by Ohio State, but a bigger part of it was Texas' own uncertainty of what it wanted to do.

Well, I've got a proposal for this team's identity - power running... over and over and over again. It's an identity that my favorite NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has thrived on for a long time: "We're going to run the ball. You know it, I know it, and there's nothing you can do to stop it." Not only -can- this work for Texas, but it can work -better- for a college team than it can for an NFL team. Why? The defenses just aren't as good in the college ranks. And when your ground game is as good as Texas' is - with elite tailbacks and a whale of an offensive line - it can be virtually unstoppable. To understand this further, we need to understand how this applies to the concept of...

Balance You'll often hear coaches talk about needing "a good balance of running and passing plays." In the post-game comments following the Ohio State loss, in fact, Davis said exactly that - he wanted to mix in a good balance of running and passing plays.

The problem is that conceiving of balance in this way is too simple. We discussed this more ideal concept in the abstract during the offseason, but let's dig back into it with the 2006 season to work from.

Under the simple conception of 'balance,' the Longhorns were successful against Ohio State. They ran a roughly equal number of pass and rush plays while the game was close. But an ideal 'balance' is about more than just running an equal number of each type of play - it's running the right combination of those plays to achieve maximum yards per play output.

Texas called 33 pass plays against Ohio State, and averaged 4.48 yards per pass play. Note that these numbers include sacks, which are called passing plays that failed. On the flip side, Texas called 30 rushing plays, averaging 5.1 yards per rush play called. Note also that these numbers do not include sacks and the yards lost from them, as those are passing plays.

The problem with the gameplan was that by throwing and passing the same number of times ? which didn?t suit our strengths ? we dragged both averages down quite a bit. Contrast that with Rice, when we threw sparingly ? 14 total pass plays ? and averaged a much more robust 10 yards per pass play called. Again, some of that is just the difference between the two defenses, but there?s no question that Texas was hurt by throwing too much, and in the wrong situations, against Ohio State.

Running Backs For the most part, the running backs got high marks for their efforts against Ohio State. Both Young and Charles ran and caught the ball effectively; they were consistently good, and took advantage of the holes the line was creating. As was noted last week, though, the run was forsaken for a "balance" of pass plays that never achieved the intended result.

We argued that this particular Texas team, led by this particular young quarterback, would have been better served running the ball over and over and over again, and then, once Ohio State got sick of our 5+ yards per rush play and brought up the safeties, used some play action to go vertical.

As MMHorns said to me after the Rice game concluded, "Looks like Greg Davis reads the blog."

As much as we love ourselves, we know that Greg probably just drew the same, relatively easy, conclusion. Texas pounded Rice with the run over and over and over, pausing only momentarily to throw the ball vertically, several times off run fakes. It worked beautifully, as we all saw, and though part of that was the enormous advantage in talent that Texas enjoyed, part of it was the product of good planning.

With Rice employing an unconventional 3-3-5 defensive scheme, Davis lined up the offense for run after run - seven straight to start the game (resulting in a touchdown). We'll get to the offensive line review in our next segment, but the holes were there, and both Young and Charles galloped around at will. Both flashed great speed, and Charles' touchdown run in particular was a thing of beauty. (All his runs were, really.) After bouncing outside on a run to his left, Charles hit the acceletator and absolutely blitzed through the opening hole before anyone could do anything about it.

Selvin, meanwhile, was outstanding himself, save for an unfortunate fumble at the two yard line. He's running with a lot of quickness, but also with an impressive amount of power and strength. On several occasions he plowed through and off of defenders that couldn't hang on.

I'll be the first to admit: when Selvin came back in 2005 and struggled mightily out of the gate, I all but wrote him off. I was visibly nervous when he came in the game, as visions of his costly Ohio State and Oklahoma fumbles kept my nerves on edge. But steadily, surely, impressively - he improved. By the Rose Bowl, he was a rock, running with discipline and poise. He wasn't explosive like he was when he arrived in Austin, but he was a big part of Texas' win over USC.

We've discussed his commitment to training and weight loss during the offseason, and he reportedly lost 16 pounds on the way to regaining his burst. And you can't really overstate how impressive his comeback has been. Ankle injuries can be crippling, and while they certainly took Selvin down, clearly they didn't knock him out. He's back, and he deserves all the credit in the world for his work.

Both Selvin and Jamaal were great, and though Selvin's fumble was painful to see, we're giving him a pass. Both players earn a solid A.

Two other tailbacks saw action during the second half - Henry Melton and Chris Ogbonnaya. Big Henry did a decent enough job, picking up nearly five yards per rush and scoring on a great run in which he reversed field and outran the defense to the pylon. As difficult as this season's likely been for Melton - what with the position switch speculation and playing behind two elite tailbacks - I was happy to see him get in the end zone on a great run.

For Ogbonnaya... well, damn. You need to see him to understand, but the kid's a fun runner to watch. He runs downhill like a train, but his speed really surprises you for a guy that looks a little bit like a fullback. On many other teams, he might be starting. At Texas, of course, he's fourth string. Crazy. For now, we'll just enjoy the depth we've got at the position, though of course we really want and need both Young and Charles to be healthy.

Conclusion I think the identity of this team ought to be taking shape here. With the conference's best offensive line, with the conference's best 1-2 combo of running backs, with receivers who can (when they put their minds to it) block, and with a freshman quarterback, the 2006 Texas Longhorns ought to be rushing the ball all the time. Note that rushing doesn't have to be "conservative." There are lots of different ways to run, and we've got the weapons to do all of them, and all of them well. We can, we should, and it looks like we will.

With a running game that few defenses will be able to stop without -totally- overloading the box with defenders, Texas is in perfect position to execute a devastating rush-centric game plan that absolutely wears opponents down by the fourth quarter, keeps the Texas defense fresh on the sidelines, and puts McCoy in the best position to succeed. With situational pass plays that are set up by the powerful running game, this Texas offense can grow into a fearsome bunch. It won't be as easy as it was against Rice, but it can certainly be a lot better than it was against Ohio State.

The change is underway, and if we stick to it, it should be a good one. Stay tuned...

Up Next: the offensive line