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Longhorns Forging Identity As Running Team

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Mack Brown is the type of old-school coach whose entire upbringing and disposition as a head coach is to run the football, having cut his teeth during the Wishbone era and worked with Barry Switzer's power triple option attack in Norman.

If there was a major philosophy break between Brown and former coordinator Greg Davis, it was about the latter's proclivity towards the passing game and unwillingness or inability to consistently produce the type of rushing success that underlies Brown's basic football beliefs, ultimately manifested in the failed attempt in 2010 to turn Texas into a power-rushing team without the necessary personnel or a coherent scheme.

As Mack Brown reminded reporters during his Monday press conference, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when Texas did effectively run the football, even under Davis:

People forget, in '04 when we beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, we were 106th in passing in the country. We were second in rushing. So we were really good at running the football, but we'd throw a few play action passes in a game. We weren't a great defensive football team at that time. We were good. But we were a great running team, and right now we want to be a great running team and help our passing game catch up.   

With a stable of young backs and co-coordinator Bryan Harsin's new offense that is still in the installation process, Brown is now closer than he's been in years towards his single biggest goal as a coach.

The numbers help tell the story of improvement-- the Longhorns rank 17th in the country in rushing yards per game, only six measly yards per contest behind the heralded Aggie rushing attack at 218 yards per game. Of course, if Mike Sherman had decided to run the ball during the second half against Oklahoma State, the margin might not be so narrow, but trolling our not-friends in the not-state capitol is not the point here. 

In yards per carry, the Texas running game is significantly less rosy -- 50th in the country at a relatively modest 4.41 yards per carry, the result of a team still undergoing growing pains in terms of consistent execution.

The number of rushing attempts -- 23rd in the country -- reflects the stubbornness with which Brown and Harsin have approached the rushing game, despite playing from behind in games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Interestingly, the major criticism of Harsin this season stemmed from his abandonment of the running game during the crucial three-and-out series in the fourth quarter following the forced safety and near pick-six by Blake Gideon.

Besides the macro outlook of the running game based on the pure statistics, consider as well that Malcolm Brown earned his third 100-yard game of the season against Kansas, passing Cody Johnson's team-high totals some time during the game.

While Johnson's carries have plummeted with his virtually full-time transition to fullback, Fozzy Whittaker hasn't exactly been quiet about his own efforts to reach the pinnacle of his own Texas career, also in its final season. The no-longer-mythical Fozzy Creature is approaching his career high rushing totals with five games remaining in the regular season and is averaging more than a full yard more every time he totes the rock than his previous highs matched in 2008 and 2010.

But enough about the numbers -- the game plan against Kansas was just as important as anything that a stat sheet can say.

Against Kansas, those staggering rushing numbers belied an important strategic offensive decision made by Harsin entering the game with the option of going in several vastly different directions. With all the talk about working on the vertical passing game and creating big plays during the bye week, the Texas co-offensive coordinator could have easily viewed the Jayhawks as an opportunity for an open scrimmage, a chance to force the issue during a game situation to work on getting the ball downfield. 

It might have kept the game closer than many fans wanted, but with no real championship aspirations, this Texas team, once again, is about the process, as PB outlined well on Monday. So what if the Longhorns had won 30-10 instead of 43-0 if David Ash had successfully established some down-field chemistry with Mike Davis or Jaxon Shipley or Marquise Goodwin? Style points are unnecessary for this team.

As Harsin outlined a bit on Monday, his strategic decision directly reflected the identity that offense is trending:

I think after this last game, and I think what we've done in the last two games, I think we've run the ball well. I think the Oline is doing a good job of blocking the schemes that we have, getting more comfortable with the schemes we have, communicating out there. I think [offensive line] Coach [Stacy] Searels has done a good job with those guys. The running backs are working off the Oline. It's a combination of that along with the tight ends. So I feel like run-game-wise we're making strides from that standpoint.

Instead of working on the passing game, the Longhorns were intent on forcing the running game against Kansas and using the passing game as a complementary element of the offense through screens and short, controlled passes to keep the defense at least a little bit honest, but without taking the risks inherent in attempting to throw a variety of play-action passes depending upon strong protection for a long period of time -- still not the strength of this team either in protection, with receivers getting open deep, or quarterbacks consistently making the right read and throw.

Fortunately, there are numerous options now in the running game, according to both a stat show that indicates two freshman 100-yard rushers against Kansas in Brown and the emerging Joe Bergeron and co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin:

There's a lot of ways now in this run game that we can attack people. You've got guys in there, Fozzy [Whittaker] has got his role. Malcolm [Brown} has got his role. Joe [Bergeron] has got his role. They can all in come in there, be a little bit different, provide a little bit different dimension to what we're doing. Then you've got your perimeter run game with D.J. [Monroe] and [WR] Marquise [Goodwin] out there. So now we've got ways to kind of distribute the ball and get it inside and outside and guys that have produced doing all those things.

As Harsin mentioned, what this team does do as well as anything is take advantage of the talent at running back, working the load backs Brown and apparently now Bergeron, while using Whittaker in the Wildcat package where his vision makes him dangerous when he can find the creases and hit them with his quick feet.

Defenses have and will be loading the box to stop the Double B's between the tackles, but that isn't the easy answer for defenses that it may appear, as Harsin can counter without going to the passing game by working the edges in the fly sweep game and keep defenders honest by putting players in motion across the formation even on plays when they don't receive the hand off. Such is DJ Monroe's role now for the most part.

In other words, instead of focusing on getting vertical in the passing game when opponents begin to crowd the box, Texas is instead throwing screens or using sweeps to get on the edge. While it's initially distressing just how much Greg Davis would like this philosophy, it is an approach that makes sense strategically for any team, but especially for this team, as it's the most effective use of the weapons at wide receiver until both Ash and the young pass-catchers further develop.

The power rushing and jet sweep combination is one that with the right execution and the type of basic understanding of playcalling that Harsin seemingly mastered an understanding for long prior to even entering the coaching profession, stretching that bunched defense horizontally to maintain some semblance of ability to keep that power game working between the tackles against overloaded fronts.

The game against Kansas included more jet sweeps than seen in the last several games, mostly to speedster Marquise Goodwins, who carried the ball five times for 52 yards:

'Quise is a guy we want to get the ball to, and we've tried to get the ball down the field. We've tried to do some things to get the ball in his hands, and that was one way to guarantee we get that done, and it didn't disappoint. He did a nice job getting around the edge there. I think [with] his abilities, there's going to be more opportunities like that where he's going to pull through some of those tackles, and it's going to be a home run when he gets out there and gets free.

The last point clearly represents a key decision made during the bye week. In working on the passing game, Harsin and the other offensive coaches clearly realized that the easiest path to the type of big plays and, just as importantly, the consistent success achieved by limiting the major losses that have led to Texas heading backwards on negative plays as much as anyone in the country, will come from executing the running game at a high level.

There hasn't been a ton of talk in this space about the leverage that Harsin can create to take advantage of vulnerable defenses, but that's exactly what his ability to attack different gaps and overwhelm defenses at the point of attack with the basic Power series, aided the type of flex plays that get two offensive linemen and a fullback or H-back working on an outmatched edge.

In an effort to better secure those edges in the running game faced with tight ends underperforming as blockers, Harsin used the bye week to begin grooming an underutilized offensive player for situational packages -- former offensive tackle Luke Poehlmann, the infamous mullet man and chronically malnourished lineman who fell out of the rotation with the emergence of freshman offensive tackle Josh Cochran and the move of Trey Hopkins outside.

At 6-7 and finally somewhere around 300 pounds, Poehlmann has the size and length to handle defensive ends one-on-one and the mobility to make some blocks in space. The talk about Harsin finding packages to use every bit of talent on the roster has always revolved around the skill positions, but his use of Poehlmann against Kansas indicates that he's willing to look around the country for examples of team's using an extra offensive lineman -- notably Stanford -- and find a way to get a deserving player onto the field who would otherwise be wasted.

The development of every blocking member of the offense -- from the line to the tight ends to the fullbacks -- remains a work in progress, but the Kansas game and the 446 rushing yards represent a manifestation of the attitude change the new regime is attempting to instill.

And even though Kansas provided little resistance, the number of blackboard plays -- plays in which every blocker executes their assignments to virtual perfections -- indicates just how far this team has advanced since the beginning of the season and even since the games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

It's not where it's going to be at the end of the season, which should be a scary proposition for opponents, but it's rapidly moving in a direction that will define this team and its upside moving forward. Everything else in the passing game will be a necessary outgrowth, but to the extent that the running game can win games, Harsin will give it every opportunity to do so. And likely a little bit more on top.

After years of waiting, Mack Brown finally has himself a hard-nosed offensive football team that is growing more and more nasty by the minute. Ground and pound, baby! Somewhere Darrell Royal is smiling.