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Texas vs. Kansas State: Emerging Longhorns offensive identity will receive challenge

The Longhorns are becoming a physical running team, but the Wildcats have the ability to take away that strength.

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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Forgive Texas Longhorns redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard for the bold proclamation -- he's feeling confident after the Horns ran for over 300 yards against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl.

"We're going to be a run-first, nasty, get-at-your-face offense," Heard said Tuesday. "That's what we like to do and that's what we are going to do until you can stop us."

Running behind an offensive line that should get junior offensive tackle Kent Perkins back on Saturday and will feature three more starters who were banged up before the bye week but are now healthy , Heard's explosiveness is in sharp contrast to the rest of the work going on in the Texas running game.

With junior tight end Caleb Bluiett emerging as an effective lead blocker, sophomore Lorenzo Joe asserting his presence on the outside as a blocker, the 18 Wheeler package providing short-yardage punch, and the recent breakout performances from 6'0, 241-pound sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman, the Texas starter at quarterback is right about the emerging nastiness of the Longhorns offense.

Oh yeah, and there's those offensive linemen -- freshman left tackle Connor Williams was one of those starters who was banged up, but has been outstanding in pass protection and providing a physical presence in the running game, currently ranking among the top 10 offensive tackles nationally with a grade of +9.1 from Pro Football Focus. Freshman offensive guard Patrick Vahe has been outstanding pulling on Power and Counter and should be back to full health himself after suffering a variety of bumps and bruises through the first six games.

Together, the two freshmen have been the most consistent performers on the offensive line this season and will continue to anchor the unit as Perkins returns, which should also aid the running game even though senior Marcus Hutchins and sophomore Tristan Nickelson turned in good performances against Oklahoma.

But running the football against the Wildcats won't be easy, as the defensive line is the strength of the Kansas State defense. Former wrestler Mitch Geary may have walked on in Manhattan, but he's the strongest player on the team and could give Texas senior center Taylor Doyle some issues in the running game. Next to him, senior Travis Britz is a three-year starter who has four tackles for loss on the season.

In the last two games, however, the rush defense for Kansas State has looked beatable -- TCU ran for 242 yards two weeks ago when quarterback Trevone Boykin broke off a 69-yard touchdown run late and running back Aaron Green added his own 86-yard effort. Oklahoma went into last week's game with an increased emphasis on the ground game after throwing the ball almost exclusively in the first quarter against Texas and managed 232 yards after taking an early lead.

In looking at the overall context of the season, those long runs by the Horned Frogs are more of an exception rather than the norm, as the Wildcats have only given up three other runs of 20 yards or more and rank tied for 28th nationally with only 24 runs of 10 or more yards allowed this season. To go over the 200-yard mark on the ground, the Horns will have to consistently pick up yardage or achieve results that are as anomalous as the runs by Boykin and Green.

Unless play caller Jay Norvell was being coy on Tuesday evening -- a distinct possibility -- don't expect a large number of new plays to emerge from the bye week, as the team focused on continuing to improve consistency and execution.

However, the coaching staff doesn't want to run Heard 20 or more times a game every week, so the 18 Wheeler package and a greater emphasis on getting the running backs more carries will likely be large elements of the Kansas State game plan.

Since Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder also wants to run the football and control the clock (and possesses an offense that doesn't produce big plays in the passing game), the team that is better able to do so will likely come out the victor this weekend. In past, that's certainly been the case, as Texas has won all three games against Kansas State when running the ball on 57 percent or more of the plays and lost all eight when passing the ball more than 43 percent of the time.

It may sound simple and reductive, but sometimes football isn't that complicated -- if the Horns can continue to establish an identity as a "run-first, nasty, get-at-your-face" offense in a game that will probably be played in extremely rainy conditions, Texas will pick up a second win over Kansas State in the last three years.