After averaging less than two yards per carry against the USC Trojans 12 days ago, the Texas Longhorns are in Ames preparing for a Thursday evening matching hoping to get the running game going against a quality opponent.
Faced off against a freshman quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, the Trojans dared the ‘Horns to beat them through the air. Losing All-American left tackle Connor Williams during the game didn’t help, in addition to previous injuries to potential starting right tackle Elijah Rodriguez and starting tight end Andrew Beck.
This week, head coach Tom Herman called those players three of the team’s best blockers.
The team won’t get any of those players back soon, but there is a little bit more offensive line depth now than there was in Los Angeles with the return of center Terrell Cuney and more practice reps for Derek Kerstetter, a true freshman who has impressed coaches.
Still, there isn’t much depth.
“But right now the five guys that are going to start are playing at a higher level than those two guys, so there won't be any rotation or anything like that,” Herman said on Tuesday. “But if we get in a pinch, at least those guys are serviceable again.”
The only bye week of the season also afforded the coaching staff the opportunity to explore some ways forward despite the injuries.
“It has been a lot of idea sharing, a lot of self-reflection, a lot of critiquing of who we are, what we can be, what we need to be, what our personnel will allow us to be,” Herman said.
There may be some wrinkles in formation and plays, including more use of running backs Kyle Porter and Chris Warren III in the backfield together, which would allow the coaches to take a tight end off the field.
The question there is whether the coaches feel more confident about those wrinkles from that formation or the blocking ability of freshman tight end Cade Brewer, who is improving as a blocker, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Brewer also caught a touchdown pass in the USC game during overtime and has a “natural ability” at the position.
Just don’t expect Herman to abandon the run game, however — both he and Beck understand that it’s crucial to success.
“No, but we've got to figure out ways to get in formations and to call runs that allow the guys that are playing to be successful running the football,” Herman said. “No great team — there's been great offenses that haven't run the football very well or haven't attempted to run the football very well — but no great team has won big prizes at the end of the season without a really strong run game. So that's our job.”
If sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele starts on Thursday evening as anticipated, his passing ability and command of the offense could open up the field more for the running game.
Otherwise, the only way to account for extra defenders, as Beck pointed out, is for running backs to break tackles. Porter hasn’t shown an ability to do that so far and Warren displayed a tougher running style against San Jose State that featured better pad level, but hasn’t proven that those changes translate against better opponents.
While it seems clear is that there aren’t any particularly easy answers for the coaches in the run game, it’s equally clear that this team won’t be able to become bowl eligible unless it can find some.