There’s a convincing case to be made that when the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners took the field at the Cotton Bowl in early October, Lincoln Riley’s offense was largely lacking a key cog in the well-oiled machine — a fear-imposing rushing attack.
This isn’t to say Oklahoma’s ground game was next to non-existent, because that certainly wasn’t true, but after the Sooners scampered for 316 yards and five scores in the season-opener against Florida Atlantic, budding star Rodney Anderson went down with a season-ending knee injury the following week, which consequently led to the Sooners rushing averages regressing to 178.5 per game throughout the next four contests.
For Texas, this essentially meant that the key to success, in addition to doing any and everything to slow a potent passing attack, was merely limiting Kyler Murray’s explosive prowess outside of the pocket.
For the most part, this goal was met.
Murray did make his way down the sideline for a late 67-yard touchdown scamper, though he totaled just 25 yards otherwise, and the running back rotation amassed only 130 yards on 20 attempts. Save for Murray’s sensational sprint to the end zone, an Oklahoma ground game still trying to find its footing outside of Murray was limited to arguably its worst rushing showing of the season, though Murray certainly helped assure that raw stats don’t reveal that reality with him single-handedly accounting for 92 of Oklahoma’s 222 yards.
The tables have turned in the Sooners favor since the loss to Texas, though, and what was once lost in comparison to Oklahoma’s aerial assault has since been found.
After averaging 209 rushing yards per contest throughout the first half of the season, largely courtesy of the aforementioned 316-yard debut against FAU, Oklahoma’s ground game has fired on all cylinders throughout its six most recent outings to the tune of 320 and 7.5 yards per carry.
The lone instance in which Oklahoma didn’t eclipse the 300-yard threshold was against Kansas State, and even then, the Sooners stockpiled 294 yards and five scores.
The difference, aside from the sheer rushing average that would rank second nationally had Oklahoma maintained it from start to finish?
A solid starting point was actually placing increased emphasis on running the ball. After averaging 33.3 carries per contest and not once rushing 40 times in a single game throughout the first half of the season, Oklahoma has ramped that rushing effort up to 42.5 carries per game since the Texas loss, with four games featuring at least 40 attempts.
However, handing the ball off more has worked hand-in-hand with the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Kennedy Brooks, who has blossomed into Oklahoma’s budding star ball-carrier for the foreseeable future.
After seeing just 15 carries throughout the first six games and only three attempts against Texas, Brooks has since emerged as Oklahoma’s leading rusher with 993 yards on only 103 carries, which makes for an NCAA-leading 9.6 yards per carry. Furthermore, since the Texas game, Brooks saw only five carries against Kansas State and four against Texas Tech, but has since rushed for 518 yards throughout the final three-game stretch of the regular season.
“The Kennedy Brooks kid is another one they can plug in behind that offensive line and churn out, whatever, 7.8 yards a carry or whatever it is,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said on Monday of how more much difficult Brooks has made slowing Oklahoma’s run game. “So it starts up front. Again, you gotta make sure you tackle the back without allowing some of the read game stuff without allowing Kyler to get cut loose.”
Brooks isn’t alone in his success, either.
Sophomore Trey Sermon has been limited throughout the year while battling various ailments and has seen only three carries for 17 yards throughout the past two weeks, but nevertheless, he’s totaled 863 yards and 11 scores behind three 100-yard showings since the Texas game, including a 206-yard explosion against Texas Tech. Murray’s rushing rise — at least statistically speaking — has been more closely resemblant to that of Brooks. After failing to rush for more than 92 yards once throughout the first eight games, Murray has averaged 94.8 rushing yards per contest throughout the past four appearances, which features a pair of 100-yard showings against Texas Tech (100) and West Virginia (114).
He, too, is eyeing a 1,000-yard campaign with 853 yards to date.
While Brooks is almost certain to surpass the 1,000-yard mark against Texas, as he needs only seven more yards to do so, it’s possible that depending on how the Big 12 Championship and Oklahoma’s bowl game play out, the Sooners could see three players finish with at least 1,000 yards rushing.
While one could argue that the road to such a praiseworthy rushing feat hasn’t been littered with daunting defenses, as Oklahoma has faced four units currently ranked 80th or lower in rushing defense S&P+ throughout the past six games and eight outside of the top 70 overall, the Sooners body of work throughout the second half of the season speaks for itself.
It will certainly need to be discussed on the Forty Acres throughout the coming days with Texas now tasked with game-planning to slow OU’s ground game far more notably than it likely needed to the first time around,