Benson sparks offensive resurgence

If you'd have asked him at the time, <B>Mack Brown</B> probably would have given a totally different answer than the one he gave post-game, but with a 45-17 victory safely in the record books, the Texas head coach said he couldn't have scripted the beginning of Saturday's game any better.

Texas trailed 10-zip mid-way through the first quarter and the Cowboys had the ball in UT territory, just 45 yards from adding to their 10-point cushion.

"We haven't been in that position this year," Brown said. "We've haven't been behind much and it wasn't 10-0 and ugly, and the 10-to-nothing (vs. OSU) was ugly." The Texas players, though, kept their heads, didn't panic, and quickly turned that unsightly scoreboard total into a much prettier picture.

With Nathan Vasher's interception at the 5:47 mark of the first quarter, UT awoke from what could be labeled its Oklahoma game hangover (although the coaches and players denied any such thing existed) and dominated that other team from the Sooner state from that point on, scoring 45 unanswered points, 31 of those before the break, and totally shutting down the Cowboys' offense, giving up just 97 yards after OSU's opening-possession, 65-yard TD drive. The only post-first quarter blemish for the Horns came on Chris Massey's late 97-yard kickoff return for a score.

Aside from that play, all of the scoreboard theatrics in the final three quarters came from the guys in the Burnt Orange. One guy in particular may have made it all happen.

Cedric Benson.

The true freshman tailback, after sitting the bench for all but one play last week vs. OU, got the starting call this week against OSU and provided Texas with the running production it so sorely lacked in the Cotton Bowl. Greg Davis, under fan fire for abandoning the run last week against the Sooners, said the running game needed a spark, and the coaches felt like Benson would bring it, thus the start.

The RB's initial spark singed his own offense, but after fumbling on his second carry of the game, a play that set up Oklahoma State for a field goal and the 10-0 lead, Benson became the Longhorn O's Cowboy-burning weapon on the game's pivotal drive.

After Vasher's INT set up UT at its 21, Benson ran 10 times for 62 yards on the Horns' 16-play, 79-yard scoring drive to trim the Oklahoma State advantage to 10-7 early in the second quarter. Along with several short gainers, the freshman ripped off runs of 12, 13, eight, seven and 10 yards. Back-up Ivan Williams also contributed on the drive, spelling Benson and picking up five and four yards on his consecutive carries, but the Midland Lee product showed a quickness to the hole and the vision to find it that Williams and the other Texas backs simply do not possess.

"He's got outstanding vision," the head coach said post-game. "He sees the cuts. He runs with reckless abandon. Usually (defenders) don't knock him back, he usually finishes forward and out in the open field one guy usually doesn't tackle him. He's not real big. He may not be the fastest guy in the world. But he's a guy who makes yards."

Following that breakout drive, Benson's pace slowed a bit -- he finished the game with 131 yards on 31 carries -- but his mere presence in the backfield, specifically the threat that he would run the ball, a threat that led to several great play action fakes on the part of Benson and Chris Simms, opened up the field for the UT passing game.

The Texas QB, coming off his worst game in the Orange and White, took advantage of the Cowboys' Benson-mindedness and had his best TD tossin' game in his two-and-a-half years as a Longhorn, completing 18 of 30 passes for 235 yards and six TDs (five passing and one rushing). He threw a late third quarter pick, but his five scoring strikes tied a school record set by James Brown against Baylor in '94.

Simms spread the ball around the field, completing passes to eight different offensive players, but Sloan Thomas had a career day catching balls from the junior QB. The sophomore wideout totaled 82 yards on six grabs, establishing career highs in both categories. Thomas, though, credited Benson and the OL for a lot of the success of the aerial attack.

"Any time you can establish the run, it opens up the passing game," Thomas said. "All receivers want to throw the ball 100 times per game but if you can't run the ball you won't be able to pass the ball."

Which leads us back to Benson.

The true freshman said he knew Thursday that he would probably start because all of his practice reps came with the first O. He said he tried to relax in the days and then hours leading up to his first start, treating it as "just another game," but he acknowledged that that was a hard thing to do. Once on the field, though, "it feels like that's where I should be," Benson said.

No argument here.

The Cowboy D, of course, shouldn't be mistaken for the Sooner D, but Benson proved Saturday that concerns about his pass protection, while well-founded early in the season, probably shouldn't have kept him (and from here forward won't keep him) off the field.

"Last week, we didn't feel like Cedric was as far along in his pass protection as he is now and we just made a decision after the (OU) game that we were going to make him ready," the Texas head coach said. "We told Cedric that we're not at a point anymore where we can put him in just to run the football. He has got to be a (complete) tailback and he's got to be involved in the passing game and from what I could tell he did a real good job with his protection."

Benson gave himself a grade of "88 or 90" in pass protection while allowing himself just a 75 for his running performance. It's exciting to imagine what even a B-plus rushing day would entail on the Benson scale.

Despite his modest evaluation, the quietly confident tailback realizes the importance of his play to the offense as a whole. "I think I give Chris and the receivers a much easier game by taking pressure off of them which sets them up for touchdowns."

Benson allowed the Horns to remain two-dimensional throughout the game, something the offensive coordinator challenged his team to do going into the game. For the game, Texas ran the ball 52 times and passed it just 31 times (63%-37%), its highest run-to-pass differential this season. If that ratio remains in place for the remainder of the season -- and with Benson's now-proven ability, it could -- the Horns should be sitting at 10-1 after visiting College Station on the day after Thanksgiving.

Brown Saturday preemptively removed any doubt about Cedric's status for the Colorado game. "He'll play next week," said Brown with a Stillwater-to-Austin-sized grin.

Neither is Benson shy about his plans for next week and for that matter, the final five games of UT's '01 regular season, shoot, even the rest of his career on the Forty Acres. "I'm gonna try to keep this job till my days here are up," he said post-game Saturday.

If he does, again, no argument here.

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