"We still can't figure out why we're not getting the big plays in the running game," head coach Mack Brown said. "We're close. We're right there. But it's something we need to start getting during these last four weeks."
It was something Texas tried to get in Lincoln by operating more out of the 'I' formation than at any time this season. The Horns finished with 128 yards rushing on 34 attempts. Selvin Young netted 50 yards on 14 carries, including a long of 21 yards. (His gritty 12-yard run to the 10-yard line on Texas' game-winning driving all but sealed the deal). RB Jamaal Charles averaged 7.0 ypc, including a run of 27 yards, to finish with 63 yards.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said he is "pleased, but not thrilled" with the running game.
"It's a legitimate question: why no big runs? I mean, that's what I'm asking myself," Davis said. "Our line is doing a pretty good job, but we're not getting the big run with any consistency."
Part of the equation is that the QB is not a viable part of the ground game this season. RS-freshman Colt McCoy is incredibly poised, remarkably accurate and has to be the front runner for Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. I've repeatedly said that one of McCoy's best attributes is that he innately feels the defensive pressure, allowing him to scramble effectively or deliver the ball just before he gets his clocked cleaned. But no defense is shaking in its cleats at the prospect of a designed run for McCoy.
"Vince (Young) was such a threat to pull the ball and people were so cognizant of whether he had the ball or not," Davis said. "Sometimes the threat is as productive as the actual deal. That part is different now, so I think you'd have to factor that in there."
Then again, it may have been a day when a solid defense, desperate for respect and playing in its own back yard, just made more plays than the Horns.
"Nebraska played better in the Red Zone than we did," Brown said. "We've gotten pretty spoiled around here. We score 40 or 50 every week and feel pretty good about it. There are reasons on every play that we didn't score. Usually it's because their guy played better than our guy."
Could be, considering the fact that Texas has been consistent inside the Red Zone before Saturday. The Horns have made 36 trips inside the 20-yard line in 2006, resulting in 30 scores (26 TDs, 4 FGs). Against Nebraska, the Horns were actually 4-of-5 inside the Red Zone, but settled for two FGs, one missed FG and failed to punch it across on 1st-and-goal from the two during their first possession of the fourth quarter. And that one nearly proved fatal.
Several fans have asked why 275-pound RB Henry Melton didn't get a chance to crack the end zone during some of those 1st-and-goal situations.
"We just feel like the other two are more productive," Davis said, and left it at that.
Meanwhile, Charles did not carry the ball in the fourth quarter, prompting many to suggest that if Charles is indeed "the fastest player in the country" (as a couple of coaches have said) then he needs to average more than the 12.8 carries-per-game he's been getting this season.
From Davis' perspective, the Red Zone problems began when Texas found itself behind the chains on several occasions.
"We weren't very productive on first down," he said. "When you get a first down at the eight or nine, the first play is critical in terms of being able to turn that into a touchdown. We were not productive on first down. I think that was the common thread."
Texas opening drive began 1st-and-goal from the Nebraska nine following Quan Cosby's 78 yard KO return. Young collected four yards on first down but barely made it to the LOS on the next snap. That's when Davis opted for a trick play that the Horns had not run before, and aren't likely to try again this season. It was called Z Surprise, in which FL Jordan Shipley stood next to McCoy and pretended to tie his shoe. At the snap, McCoy fakes a handoff to a RB while placing the ball in Shipley's hands. Linebacker Bo Ruud didn't bite and stopped the razzle-dazzle for no gain.
"They (trick plays) are neat when they work," Davis said, "and you get asked about them when they don't."
Texas overcame a false start penalty on its next trip inside the Red Zone (second possession of second quarter) but scored on 3rd-and-goal from the five when McCoy found Cosby in the end zone. The PAT was blocked. The Horns were on the cusp of the Red Zone on their final possession of the first half, but Greg Johnson's FG attempt from the 22 was short.
Texas' third trip inside the Red Zone saw Charles lose a yard on 1st-and-10 from the 13 on Texas' final drive of the third quarter. Two incompletions later, Johnson was wide right from 31-yards out. The Horns could have made it a far less dramatic final frame when they operated from 1st-and-goal from the two following a pass interference penalty. Young lost four yards on two carries, while an inside screen to Billy Pittman went nowhere. Johnson connected on a 22-yard FG, but you could sense the momentum shifting to the Nebraska sideline after the Blackshirts kept it a one-possession game. The Huskers scored three plays later off Marlon Lucky's halfback pass.
"All year, we've done really well in the Red Zone," McCoy said. "We've scored a lot of points. We missed two field goals, and that didn't help. We still should have found the end zone. That's the part of the offense that we didn't handle well."
Or, is part of the problem the offense itself? Davis has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since Ricky Williams completed his eligibility. These days, Davis has been routinely questioned for his reliance on sideline-to-sideline zone runs as his bread-and-butter plays. Overall, the ground game has been responsible for a serviceable 180 ypg (NCAA No. 22). It begs the question: how effective is the scheme when the field is reduced inside the 20 (not to mention as wet, slick and frigid as it was in Lincoln) and when the safeties are spinning down closer to the LOS? Teams know what Texas is going to try to do, now. Nebraska's defense aligned itself specifically to shut down Texas' lateral running game. And that's why runs from the 'I' formation became so pronounced Saturday.
"For that reason, we went under center to try to settle some of that down and try to come downhill at them," Davis said. "Their defense moved so much and gave us so many different looks and they blitzed so much that we wanted to make sure we could get down hill some and run north-and-south."
The flip side is that, once again, an opposing defense practically sold out to stop the run and left passing lanes open. SE Limas Sweed enjoyed a career day with 119 yards and two TDs on eight grabs, including a long of 55 yards. RS-freshman TE Jermichael Finley also notched a career-best four receptions. McCoy completed a career-best 25 passes. Yet, in Brown's perfect world, the Horns rush for 250 ypg and bust loose for a 60- or 70-yarder each game.
Will the I-formation now become more of a staple this season?
Probably not, what with starting FB/NT Derek Lokey out indefinitely with a fractured leg. And Brown cautions that the formation is not a cure-all. After all, the Huskers live-and-die by the I and netted just 38 yards Saturday. It is also a widespread misconception, Brown believes, that the type of zone runs and counter plays that Texas is currently emphasizing represent a less physical brand of football than running out of the I-formation
"We grew up with the 'I' being the deal so we think it's more physical. It's not. You've got 310-pounders coming at you on the zone run every time. The zone play is as much north-and-south as anything."
Yes, in theory. It's just that coaches -- and fans -- continue to look for more evidence of it.