Strength In Numbers: Rushing stats sound alarm

A glaze-eyed stare at the stats reveals <B>Greg Davis</b> to be among the very top offensive coordinators in college football. It's true that the overall numbers Texas has produced offensively have been nothing short of gaudy, and on those alone, room to criticize is razor-thin. However, there's a more detailed landscape in that vast expanse of numbers.

The closer one explores, the more one finds erosion and cracks. In far too many contests since Ricky Williams departed, the Longhorns have failed to effectively, or even halfheartedly, rush the football. In 1999, the first season post-Ricky, the occasional ineptitude was blamed on a rebuilt offensive line. In 2000, those results were explained in part by the presence of a less-than-overpowering feature back who, while giving all he had, simply wasn't built for relentless rushes in the interior territory of defenders weighing 100-plus pounds more than him.

But what can we make of this past weekend's truly "offensive" performance against the Mean Green of North Texas? Did Mean Joe Greene warp back in time and play another sixty minutes for that team from Denton? This squad won all of five games last season, competing in one of the weakest conferences in I-A football to boot. However, UT's dearth of ground yardage made North Texas' defense look like Mean Joe's Steel Curtain from Pittsburgh of the 1970's. For the contest, Texas eked out a meager 28 yards on 35 rushes! If one takes out the equally mind-boggling totals of eight sacks for 51 yards in losses, the Horns still left with a pedestrian 79 yards on 27 tries, or less than three yards per carry. However, in college football, with sacks counting in rushing totals, the Longhorns staggered for less than one yard per rush. This is losing football against any defense, but particularly sounds alarms coming against a North Texas. [It's only fair to note, however, Chris Simms played quite well.]

In contrast, UT's biggest rival to the north, Oklahoma rushed for 378 yards on 42 attempts, a nine-yard average, against Tulsa. Sadly (if you're a Horn), Tulsa performed better (38 for 102) against OU's stop unit than Texas did on the ground against North Texas.

Enough for now on the impotence of the Horns' rushing game Saturday. What about other key numbers and happenings in the first full-blown weekend of college football?

Texas can take solace that it put away feisty UNT early and then coasted–at least we hope that's the reason for zero second half points–in contrast to what Oklahoma did with Tulsa, which went 1-10 last season. While the Longhorns stampeded to a 27-0 halftime lead, the Sooners sputtered and coughed their way to an almost scoreless tie (3-0 lead) through thirty minutes against the inspired Golden Hurricane. Which is more stunning: Texas' being stuck in neutral (almost reverse) on the ground or OU being almost shut out on the scoreboard for the whole first half with the game on the line? Both UT and OU fans can rationalize (rightly or wrongly) their respective head-scratching weaknesses. The former might say Texas just let up in the second half, knowing it had the contest won already by halftime. The latter can argue it just took awhile to get the cobwebs out and that what you saw in the second half is the "real" Sooner squad. Both groups can point to decisive victory margins as supposed proof of bottom-line dominance. But both might be kidding themselves as well. Time will tell only as the year unfolds.

Another squad finding the ground approach resistant was Washington, which fell 31-29. At least Rick Neuheisel's group had an excuse: Michigan was the opponent, and Washington was visiting a packed (ware) house of 111,491 screaming fans clad in maize and blue. Frequently, the Huskies must have felt they were trying to run the ball against everyone in that stadium, as they managed a paltry 2.4 yards per carry for 80 yards. While tailback Rich Alexis did end up with 97 yards, without his lone run to daylight (57 yard scamper), he managed only 38 yards on 26 rushes, a meager 1.5 yards per attempt. Not exactly a recipe for winning a close gridiron battle.

Michigan, in claiming this last-second thriller, garnered a healthy 149 yards on 34 rushes. The Wolves' balance (throwing for another 269 yards), along with a couple of beneficial late referee decisions, probably made the difference, to the delight of their frenzied fans. If Lloyd Carr's defenders can buckle down a bit more on the aerial game, he will be viewing Michigan ahead with 0:00 a lot this fall. No doubt being supremely tested against a standout passing game like Washington's will benefit that secondary down the road.

Already, this year has seen a stumble and several near stumbles among the supposed elites of college football. Look at Colorado, for instance. Just a few months ago, head coach Gary Barnett was spewing sour grapes from his lips about how his Buffaloes were getting ripped off by the BCS for not placing them in the national title game. They were promptly clobbered, 38-15, by the Oregon Ducks, the real No. 2 team. This past Saturday, Barnett could be viewed spewing more projectiles, ripping a halftime reporter for asking about a possible quarterback change in light of the Buffaloes' goose egg and 13-0 deficit. His sixth-ranked team responded and took the lead in the second half, only to see unranked Colorado State complete a late, game-winning drive in route to a 19-14 upset. Sonny Lubick's underdog Rams held their own in the ground department, rushing for almost the same yardage (152 vs. 170) as Barnett's squad, which bludgeoned its opponents with that method last year. This marks the fourth straight year, all under Barnett, Colorado has dropped its opener.

Florida State, which supposedly is back where it belongs among the top powers in the country, outlasted Iowa State in its opener. To harken back to UT great Bobby Layne, Iowa State didn't necessarily lose; time just ran out. Afterwards, Bobby Bowden expressed more than just a little relief for surviving a close one.

Also, Wisconsin, in its opener, needed a late field goal to beat a rebuilding Fresno State in Madison, and South Carolina found itself ahead by a mere field goal after three quarters against undermanned New Mexico State before winning 34-24.

Other than Barnett's Buffs blowing another opener, the rest of the top 25 favorites finished ahead on the scoreboard. As is usually the case, expect this to change over the next couple of weekends.

One of several coaching cliches we frequently hear is that a team improves more between the opener and the next game than any other time of the season. [Let's hope that's true for the Longhorns' ground game.] It's also noted in relation to the above that a team holds a significant advantage if it already has a game under its belt while the opponent is opening its season. What were the results then this past weekend when that situation came up?

(Listing the team playing its second game first) Colorado State beat Colorado, Virginia Tech beat LSU, Fresno State beat San Diego State, Iowa State beat Kansas, Arkansas State lost to San Jose State, and Wisconsin beat UNLV. Florida State beat Virginia as well, but the Cavaliers had also already played. To sum it up: second-game teams won five and lost only once against their first-game-jitters competition, with only Arkansas State failing to keep form. Not surprising, since this program has had six straight losing seasons and only won three games since the turn of the century.

So which matchups feature the same situation this weekend? There are four of them: Arkansas opens its season against Boise State, and Ball State begins 2002 at Missouri. More interesting contests include Stanford starting its '02 journey by traveling to Boston College, and UCLA with a home opener against Colorado State, which (as noted) has played twice already. I have doubts about Boise State holding form, but expect Missouri to crush Ball State.

Stanford and UCLA may have their hands full. Stanford also is breaking in a new coach after Ty Wllingham left for Notre Dame, and UCLA may be breaking one in as well by next fall if Bob Toledo doesn't produce more W's this fall. Since the Bruins started the 1998 season 10-0, they have played less than .500 football, going only 17-19. UCLA's head man also must contend with a new athletic director, who holds no allegiance to him. One reason the Bruins hold some intrigue is Toledo beat out Mack Brown for a few key blue-chip recruits during Mack's first year and continued to finish high in the recruiting rankings even after the Texas coach began locking down the state boundaries.

We've mentioned the likes of Florida State, Michigan, and Oklahoma already. Other highly rated programs Miami, Tennessee and Florida destroyed mediocre opposition by a combined score of 161-23, or an average of 54-8. Despite all the talk of parity, some teams seem to hang around the top of the polls with a consistency that crushes that theory.

At this stage, while Texas surely ranks among the better teams in the country, Miami and Florida, and probably Tennessee and Oklahoma, still should be given the nod based on the recent past and what we witnessed this past weekend. Legitimate rankings shouldn't be based on projections, even in part. In short, I think UT's No. 2 ranking isn't yet warranted; around fifth seems more plausible–for now.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At the University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His "Strength In Numbers" column will appear weekly on InsideTexas.com.


Horns Digest Top Stories