Running Game: Strength or Liability?

The Texas running game has stalled. The Texas running game has produced big runs. It's produced fumbles. It's produced touchdowns. As Big 12 play begins, is the running game a strength or a liability on the Texas football team?

From a statistics standpoint, Texas is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running the football. This season, the Longhorns are averaging 187.2 yards per game on the ground and have actually run the ball more times (157) than thrown it (149). Texas also has more TDs on the ground (8) than through the air (7). The team is averaging 4.8 yards per running play and starting running back Jamaal Charles will do you one better with his average of 5.5 yards per carry. He's also got six of Texas' eight rushing touchdowns. The second half against Rice certainly aided the situation, but the numbers on the season appear to be those of a team that can run the ball with authority.

But a basic look at the rushing statistics doesn't tell the whole story. While putting up impressive yardage, Texas has struggled at times to score in the red zone and the running game has switched back and forth between dominant big runs and getting strung out or stuffed at the point of attack.

There's also one number that doesn't look good: 5. That's the number of times the Longhorns have fumbled in the first four games of the season. Texas has only lost three of them, but the Horns have put the ball on the turf and done it at critical moments.

The prime example of this is Central Florida. The Knights of UCF still had a shot late in the ball game because, among other reasons, Charles coughed up the football as Texas was trying to run out the clock, giving Central Florida another chance in what turned out to be an uncomfortably close game for the Longhorns. This was also after Charles had fumbled near the goal line earlier in the game, causing Texas to lose a scoring chance. The Horns only managed one touchdown in six trips to the red zone that game.

Because of the continued ball security issues, last week both Charles and the Texas coaching staff harped on the need to hold on the football and how it would be a priority in practice. But on his first play against Rice, Charles fumbled again.

"It was weird," said Texas head coach Mack Brown. "The helmet hit right on the ball the first time he touched it and maybe that was really good to show that we need to work on it all week again and that he just needs to tighten up on it, but I'm proud of him that he went back and worked hard and didn't have any more issues with it at all."

Indeed, for the rest of the game Charles looked solid and much more consistent as a runner, carrying the ball 14 times for 72 yards (5.1 ypc) and three TDs. But that fumble remains. Charles said this week that he knows that holding onto the football needs to be a huge priority.

"You've got to," said Charles. "They (Kansas State) are going to come up to the ball. They blitz a lot."

But Charles is confident that he, and the running game in general, is much improved heading into the conference opener. One of the factors contributing to Charles' confidence in Texas' rushing attack is the infusion of a couple of younger players.

"Our running game is better and when Vondrell (McGee) and John (Chiles) came into the game, it got a lot more better," said Charles. "The running game is good right now."

Against Rice, McGee led the team with 80 yards on only eight carries, including a 38-yarder that set up a touchdown. Chiles, playing quarterback but showing off his abilities as a runner, churned up 72 yards on nine carries. Brown said that because of Chiles' impressive performance, we may see him this Saturday as well.

"John Chiles played well enough the other day (against Rice) that we'd like to get him in the game some," said Brown.

But as excited as the coaches, players and fans are about Chiles' abilities, Brown said it's important to keep things in perspective. After all, Chiles still has a long way to go in terms of experience.

"He's played about 20 plays so far this season and there will be a tremendous amount of pressure and a lot of really fast guys on defense chasing him on Saturday. Kansas State has got seven seniors, they're experienced, it is Big 12 play and the game will be on ABC so things will move a little faster on Saturday than they did last week against Rice," said Brown.

Charles says he's playing more consistent and likes the young players getting in the game. Brown said he likes that the team is playing more together on offense. But left tackle Tony Hills has a different theory on why the running game is more consistent. Hills posited that the offensive line is running its assignments much more effectively.

"In our offense, pretty much the most important thing is getting the backside," said Hills. "Guys are getting the backside."

Regardless, Charles, Brown and Hills are much more comfortable with where the running game is now than they were a couple of weeks ago, but Charles said there's still work to be done.

"We've still got things to improve on, we've got things we've got to show people we can do," said Charles. "We just have to go out there and execute."

But whether or not Charles and the Texas offense will be able to go out there and execute remains to be seen and, for now, the question of strength or liability remains.

Horns Digest Top Stories