Is Charles in the 'Zone'?

Was RB Jamaal Charles' record-setting performance against Nebraska an anomaly against a bad run defense or a harbinger of things to come? Should Texas have used more Zone Read plays prior to the decisive fourth-quarter turnaround? What can we expect in Stillwater Saturday?

The Huskers' entered the game as the Big 12's worst run defense and was especially vulnerable against Zone Read and option attacks. Texas generated less than 100 yards rushing midway through the third quarter, but finished with a season-best 364 yards on the ground. The Horns ran approximately eight Zone Read plays during the ballgame, but just one prior to the tide-turning three-play drive with 13 minutes remaining in the final frame.

Jamaal Charles' 216 yards in the final 15 minutes of play was just six yards short of the NCAA record for most yards in a single quarter (Corey Dillon vs. San Jose State, 1996). But the fact that the turnaround started with backup QB John Chiles' one-snap sub for Colt McCoy begs the question: would Texas have leaned as heavily on the Zone Read had it not proved effective on that one play? Was the decision to emphasize the Zone Read more happenstance or intentional?

"When I saw the first hole when John came into the game," Charles said, "that basically changed the game."

Texas focused on Zone Read runs during practice but shelved the scheme when Nebraska surprised everyone with maximum blitzes. The Huskers had blitzed approximately 19 percent of the time this season, but Texas coaches estimated the Huskers sent extra defenders on nearly every play in Texas' 28-25 comeback. The first Zone Read play came on Charles' first carry of the contest, netting four yards.

"That's when I knew the Zone Read was going to work in this game," Charles said Monday.

The Horns then went with a power-I formation on its second series, as Charles and backup Vondrell McGee stepped off 29 yards on three straight runs. The drive stalled near midfield when Texas failed to convert on 3rd-and-seven.

"We did a good job running out of the I," Charles said. "We averaged four or five yards out of the I. We went back to '21' most of the time because we saw they were blitzing."

Head coach Mack Brown believes the Zone Read would not been as effective in the first half, given Nebraska's unexpected and relentless blitz. But offensive coordinator Greg Davis, upon further review, isn't so sure.

Said Brown: "We were in such shock that we wanted to be sure where (the blitzes) were coming from. The Zone Read is a fumble until you know where they are. If you don't know who's where, it's not a good play. We wanted to find out exactly what they were bringing. Then we got in trouble because we were in shock in the third quarter. You're down 17-3, you've got the wind and you've got six minutes left in the quarter. If you're going to throw, you've got to try to get some balls in the air there because you're not going to throw it as much in the fourth quarter. It's a balancing act of trying to figure out when we go with what."

Said Davis: "Looking back on it, I honestly think it (Zone Read) would have worked (throughout the contest). One way to look at the first half if you want to be positive, and we try to spin it that way, we had 209 yards of total offense. Obviously, the most important thing you can do offensively is score points, and we only had three points. I think that (criticism) is fair, too. The running game makes you more gap-conscious, and that helps everything. We talked all week (in practice) about doing more of the Zone Read. We did it once in the first half, and we should have done it more."

Texas' three-play scoring drive on its first series of the fourth quarter, covering 74 yards, was all Zone Read. Yet, Texas is likely to take to the skies Saturday against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' pass defense (306 ypg, NCAA No. 116) is as porous as Nebraska's run defense. Logic dictates that Texas will, again, pass first to set up the run. The difference may be that Charles now appears to on a downhill trajectory in the best sense of the word.

"He went into the game wanting to be more of a downhill runner," Davis said, "even though the 86-yarder was around the edge. He was headed downhill and then slid it outside. Even before the fourth quarter, I thought he was playing well. He had good ball security. He was running hard and breaking tackles. Good things happen late."

Can we expect good things to continue for Charles? At least one teammate believes his fourth-quarter explosion was a seminal moment for the junior RB.

"This game was huge for him to build his confidence," McCoy said. "It let him know that he can still do this. I don't think there was ever a point where he thought he couldn't, but a game like this should definitely build his confidence."

A 'game like this' also garnered props for Charles at the national level. He was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week as well as the Walter Camp Foundation National Offensive Player of the Week after setting career highs with 290 yards on 33 totes and three TDs. It was the fourth-best individual rushing performance in Longhorn history and the most yards a RB has ever generated against Nebraska.

"Jamaal had been struggling," Davis said. "When you're in a bad slump, you often want to hit the first pitch. So, you're not patient. The same thing happens to backs."

Coaches have instructed Charles throughout his career to appreciate the small-gainers rather than going for the home-run ball every time. On Saturday, Charles was like a batter who waited for "three or four pitches", Davis said, "and then he hit one out of the park."

Charles went yard with a career-best 86-yard run that gave Texas the lead for good with 7:33 remaining. It was Texas' longest-run from scrimmage in 10 years and is tied for fifth all-time in school history.

"A lot of times that's like a light switch coming on for a player," Davis concluded. "Hopefully, that will spur him through the stretch drive here."

The "stretch drive" begins Saturday at Okie State. Texas' final three regular season games are each set for a 2:30 p.m. (Central Time) kickoff and will be televised on ABC-Sports.


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