Ground Control: Run Game Crucial To Cotton Success

See Texas run the football. See Texas stop the run. See Texas emerge a New Year&#146;s Day Bowl champion. Otherwise, see the 2000 Cotton Bowl (where Texas got run over by another barely ranked SEC team in a 26-7 setback to Arkansas).</P>

For UT to finish 11-2 in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history, it needs to do something consistently for four quarters Wednesday that it has not done well for four years: run the ball.

Head coach Mack Brown said Monday he was "still not pleased" with his team’s ground game and is looking for the kind of dominance last seen when the Dreaded One (Ricky Williams) laid waste in 1998 to every individual NCAA career rushing total on the books.

"I would like to be a football team that can line up and run the ball when it wants to," Brown said during the final Cotton Bowl press conference prior to Wednesday's 10 a.m. kickoff. "We haven’t been able to do that the last four years. We were able to do that our first year. Ricky looked pretty good yesterday (in the NFL) so he probably had a little bit to do with that. But we’ll continue to work hard. Again, I think it’s hard to win all of your games unless you can run the ball. So people are doing it because they play great defense. But to me the teams that usually win the championships are the ones who can run it the best."

The rushing offense showed flashes of promise against Iowa State and North Carolina this past season, but there was no sustained ground game all year. Texas finished No. 71 nationally in rushing offense (137.4 ypg; No. 8 Big 12). Even so, Brown defended his team’s ground game

"We have not run it as bad as some of our critics act like we have." Brown said. "(RB) Cedric (Benson) has gained over 1,000 yards and is the first back to do it his freshman and sophomore years at The University of Texas. We have had games when we’ve run the ball really, really well. It’s just that we haven’t run it consistently well every week."

Much of the criticism has been laid at the feet of Texas’ offensive line, where some of those 20 million honorary coaches (a phrase Brown typically uses of those critical of his program) have blamed everything from the offensive line splits, blocking schemes and even the players’ intestinal fortitude.

Just before conference play began, Benson reported to Austin American-Statesman writers that he was slowed by a painful turf toe injury and that he was exhausted from having played summer baseball. (Apparently the sophomore reported the injury to sports columnists before he reported it to UT coaches, as Brown said in October he first learned of the injury from reading the newspaper.)

"Cedric has been banged up all year," Brown said Monday. "It’s probably partly because he plays pro baseball in the summer. It’s more difficult for him to work out like he should when he’s on that bus, traveling around the country and hitting a baseball. It’s something we have to look at. Ricky Williams was so big and so strong, but in his last year he left summer baseball in July to come back and work out with the team so he would be in great shape. Cedric is going to continue to play baseball in the summer. So if that’s going to be the case, we’re going to have to be more aware of his conditioning and his strength levels immediately when he comes in. We’ll probably need to have him share time more early in the season than we did this year because we’re trying to run him into shape."

Here’s hoping that Texas will hitch its wagon to All-American OT/OG Derrick Dockery one last time (much like it did in last year’s Holiday Bowl when RB Ivan Williams skied along in the wake that RT Mike Williams created in the Washington defense late in the game). Dockery knows he will be under the NFL scouting microscope Wednesday. If he can open some holes and get Cedric untracked, Texas will cover that 10-point spread and Dockery could considerably enhance his status in April’s draft.

Texas is also looking for the kind of bowl game defensive dominance that has been missing since the third quarter in that 2000 Cotton Bowl (not so) Classic. Although ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense at the end of the 2001 season, the Longhorn ‘D’ gave up 43 points in the team’s win against Washington and 35 points the previous season in the bowl loss against Oregon.

"We gave up a lot of points in the last two bowl games," Brown said, "but we also had a lot of turnovers. And usually if you turn the ball over on your end of the field, you put your defense in a tough spot. Turnovers are a key part of bowl games."

LSU RB LaBrandon Toefield missed most of the conference season with an arm injury but returned to the lineup in the Tigers' last-second loss to Arkansas, a loss that cost them the SEC Western Division title.

This year, Texas was uncharacteristically soft against the run, yielding an average of 133.8 ypg (No. 30 NCAA; No. 4 Big 12). Injuries took their tool on the D-line throughout the season. Although expected to start Wednesday, DE Kalen Thornton has been severely limited all season (leg) while DT Marcus Tubbs (calf), who has been limited since the Nebraska game, is not expected to start against the Tigers.

The Texas defense finished the regular season ranked No. 12 nationally while LSU’s stoppers finished No. 5.

"(LSU head coach) Nick (Saban) gets so much credit for his defense, and he should." Brown said. "They’re very physical, they stop the run and they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

Horns Digest Top Stories