Longhorn run game looking to repeat breakthrough performance

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With veteran running backs — senior Malcolm Brown and junior Johnathan Gray — leading the rushing attack, expectations were high for the Texas ground game in 2014.

Brown finished the 2013 season on a hot streak, rushing for 841 yards in the final eight games and eclipsing the century mark five times. Gray suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in last season’s game against West Virginia but still managed to rack up 780 rushing yards in less than nine complete contests.

Together, they figured to be a dominant one-two punch that would carry the offense. However, that was before injuries and disciplinary issues mangled the offensive line, leaving a unit with only five career starts under its belt entering Texas’ second game of the season.

Predictably, the offensive line struggled to produce holes in that loss to BYU, and the running backs averaged only 2.34 yards per attempt — the lowest per-attempt average since gaining 2.32 yards per carry in a 2011 victory over Texas A&M.

But, eight weeks later, the Longhorn rushing attack had its most productive game of the season in last Saturday’s victory over Texas Tech. In total, they gained a season-high 241 yards on the ground, averaging 4.73 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns.

Brown reached triple digits on the ground in the win, becoming the first Longhorn to do so this season.

“It’s really about we just got some push up front,” Brown said. “I said it before — the offensive line was comfortable, and I could see it throughout practice. It was real simple for them, and it made it a whole lot easier for me. I definitely did catch a little rhythm, and it just went from there.”

This success on the ground is something the Longhorns hope to be able to build on in the season’s final three games.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” junior center Taylor Doyle said. “It’s very exciting to see our backs run the way they did, and we obviously feed off that as an offensive line.”

But Texas’ improvements running the football are not just a result of better offensive line play.

“I think you have to put into not only the offensive line but the tight ends and the fullback and then our H, which is our lead — our adjuster that does the same work a fullback does for us,” said Shawn Watson, Texas’ assistant head coach for the offense. “Those kids all played really well.”

In particular, tight ends — freshman Andrew Beck and senior Geoff Swaim — have played a crucial role in lead blocking to open up some holes for the backs.

“They’re doing so many things with this offense, and they’re so important to this offense, and they know that, and they’ve been doing a great job handling it,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Gray finally looks like he has fully recovered from last year’s injury. In particular, on a 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter last weekend, he cut around a Texas Tech safety for the score  — a move that he did not seem to be able to make in the early weeks of the season.

“[On] the touchdown run, the move he made on the safety to create the run, the finish of the run, was something you don’t see a lot,” Watson said.

For the first time all season, both backs played at a high level at the same time, finally proving how potent the duo could be together.

The Longhorns hope to continue their success on the ground this weekend against a Mountaineer defense that has surrendered 200 or more rushing yards in four out of nine contests. West Virginia dropped three of those four games.