The Longhorns can run the ball. That much is clear. But can they defend it?
While Texas’ run defense has improved its national ranking over the last two weeks, the results speak more about the teams the Longhorns played.
UT held woeful Kansas to -2 yards rushing, then limited Texas Tech to 30 yards on the ground. But the lowly Jayhawks have one of the worst offenses in the country and the Red Raiders are a pass-heavy team. Sacks count against a team’s rushing yards, and Texas totaled seven sacks in those contests.
The Longhorns will have a clearer view of where their run defense stands after Saturday’s game against Missouri, though. The Tigers’ run game is second in the Big 12 behind Texas, and they are 12th in the nation with over 244 rushing yards per game.
“It’s they type of game where you want to be physical, but there’s going to be more too it than that,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “You have to be tough and physical and disciplined to stop their running game.”
Henry Josey leads the Tiger’s attack and is the top rusher in the Big 12 (127.7 yards per game). Mizzou’s quarterback, freshman James Franklin, is also a running threat and leads the team with 10 rushing touchdowns. Franklin is the No. 11 rusher in the conference and No. 81 in the nation.
The Tigers present the most dynamic run game the Longhorns have seen all season. Texas can’t simply focus on Josey, the defense must also be aware of Franklin.
“Any time a guy is in the top 100 in the country in rushing as a quarterback, and can get it done through the air, it’s one more thing you have to worry about as a defense,” said senior safety Blake Gideon. “That’s going to be a stress for us this week, to contain him and keep him corralled.”
But the Longhorns are better equipped to stop the run this season than they’ve been in a while.
For several years, the defense saw nothing but passes in practice. But with the offense harkening back to the old days of power football, the defense has gotten a leg up.
“I like the fact that we are running it in practice so the defense is actually taking on the running game every day,” said head coach Mack Brown. “That wasn’t the case for three years and it was tough for our defense because they didn’t see double teams and they didn’t see power and they didn’t see pulls. These guys are getting after each other in the running game, so it will not be like we haven’t seen it.”
Still, the Longhorns haven’t seen a running attack quite like Missouri’s.
The Tigers utilize a spread offense, but balance the run and pass well. They average 11 yards more through the air than on the ground. They rely on the big play and Josey leads the country with 43 rushes of 10-plus yards.
Texas was victimized by long scoring runs against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and must limit those defensive letdowns in this game.
“When we don’t allow explosive runs, we’re generally happy at the end of the night,” Diaz said. “But they are really good at creating explosive runs. That’s a big challenge for us.”
Fortunately for Texas, the defense has improved in recent weeks and Diaz’s new scheme is finally clicking.
“We’ve gotten better an better as the year’s gone on because we’ve gotten more comfortable with how we play the run,” Diaz said. “It is hard to be unsure and aggressive at the same time. The more you get into the season and see it at game speed, by nature you get it and then you become more aggressive.”
They will need that aggression if they want to become a dominant run defense.
So could Diaz’s crew hold its own against Texas’ bruising running game?
“I know this, we are happy that we don’t play Texas,” he joked.
Missouri isn’t happy either.