Running game should help decide Red River Rivalry

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
12:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


It's a simple truth that seemingly is as old as the Red River Rivalry itself.

Even with the proliferation of passing games across the conference -- including at Texas and Oklahoma -- the importance of the running game in their annual matchup at the Cotton Bowl can't be overstated.

 
 Doug Benc/Getty Images
 DeMarco Murray and Oklahoma's other backs will be tested against the Longhorns' stout run defense.
In the Bob Stoops-Mack Brown era of the Texas-Oklahoma game, all six of Stoops' teams have won when they've outrushed Texas. And Brown's teams are 3-0 when they have outrushed Oklahoma. Texas' only other win under Brown came in 2006 when both teams ran for 124 yards.

That history will place huge pressure on both teams trying to run the ball against defenses that rank among the nation's top three in stopping the run.

Texas will be coming into the game with big questions at running back. Co-starters Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton have been taken off the depth chart because of injuries.

That's on top of the Longhorns' struggles last week against Colorado, where they produced only 46 yards on 25 carries. It was the least productive rushing performance since they produced the same yardage total against Kansas State on Oct. 19, 2002.

“We have not consistently run the ball this year,” Brown said. “OU is one of the best at stopping the run in the country. So that's a big concern for us. We ran it so poorly Saturday night, that if that's the case, we've got a lot of work to do before Saturday."

If McGee and Newton can't go, look for the oft-injured Fozzy Whittaker to get the first crack at a Sooner defense that is third nationally against the run.

“You just kind of have to go with who's healthy,” Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite said. “You have to really rely on your doctors and your players for information and their input and how they feel and get a good read on those players.”

Despite the recent struggles, Applewhite remains confident in his running game.

“I was very optimistic about what I saw today. I feel good about that," Applewhite said. "When you've got guys like Vondrell and Tre' who have taken a lot of reps, it's good to get somebody else some reps to get them worked in the routine and those guys can get mental reps.”

The Longhorns were able to control the line of scrimmage last year against Oklahoma, gaining 161 rushing yards compared to 48 for the Sooners. Texas held the ball for more than 37 minutes, icing the victory when Chris Ogbonnaya exploded for a 62-yard run that set up the clinching touchdown in a 45-35 triumph.

"The Texas-OU game makes everyone healthy, because everybody wants to play," Brown said. "This is a game that gets you well fast."

Oklahoma is in a similar predicament, although the Sooners' running game picked up last week at Baylor late in the game.

The Sooners struggled for much of the game last week, producing only 52 rushing yards midway through the third quarter as Baylor committed to stopping the run.

Eventually, the running of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown wore down the Bears and Oklahoma finished with 197 yards -- their best performance this season against an FBS opponent.

Murray first made his name in the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry with a breakthrough game two years ago. Murray rushed for 128 yards, including a 65-yard jaunt that catapulted the Sooners to their last victory in the series.

That was a marked contrast from last season, when he produced only 6 yards on seven carries as he was still slow to heal from a fractured kneecap suffered late the previous season.

But his rebound last week has given him confidence, even playing with an inexperienced Sooner offensive line that lost starting guard Brian Simmons last week with a knee injury. Oklahoma will be tested against a Longhorns defense that leads the nation in run defense and has permitted opponents to produce an average of 15 yards per game and 0.6 yards per carry over the last three games.

"We've been running the ball pretty good and we need to keep being physical, just like we've been doing,” Murray said. “I have a lot of confidence in this group and I think we'll be fine."

The history of this game demands patience. It's why you'll likely see both teams set an example early that they will try to run the ball.

“Running yards in this game have been hard,” Brown said. “You have to pick and choose. People can say Saturday night it was hard to run. It will be harder this Saturday than last Saturday.”

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