Stat Gal: Johnathan Gray needs to get more touches

Jori Epstein

In Texas’ 38-3 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday, the Horns set FBS records for their inability to produce offense.

Racking up just 163 total yards, Texas’ average of 3.13 yards per play slotted 119th of 120 D-I competitive teams. The culprit, as sophomore tight end Andrew Beck articulated Monday, wasn’t one person — the team struggled across the board. But Texas’ biggest mistake last weekend was not giving the ball to senior running back Johnathan Gray more.

The argument for handing the ball to Gray, a talented veteran, seems obvious: He’s the Longhorns’ only proven, seasoned offensive force. He rushed for 40 yards in South Bend, Indiana, despite getting only 8 touches and never lost a yard. After junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes netted 17 yards rushing, the next-best gainer was sophomore running back D’Onta Foreman, who gained five yards on three carries. It’s clear that Gray — who teammates and coaches call “J-Gray” — was the only productive back against the Fighting Irish’s talented defensive line.

Even if Gray’s five-yard average doesn’t qualify as prime rushing, it translates into a first down every other play. Had the Longhorns earned a first down on half of their offensive plays last game, they’d have racked up 26 first downs Saturday — close to Notre Dame’s mark of 30. Instead, Texas stagnated at eight first downs, suffering 11 three-and-outs and giving the Fighting Irish ample clock time to trample the Longhorn defense. The Fighting Irish seized the opportunity, collecting 527 offensive yards.    

Of course, it’s not entirely that simple. The more Gray runs, the more defenders will prepare. The effectiveness of a run game decreases sans the element of surprise. But against Rice-when the Longhorns should have the more talented squad-is the perfect time to try it. The offensive line desperately needs to practice blocking anyway. And as the line shows ineptitude blocking the pass rush and protecting its quarterback, Texas might as well hone its run protection.

Statistically, Texas can rely on Gray. Since he arrived in Austin, the Horns are 10-2 in games during which Gray received 15 or more carries — an 83 percent win rate far superior to the Longhorns’ actual 57.5 winning percentage during that period. Head coach Charlie Strong preached an increase in Gray’s opportunities on Monday.

“You look at J-Gray, he touched the ball eight times the other night,” Strong said. “He’s a back that needs the ball. The ball needs to be fed to him anywhere from 15 to 20 to 25 times.”

Strong also said he gave his team five steps to a win: Play great defense, run the ball, control the clock, protect the quarterback and win on special teams. The Horns didn’t meet at least the first four Saturday night, but integrating Gray into the game plan more will boost their chances.

Texas’ sub-200-yard performance Saturday was its third straight under Strong — a low mark hit just once from 2000 to 2013. These historically bad performances will never be the standard at Texas nor will they propel the Longhorns to wins. If Texas wants to win, it needs to implement what works. Until the passing game adapts — and then some — Texas must rely on Johnathan Gray for success. He won’t drop the ball.