Column: The path to victory against USC? Keep the ball on the ground

Michael Shapiro

The last time Texas faced USC back in January 2006, the Longhorns rushed for 289 yards, leaving the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with a 41-38 victory and a national title in tow. And while the circumstances are certainly different for the Longhorns on Saturday than they were nearly 12 years ago, the formula for defeating the No. 4 Trojans is quite similar. For Texas to leave Southern California with a major upset, it needs to run the ball early and often.

The Longhorns won’t have a certain No. 10 in the backfield Saturday. Vince Young’s days of suiting up for the burnt orange are long gone. But the lack of a Superman quarterback is even more reason for the Longhorns to rely on its running game Saturday.

Freshman Sam Ehlinger looked unpolished in his first career start against San Jose State last week, throwing for 222 yards on 15 completions. As for sophomore Shane Buechele, he spent most of his week-one start finding few open receivers other than checkdowns short of the first-down line. Even if Buechele’s injured shoulder clears up by game-time on Saturday, the jury is still out on whether or not he’s dynamic enough to fully succeed in head coach Tom Herman’s offensive system. 

With that in mind, Texas would be well-suited to rely on its running game, a strength both last year and in week two of the 2017 campaign. Former running back D’Onta Foreman left for the NFL following his 2,000 yard season in 2016, but there is still plenty of talent in the backfield, led vy running back Chris Warren III. Now in his junior season, the Rockwall, Texas native looks poised to be Texas’ bell-cow back moving forward. 

Warren is a bruising bowling ball at 250 pounds, unafraid of opposing defenders in his path. Look no further than the tape of last week’s 56-0 victory over San Jose State, and you’ll see Warren punishing defenders from the opening snap. In just 16 carries he compiled 166 yards and two touchdowns, churning for extra yards on nearly every down. Just as he did against the Spartans, Warren will be counted on to keep Texas out of third-and-long situations. He may not break off any massive runs in a single play, but consistent gains out of the backfield are necessary for a Texas victory.

“I’m not sure you’re going to see eight, nine, ten-yard runs like you did the previous game,” Herman said. “But if you can chip away with three, four, five-yard runs, and set yourself up in third-and-manageable, you can stay on the field and keep drives alive.”

Feeding Warren and keeping the time-of-possession edge will be critical in another realm as well — keeping USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold off the field. The Heisman candidate and projected top pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Darnold shredded No. 19 Stanford to the tune of 316 yards and four touchdowns last week, completing over 80 percent of his passes. Facing a secondary that ranked No. 99 in the nation in opponent passing yards per game in 2016, Darnold will decimate the Longhorn defense if given
the opportunity.

Texas enters Saturday’s contest as 17-point underdogs, with few, if any, national pundits giving the burnt orange a shot at leaving Los Angeles with a win. But while the Longhorns are certainly heavy underdogs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, there still looks to be one viable path to victory. Attack USC on the ground, grind the clock, and keep Darnold contained to the sidelines. Texas doesn’t have Vince Young calling the shots this year. But a No. 25 certain Chriss Warren III could control the outcome of
Saturday’s contest.