Commentary

Newton's running key for Texas

Updated: January 29, 2010, 12:06 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- So many great running backs have worn the burnt orange of Texas that it took exhaustive research to discover that the last time a No. 1 tailback finished with fewer yards than this season's 513 by redshirt freshman Tre' Newton was way back in ...

Oh, wait. Says here it was in 2008.

The lack of a traditional Texas power rushing attack only accentuates the marvelous success of quarterback Colt McCoy the past two seasons: a 25-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl victory and a berth for the No. 2 Longhorns in Thursday's BCS National Championship against No. 1 Alabama.

More than any Texas quarterback in recent memory, McCoy has largely had to do it all in consecutive seasons. In that span, he has more carries and more rushing yards (909) than Texas' top-gaining tailbacks (889) of the past two seasons.

To put that in perspective, Alabama tailback Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner, chewed up 1,542 yards while making life much more comfortable for quarterback Greg McElroy. Texas' Jamaal Charles racked up 2,450 rushing yards in McCoy's first two seasons as the starter.

Even Vince Young, who could seemingly accomplish anything in leading Texas to the 2005 national title, still had the help of the speedy Charles, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, who rushed for 878 yards, 7.4 a carry, and 11 touchdowns.

In the past 30 years, a Texas running back has failed to rush for at least 600 yards eight times. Six came between 1983 and 1994. Only twice in those six seasons did Texas win 10 or more games. Four times the Longhorns won eight or fewer and twice won only four.

Thursday night at the Rose Bowl, McCoy will again try to be all things for the Longhorns. He's already talked about how he'll likely have to use his legs more against the vaunted Alabama defense. But what if Newton, a Southlake Carroll High School product who will make the biggest start of his life on college football's grandest stage in just his 12th career game, can provide a little ground cover for his quarterback?

A few yards here, a few there to keep mammoth nose tackle Terrence Cody and the rest of the Crimson Tide's No. 2-ranked run defense on their toes, even if just a bit?

"It's critical that the running game does its part," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "To sit here and say we're going to go in and run up and down the field in the run game, I mean that would go against everything you look at on paper, or on film, but I think it's important that it does its part so that the play-action is better, the pass protection is better. I think that's a huge part of it."

Newton, the son of former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton, can be considered something of an unknown quantity entering the game. He won the starting job for the title game by outplaying Cody Johnson (84 carries, 333 yards this season), Vondrell McGee (56, 300) and Fozzy Whittaker (52, 207).

Newton gained 513 yards on 102 carries, a healthy 5.0-yard-per-carry average, and six touchdowns.

He is considered the best pass-protector and open-field blocker when McCoy goes for a quick-hitter screen, which at times can act as Texas' run game. Newton can also be a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. He had 12 receptions for 106 yards, second among running backs even though he missed a significant chunk of time after sustaining a concussion in the fifth game of the season.

[+] EnlargeTre' Newton
AP Photo/Harry CabluckIf running back Tre' Newton can match his season average of 5.0 yards per carry against Alabama, it will help the Longhorns avoid third-and-long situations.

Coaches say Newton had just started to emerge as the team's top back, with 62 yards on eight carries at Wyoming followed by 88 yards on 20 carries against Texas Tech, when he sustained the concussion, the second of his career.

He missed the Oklahoma game, and the injury threw a wrench into the middle portion of his season. He would get just seven carries total in the next five games after suffering the head injury.

"The concussion, you know, the doctors and everybody wanted to take the right steps before putting me back in," Newton said. "And then I had to get back up to speed and work hard and things like that."

Against Baylor on Nov. 14, Newton started to come on again, rushing seven times for 80 yards, then rushing 12 times for 66 yards against Kansas and rushing 16 times for 107 yards against Texas A&M. The first 100-yard game of Newton's career went largely unnoticed thanks to McCoy's brilliant all-around game, as the quarterback had 479 yards of total offense in the 49-39 win at College Station.

In the Big 12 title game against Nebraska, Newton gained just 36 yards on 19 carries in a Cornhusker beatdown of the Texas offensive line. No run game and porous pass blocking left Texas with too many low-percentage, third-and-long situations.

"Whether it's in the run or the pass game, we have to stay on schedule," Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite said. "Like any defense, but especially Alabama's defense, our defense is similar, if you get yourself in third-and-long, you're going to see a variety of things. On first and second down, we've got to be efficient.

"That, to me, is one of the bigger things in the game."

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said he's preparing his defense to expect Texas to try to establish a ground presence from the start. If Texas is successful, Newton will likely have a key role in getting the job done.

"Our offensive line, if they can play well, if they can control the line of scrimmage, that's where the game's going to be won or lost," McCoy said. "If we can get the running game going to open the quick-pass game, open up a little of the play-action, then I think we've got a great chance to be successful.

"Tre's come a long way. He's very capable."

If Newton and Texas, which averaged 152.7 rushing yards a game, can use the run to jab Alabama, it would not only be a major boost in the title game, but also an encouraging sign that Newton might be able to carry on Texas' tailback tradition, A.C. -- After Colt.

"They have a lot of good players and are extremely well-coached. It's going to be a great game," Newton said. "It's a one-game season now, so we're trying to make sure we know all of our assignments and execute everything well."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES