'Thunder and Lightning' balances UT offense

It was the kind of play that delighted old-school Texas fans who are still a little wary about the team’s reliance on the spread offense.

So when Colt McCoy lined up directly under center last week against Baylor and then handed off to redshirt freshman Tre' Newton, it was a start. But when Newton sharply veered before producing a textbook cutback that finished off a scintillating touchdown run 45 yards later, it was like old times for the Orangebloods.

Maybe Cedric Benson, Ricky Williams or Earl Campbell weren’t coming back any time soon. But it still was a signal that the Longhorns hadn’t ditched their traditional running attack completely and could still move the ball on the ground when they needed to.

The installation of Cody Johnson as the starter and Newton as the speedy backup is indicative that Mack Brown has turned to two precocious but talented parts of his stable of backs for a late-season lift.

“We needed balance and we felt we could do a few things with Cody and Tre’,” Brown said. “They both stepped up. We feel our offense can be really good if we are balanced.”

With 224 yards rushing and 187 yards passing against the Bears, the Longhorns had more rushing yardage than passing yardage for only the second time all season.

“Basically, running the ball was our No. 1 concern,” said Johnson, who was the fourth different Longhorn to start at tailback this season. "Of course, we can still pass the ball, but we put a huge focus on running the ball and being more effective when we were out there. And I think the way we did it opened up a lot of eyes out there.”

Brown has yet to identify a featured back. But he appears to have growing comfort in the “Thunder and Lightning” tailback tandem of Johnson and Newton to perhaps alternate in that role.

Newton, who rushed for 80 yards, has been installed as the team’s primary backup heading into Saturday’s game against Kansas. It’s a signal, Brown said, that the team’s rushing attack appears “headed in the right direction.”

“Every time we’ve put Cody in, he’s made yards,” Brown told reporters earlier this week. “And when Tre’s in, he’s made yards, too.”

Running the ball had been a real concern for the Longhorns, who had produced only 297 rushing yards on 100 carries in their three previous games before playing Baylor.

A simplified playbook that relied on a handful of running plays helped spark the Longhorns to an impressive 6.4 yards-per-carry average against Baylor. It was their best performance against any conference foe this season.

Sure, the Bears came into the game ranked only 82nd nationally in rush defense, but it was still a strong sign of the return of the Longhorns’ ground attack.

Johnson had struggled with problems with his weight before finally rounding into shape over the last several weeks. His bullish running style appears to improve with the more carries he receives. He gained 109 yards after notching a career-best 19 carries last week.

“Backs I’ve been around like Ricky [Williams] and Cedric [Benson], they got better and better the more snaps they got,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “They would see things, lather up and really get going. I think the same started happening for Cody after we got him going.”

Newton had been hobbled since sustaining a concussion in a victory against Colorado last month. After a recovery of several weeks, it appears he is nearing peak performance.

"It feels good being back," Newton said. "It's always frustrating when you can't help your team. You have to stay focused and just be ready to help out when you get your chance."

Together, their divergent talents provide a good combination in the Texas backfield.

“Cody is just a beast out there -- he’s so physical,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said. “And Tre’ is awesome. You give him an extra second and he’s gone. He has a great burst and can just run by people if you give him a chance.”

The Texas offense will remain centered on McCoy and the passing game. But the development of Johnson and Newton gives the Longhorns hope of balance that had been missing much of the season.

“This shows the world we can actually run the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s not just the passing game. We can actually line up and run the ball. And now, they have to respect both the run and the pass when they play us.”