Bryce Beall improves Houston's run game

The point was emphasized and re-emphasized in the spring and summer, and Houston running back Bryce Beall heard every word.

The Cougars had to be more than Case Keenum. They had to run the ball better than they did in 2009. Beall blamed himself for the struggles in that department last season, admitting he got a little too caught up in his spectacular freshman season.

So he resolved to do better. He worked harder, improved the strength in his legs, re-dedicated himself to being the back everyone saw in 2008.

That work has paid off through the first two games, and lo and behold, Houston is more than just a passing team. The Cougars have more rushing touchdowns (nine) than passing touchdowns (seven), and can thank Beall for much of that.

His 195-yard career day against UTEP set the tempo last weekend. If Keenum (concussion) is out against UCLA on Saturday, you can bet his role will grow even bigger.

“I was waiting to have that type of game again,” Beall said of his performance against UTEP. “It’s been a while. It felt really good to do.”

The last time Beall had 100 yards rushing was against UTEP in November 2008. That year he burst onto the scene, becoming the first freshman in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Beall led the team with 198 carries for 1,247 yards and 13 touchdowns. That included six 100-yard rushing games.

But last season told a different story.

“My freshman year everything went so well coming in, I didn’t face much adversity,” Beall said. “My sophomore year, I lost some confidence. Truthfully, I set a benchmark where all my goals were higher. The first couple of games, I was pressing because I wasn’t on track to meeting those goals. I got down on myself. My confidence level was low. I had a couple of bad games, and I kept thinking about plays that didn’t go my way. That stayed with me the whole season.”

His coaches and teammates tried to tell him to keep his head up, to forget about the bad plays and move on to the next. But Beall had a hard time letting go. The rushing game suffered, ranking No. 83 in the country with 130 yards a game. In its four losses, Houston had less than 130 yards rushing -- including two games with less than 50.

His production was essentially cut in half. Beall ended with only 670 yards rushing, seven touchdowns and just 4.8 yards a carry. Meanwhile, freshman Charles Sims emerged and became the best running back on the team.

“I just had to talk to myself, be the running back I know I can be and that’s all I had to do,” Beall said. “Get myself together. I’m more experienced now. I’m older and trying to be more of a leader.”

With Sims being ineligible to play this season, more of the onus fell to Beall. In his first two games, Beall has 243 yards and five touchdowns and is averaging 10.1 yards a carry. Coach Kevin Sumlin noticed a difference from the opener against Texas State, when he saw Beall playing unselfishly, making blocks, doing anything he could to help the team win.

Beall and Michael Hayes have combined to give Houston a real running threat. So real that UTEP coach Mike Price was caught a little off guard last week.

“We were going a lot of nickel and dime but (Keenum) kept checking to the run,” Price said. “He’s so smart, he’s so confident, he’s so good with the football, he’s dialing up the best plays against the defense. “They ran right over the top of us and we played pitiful.”

Adding a run game to an already effective passing game obviously helps keeps defenses off balance, and it also helps improve the play-action pass. UCLA has one of the worst run defenses in the country, ranking No. 116 giving up 262 yards on the ground. So watch for Beall to be a factor once again Saturday, and for the rest of the season.

“I couldn’t be happier with where he is right now and his attitude,” Sumlin said.