Johnson, Newton signal return of Texas ground game

WACO, Texas -- Maybe it was just the joy of the moment. Or it might have been meant to punctuate a rewarding performance that had been missing all season.

Cody Johnson did a short dance after Texas’ 47-14 victory over Baylor that was as much a signal for other teams still standing for the Longhorns as excitement for what he had just accomplished.

“We were just messing,” Johnson said. “We were excited and we had fun in the situation. It was exciting for us to finally play like we did. And we can still do a lot more.”

It was amazing that the bullish sophomore had enough energy for much physical movement after the pounding he delivered to the Bears.

Johnson barreled for a career-best 109 yards on 19 carries and scored two short touchdown runs that were about as subtle as a pair of Vitali Klitschko body shots.

“Cody is just a beast when he gets going,” Texas guard Charlie Tanner said.

The Longhorns' big rushing day was part of the plan. Texas coaches shortened their playbook to about five runs they felt comfortable with. And they inserted Johnson for the first start of his career and installed speedy Tre’ Newton as the No. 2 back.

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

The combination of speed and quickness helped propel the Longhorns to 202 rushing yards and an impressive 7.0 yards per carry average. Both figures were the best that Texas has produced in conference play and trailed only the Longhorns’ 304-yard effort against UTEP earlier this season.

“We can throw the ball, but to do what we want to do, our running game has got to continue to grow,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “That was a big step today in the process of the team that can win either way.”

Johnson's big game signaled the return of the Longhorns’ running game missing most of the season. The Longhorns were 60th in the nation in rushing and had averaged only 146 yards per game. The struggles had grown more pronounced in recent weeks as the Longhorns had produced only 97 yards rushing per game in the last five weeks.

The Longhorns used the running game from the opening snap. Johnson was featured on three of the first four plays from scrimmage, including bruising back-to-back runs of 12 and 14 yards.

That fast start was important for Johnson, who struggled with his early conditioning after reporting back to practice this summer at well over 250 pounds. But after making a concerted effort to limit portions at mealtime and do away with his favorite fast food treats, he started feeling like the back that turned heads during the spring.

“I feel like I can run the ball better,” Johnson said. “I can move the ball. You drop 20 pounds you feel better. That’s how I’ve felt the last couple of weeks.”

And Newton added an element of speed that had been missing in recent weeks, adding 80 yards as he provided the kind of outside lift missing since his breakout game against Texas Tech.

Newton’s redshirt freshman season was interrupted for several weeks after he sustained a concussion against Colorado. He saw some limited action during the last three games, but not nearly as much as in Saturday’s game.

“It’s always frustrating when you can’t help your team out,” Newton said. “You just have to stay focused because when you want to come back we’re ready. I wanted to do what I could when they needed me.”

Together, the two young backs have provided hope that the Longhorns’ major offensive question can be answered during the next several weeks.

“We can run the ball as well as we can pass it,” Johnson said. “Our biggest focus was on running the ball and being more effective. And the way we did it opened some eyes out there.”

Obviously running the ball against Baylor is one thing and running against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game and Florida or Alabama in the national title game is an entirely different story.

But on Saturday -- at least for the Longhorns -- it was a big start.