Those worried about whether 2011 Texas would resemble 2010 Texas only had to watch one play to get their answer.
In the third quarter, with the Longhorns clinging to a 13-9 lead, with Rice moving the ball at times offensively and the Texas offense yet to catch stride, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin dialed up one of his patented Boise State trick plays, giving the ball to receiver John Harris on a run-pass option. Harris elected for the latter decision, lobbing a jump ball that freshman wideout Jaxon Shipley won for a 36-yard touchdown.
Just like that, the lead was extended. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And the Longhorns dominated the rest of the game for a 34-9 victory.
"This year's team has a long way to go," conceded Texas coach Mack Brown after the game. "But they have done everything we have asked them to do."
That one play had every element of what Longhorn fans expected or wanted. No more predictable offense. And more of Texas' young playmakers being put into situations to make plays.
"We weren't perfect," summed up senior linebacker Keenan Robinson. "But we showed a lot of good things that we are going to build on."
Some of those things were awfully tantalizing to look at. Texas shifted multiple players prior to the snap, another tactic imported by Harsin. And the Longhorns ran a number of Wildcat sets with a variety of possibilities, from Shipley and Fozzy Whittaker at quarterback to D.J. Monroe on jet sweeps and counters to David Ash at wide receiver.
As Robinson said, things weren't perfect. Texas twice drove into Rice territory only to escape with field goals in the first half. They allowed better than four yards per carry defensively. And a pressured Gilbert missed Davis in the end zone on a key play.
That led to a strange first half that saw Texas put up 198 yards, but just a 13-6 lead. Last year's team led Rice by a two-touchdown margin, and that was only because of a fluke pass play at the end of the half gave the Owls a touchdown.
"We want to start faster," Harsin said afterward. "That will be an emphasis that we have in practice this week is starting faster."
After halftime, Rice drove the ball down the field, earning a first-and-goal from the Texas 8 before the Longhorns held again for a field goal. Rice kicker Chris Boswell kicked a 26-yarder, and the lead sat at a perilous four points.
That's when Harris, throwing his first competitive pass since high school, threw the touchdown to Shipley. The true freshman from Brownwood was actually pushed out-of-bounds when running his route, but re-entered the field of play to make the leaping touchdown catch. After an official review the play — and Longhorn spirits — held up.
"I was like, 'just let (Shipley) have it,'" Harris said. "Let's see what he can do with it. It was pretty close."
Texas wasn't nearly as tricky for its next two drives, scoring on trips of 99 and 94 yards to seal things up.
After a hard count gave the Longhorns a first-and-five at the Texas six, Gilbert again went deep for Davis, hitting the sophomore on a 55-yard slant-and-go. Seven plays later, Whittaker lined up in the Wildcat, faked the handoff to Monroe on a jet sweep and found the end zone from seven yards out.
The next drive featured good old-fashioned power running, albeit from a new source. True freshman running back Malcolm Brown had seven carries on the drive, taking those for 50 yards as the Longhorns took 11 plays to travel 94 yards.
"I tried my best to get four yards every time," Brown said. "I'm just trying to … keep the chains moving. Four yards is a successful gain, so that's what I was trying to go for."
Whittaker, looking both stronger and quicker after a big offseason, finished off the drive — and the game's scoring — with a 26-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
Texas had a strong overall performance from Gilbert, who completed 13-of-23 passes and typically did a nice job of moving and avoiding pressure. He threw a touchdown pass, didn't turn the ball over and had a 24-yard run at one point. Davis, on the strength of his two long catches, had 115 yards receiving.
The freshmen also showed well. Shipley, who showed off his speed on multiple running plays, had 79 combined yards and a touchdown. He had a rushing touchdown negated when he stepped out of bounds inside the 10. Brown and fellow freshman back Joe Bergeron rushed for a combined 112 yards.
"I thought those (freshmen) were playmakers," Harsin said. "We're just trying to get more guys involved. I thought they handled it well and that there were some big opportunities for them to make plays. And they did."
Overall, Texas had 506 yards of total offense, including 229 yards on the ground.
"I liked the fact that we ran the ball for over 200 yards, and we were pounding the ball in the fourth quarter," Mack Brown said. "That's something we have been trying to do for the last three years, and (we) haven't been able to do it successfully."
Like the offense, the Longhorn defense was up-and-down. The Longhorns allowed the Owls 130 rushing yards on 30 carries (4.3 per carry), but didn't allow Rice into the end zone and only allowed 224 total yards.
"It was uneven," said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz on defending the run. "Part of it is not a surprise to me. I thick they will see, as we were talking on the field in the first half of the game, we were always an inch away."
Diaz went on to describe the defense as "not being very clean" early.
"I just think there were definitely some jitters out there," said Emmanuel Acho, senior linebacker. "Some guys were maybe a little bit nervous. I think we calmed down as the game went on. It got better."
But it doesn't get any better than getting a W, something referenced by the players afterward.
"We won. That's the main thing," said senior safety Blake Gideon. "Nothing can replace that feeling. I don't care what the score is at the end as far as what the spread was."
Gilbert echoed those thoughts.
"We got the win," Gilbert said, before adding a qualifier. "We still need to go back and look at all the film tomorrow and see everything we need to work on."
Texas (1-0) will host BYU (1-0) next Saturday.
Rice — Chris Boswell 42 FG, 7:35 1Q
Texas — Justin Tucker 39 FG, 4:31 1Q
Texas — Cody Johnson 1 run (Tucker kick), 14:19 2Q
Texas — Tucker 23 FG, 6:00 2Q
Rice — Boswell 49 FG, 0:56 2Q
Rice — Boswell 26 FG, 9:07 3Q
Texas — Jaxon Shipley 36 pass from John Harris (Tucker kick), 5:32 3Q
Texas — Fozzy Whittaker 7 run (Tucker kick), 13:06 4Q
Texas — Whittaker 26 pass from Garrett Gilbert (Tucker kick), 5:57 4Q
* The Longhorns played 18 true freshmen, the most ever in an opener under Mack Brown. The only four scholarship true freshmen not to play were tight end M.J. McFarland and offensive linemen Taylor Doyle, Garrett Greenlea and Marcus Hutchins.
* Despite David Ash entering the game prior to Case McCoy, coaches reiterated after the game that the quarterback pecking order hasn't changed. It's still Gilbert-McCoy-Ash, and if Gilbert were to go down or be ineffective, McCoy would be the next one up. But Ash has a special package of plays that will allow him to see time in regular situations. Coaches said they expected that package to grow as the season went on.
* After years of pining for more touches, Saturday must have seemed like D.J. Monroe overload. He touched the ball on jet sweeps, counter plays out of the Wildcat, caught a swing pass and returned kickoffs. He had five carries for 41 yards, a catch for two yards and two kickoff returns for 33 yards.
* Don't be surprised by the lack of sacks from the Texas side. Rice largely played a conservative keep-away to ensure that the Longhorn defense didn't have a chance to make big plays. The Owls seldom threw a pass long enough for a pass rush to have a chance to hit home, and the result was that the Owls didn't have any interceptions or allow any sacks.
* Gilbert did have one poor play, where he attempted to shovel the ball to Whittaker as he was getting sacked. He admitted after the game "I should have eaten it." Whittaker recovered the fumble, and the Longhorns punted. Texas only had one turnover, and that came on a fumbled exchange with the No. 2 offense. The fumble was attributed to Malcolm Brown.