Rice Owls (1-0, 0-0 Conference USA)
Texas Longhorns (0-1, 0-0 Big 12)
Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium
Kickoff: 7:05 p.m. CT
TV: Longhorn Network
The Series: Texas leads 71-21-1
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH (Chip Brown)
1 - The influence of Jay Norvell and Jeff Traylor on the offense
Straight from Captain Obvious: When Jerrod Heard is on the field, everyone will be looking for tangible evidence - i.e. first downs and touchdowns - as a result of the late-night game-planning of new play caller Norvell - with input from Traylor, who ran a spread-to-run scheme a la Chad Morris and Gus Malzahn at Gilmer HS.
2 - Employing more of the QB run game should help a green-and-growing offensive line
When you have a truly elusive runner playing QB like Jerrod Heard, the defense is less inclined to blitz and risk the possibility of losing containment and more inclined to simply mind their gaps and assign a spy to the QB.
Reducing that blitz pressure on an O-line that struggles more with pass protection than run blocking should pay off immediately.
The read-option with a truly elusive runner at QB also forces the defense to pause a split-second while reading the play, which also helps the O-line fire off and get leverage, especially when run-blocking (which is what the UT line does best).
3 - Charlie Strong said he wants RB Johnathan Gray carrying the ball 15-to-25 times per game and for the offense "to go through our running backs."
Do we see that?
With Jerrod Heard in the game, there should be 10-to-20 carries for the QB and 15 to 25 for Gray and/or the other RBs on the team.
Bottom line, Texas ideally wants to be running the ball 45 to 50 times per game, and throwing the ball half as many times. Do the Longhorns come close to those targets?
4 - How much improvement does the defense make from Game 1 to Game 2?
The defense gave up 18 plays of 12 yards or longer against Notre Dame. That's a ton of explosive plays, and Rice fifth-year senior QB Driphus Jackson (6-0, 210) is a (very) poor man's version of ND's Malik Zaire. Jackson threw for 24 TDs and 8 INTs in 2014.
Last week, in a 56-16 stomping of Wagner, Jackson ran 13 times for 79 yards (6.1 ypc) and 1 TD.
UT's defensive front struggled with controlling gaps last week at Notre Dame, so plays were busting in a way they didn't last year with DT Malcom Brown and LBs Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond.
The busts caused the secondary to start trying to do too much instead of players focusing on their own jobs, resulting in DBs being out of position and big (and bigger) plays for the Irish.
There has to be progress each week on this defense with such young players.
5 - More of the 2015 Texas "youth movement."
The highlights/positives of last week's loss at Notre Dame were the young players making plays - Malik Jefferson, John Burt, Kris Boyd, Breckyn Hager, etc.
Do more young players get on the field in more pronounced roles?
Coaches have hinted that Hager could get some time at MLB soon - if not Saturday - with Jefferson at SLB ... Boyd and WR Ryan Newsome as well as WR DeAndre McNeal could also see more playing time this week.
The freshmen have been the most vocal - whether it was walking the sidelines telling teammates to keep their heads up in South Bend or defending their coach and program on social media this week.
Their confidence, the confidence of the team and, ultimately, the fan base has to go up this week with high-flying Cal, Oklahoma State, TCU and OU up next.
FIVE AREAS TO IMPROVE (Taylor Gaspar)
The Longhorns need to give the fans something to be hopeful for following the Week 1 performance the team put up in South Bend against Notre Dame. Charlie Strong has shaken up the offensive staff roles by giving primary play-calling duties to wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, but a lot of unknown follows considering Norvell has not called plays since 2007.
The players have to go into Saturday’s home opener against Rice with a chip on their shoulders, and prove to the fans progress will be made in 2015. Here are five areas the Longhorns need to improve upon when the Owls head to Austin this Saturday.
1. Aggressive OL Play: The offensive line has been an area of concern for Texas for many years, but the performance it put up against Notre Dame may have been one of the worst performances in recent history. Sure, Notre Dame’s defense is no joke, but the offensive line looked as if it was expecting to face a no win FCS opponent last week. The o-line has to play more aggressive moving forward, and it needs to begin this Saturday.
2. Improved play calling: The play-calling in South Bend was bad enough to get the duties taken away from Shawn Watson and it has to be better moving forward. Texas has only seen the red zone one time in the last three games (Notre Dame, Arkansas and TCU), and that is straight up pathetic. Norvell has to find a way to call plays that will put the ball in the hands of playmakers and move the chains.
3. Give Johnathan Gray the ball: No. 2 and No. 3 go hand-in-hand but this deserves its own category. There is no reason for Johnathan Gray to go almost an entire quarter without touching the ball. No reason at all. Gray is arguably one of the best running backs in Texas high school football history and he only touched the ball eight times in the season opener. As an offensive coordinator, that is how you lose play-calling duties. For the Longhorns offense to be successful, No. 32 has to be fed the rock.
4. Better secondary play: I really hate to say this because I love the story following him but Dylan Haines HAS to perform better. He has persevered from being a walk-on to now a starting safety for Texas, but my goodness he needs to play better moving forward if he is going to keep that job. It wasn’t just him, the entire secondary was off on various plays, but Haines stood out significantly in the loss to Notre Dame.
5. Turnovers: You know what could help a struggling offense? Special teams and/or defense getting turnovers. I understand you cannot expect special teams or defense to carry the entire load for the team, but the units need to help put the struggling offense in better field position, and that could happen by making plays and getting turnovers on Saturday.
FIVE LONGHORNS TO WATCH (William Wilkerson)
1. Jerrod Heard, Texas quarterback – When he’ll come in and how much he’ll play is anyone’s guess at this point. But the thinking is he’ll be seeing the field much more than he did in South Bend now that Jay Norvell is calling plays. He hasn’t been getting near the snaps with the 1s that Tyrone Swoopes has in practice, but that shouldn’t matter come kickoff.
2. Tyrone Swoopes, Texas quarterback – This is a huge game for Swoopes for numerous reasons. He has to prove to Norvell, Charlie Strong, Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline, his teammates and the UT fan base that he can get the job done, come hell or high water. Yes, his offensive line didn’t protect him against the Irish. But he hasn’t done much of anything in his last three starts, when Texas has been out-scored 117-20.
3. Johnathan Gray, Texas running back – He had eight carries against Notre Dame. Eight. If the Longhorns were wise he’d get triple that against the Owls. He needs to start feeling good about himself as does the offensive line before UT faces Cal next week.
4. Connor Williams/Patrick Vahe, Texas offensive linemen – Both missed practice this week. The Longhorns need them ready to roll.
5. Kris Boyd, Texas cornerback – He was fantastic on special teams against Notre Dame. That’s a quick way to get playing time on defense. Well that and the fact that UT’s starting CBs didn’t play particularly well in Week 1. Look for him to get more of an opportunity.
RICE OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO KNOW (William Wilkerson)
Driphus Jackson, quarterback – Had 101 yards on the ground and a score and 123 yard through the air and another score. He’s a dangerous runner, much like Malik Zaire was for Notre Dame.
RICE DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO KNOW (William Wilkerson)
Alex Lyons, linebacker – The redshirt junior from DeSoto (Texas) was a preseason All Conference USA selection and is on the Lombardi Award Watch list. He led the Owls with 71 tackles last season.
Last week, my game prediction was fueled by optimism. New season, new attitude, new...not so much.
Notre Dame was a Texas fan's nightmare. After all the talking, after all the practice, after waiting eight months reliving the Texas Bowl versus Arkansas, it felt like the program picked up exactly where it left off.
All this team can do this week is shake it off and get ready for Rice and, for their sake, let's hope that's what they've done. The opponent won't be at the same level that the Horns faced in week one, but there's a lot on the line this week as they will play in DKR in front of a not-so-happy fanbase for the first time this season.
I don't know what will happen at the quarterback position this week, and I don't know what will happen with Norvell calling the shots, but I think it was a great decision for Charlie Strong to make an immediate change for the offense before week two.
I'm also pretty confident in the young players like Malik Jefferson and Kris Boyd. They have the right attitude and I do believe the future of this program is bright. But this weekend, I'm looking for the team to come out energized, hungry, and ready to get their first win of the season.
Texas 21, Rice 14
Texas is coming off of a dismal season opener and needs to ignite a fire in the stadium during Saturday’s home opener. The positive news for Texas fans is Rice could be the perfect opponent the team could face in order to start building confidence.
I wouldn’t say this game is an automatic win, but Texas shouldn’t have an issue facing Rice. My main focus will be on the Longhorns offense and if it shows any improvements as a whole this Saturday. Whether it is better play calling, a new quarterback or simply putting the ball in the hands of playmakers, the offense needs to show visible proof things are progressing, not regressing.
Overall, I don’t expect this game to be a major blowout, but Texas should not struggle to beat the Owls.
Texas 28, Rice 10
Texas will win this game, but it won’t be easy.
Rice is a program on the rise with a quarterback that can do some things on the ground.
I believe the Longhorns defense will execute it’s game plan much better than it did last week, but it won’t come without some hiccups in the secondary again.
I do believe Johnathan Gray will get over 100 yards on the ground and John Burt will be in line for another deep reception.
What quarterback he’ll get that from is the question. The answer: Jerrod Heard. He won’t start but he will be the more impressive quarterback. That’s not to say Tyrone Swoopes won’t look OK. He will, just not as electric as Heard will and Heard will get his chances with Norvell calling the plays.
Texas wins but still has a ton of work to do before Cal gets to town.
Texas 27, Rice 13
I'm not sure Charlie Strong will ever coach a bigger game - against Rice of all teams - to retain the confidence of his team and of the fan base.
The two teams' strengths will face off in the battle of Rice's offense against Texas' defense.
The Longhorns have the speed and playmakers on defense to keep pace with Rice QB Driphus Jackson, RB Jowan Davis, WR Dennis Parks and WR Zach Wright.
When the Longhorns have the ball is the big mystery.
I know I would have announced Jerrod Heard as my starting QB by now. Swoopes needs a mental health day.
I see Texas running the ball on 40 to 45 plays and passing it for 30. Of course, that's with Jerrod Heard in the game.
If Swoopes is in the game, and things go slowly - be prepared for it to get ugly. But this is the game in which Jerrod Heard - I have a feeling - gets things going quickly.
Texas 24, Rice 13