USA Today

TEXAS, HEARD TAKE AN IMPORTANT STEP

It was a step. It was Rice. It was at home. Scoring 42 points in a victory is what most Big 12 teams do in their sleep. But after Texas' last three games and last seven days, it was an important step Saturday night.

The Longhorns' offense has looked so bad the last three games that Saturday night's win over Rice made you want to flash back to an earlier time - like the first decade of the 2000s.

But it was one game. It was Rice. It was at home. Forty-two points before the backups come in is what most every team in the Big 12 does.

But it was a start. 

Jerrod Heard started the game and immediately made plays, including a 35-yard run on third-and-11 on the Texas' third offensive play - continuing a drive to a TD.

He's an electric, alpha male QB who is accustomed to winning championships.

"Jerrod gave us a spark," said Texas coach Charlie Strong, who waited to tell Heard he was starting until just before the game. "When he took off (on the 35-yard run), you knew something exciting was going to happen. And that's what you like about him."

Rice's defense is terrible (with only 3 starters back from an 8-win team).

But Heard did what he was supposed to do against a team like Rice - finishing 4-of-7 passing for 120 yards, 2 TDs (32 yards to Armanti Foreman and 69 yards to John Burt). 

Heard added 10 carries for 96 yards (9.6 ypc).

"This is the way you want your first start at DKR to go," Heard said. "Getting a win - first and foremost. This only makes me more hungry to get to practice and try to help get this offense to where we're running it the way we want to run it."

Heard said former starting QB Tyrone Swoopes was very supportive on the sideline.

"Oh yeah, he kept me pumped up," said Heard, who kept himself pumped up by doing push-ups after getting tackled on a long run and doing some dancing after what he called his "duck" to Armanti Foreman for a 32-yard TD.

"That's my way of staying loose," Heard said. "I have to be relaxed when I'm out there. That's when you make plays."

There's a lot to work on. Texas had only 34 offensive plays when Heard left the game. Rice dominated the time of possession (44:02 to Texas' 15:58) even more than Notre Dame dominated TOP (39:10 to 20:50). 

A big reason for that was the Texas D-line being unable to control the point of attack. That helped Rice convert third down after third down.

Rice converted a staggering 14 of 21 third downs (66.7 percent). The goal of most defenses is around a 33 percent conversion rate.

"We missed so many tackles," Strong said. "I told Vance (Bedford) during the game, 'I guarantee you we have 20 missed tackles or more.' And sacks, God almighty. What did we miss about 10 sacks? We just have to do a better job of getting off the field on third down."

But Charlie Strong's decision to take play-calling duties away from Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline and give them to Jay Norvell and Jeff Traylor is off to a strong start.

"We have to be aggressive, and we have to be physical," Norvell said. "And we have to coach aggressively. We took shots downfield, and we connected. Doing that gives your team confidence. And we need to be a confident team. It all starts there."

There were huge plays on special teams - led by Daje Johnson (if you're lookin' for the dealer ... he was dealin Saturday night with 3 punt returns for 119 yards, including an 85-yard return for a TD and a breathtaking 31-yard return that set up a D'Onta Foreman TD run.

"This is just one win," Johnson said. "We need to get back to work and get to a point where we are making plays like this every week. We have the talent to do it."

And the defense created some turnovers (5), one of which was a fumble caused by CB Kris Boyd and returned 26 yards for a scoop-and-score TD by Malik Jefferson, who led the team in tackles (9). Jefferson's TD put Texas up 35-14 in the 3Q.

(One of UT's forced turnovers -Jason Hall's 35-yard INT return from UT's end zone and subsequent fumble, with Texas up 21-0, turned out to be a real turning point for the Owls.)

There's a lot of work to be done. 

A lot.

The offense didn't run the ball the way it wanted to in the second half (12 times for 43 yards - 3.6 ypc) after rushing 16 times for 106 yards in the first half (6.6 ypc).

The defense - after Notre Dame had 18 plays of 12 yards or longer against the Longhorns - Rice had 11 plays of 10 yards or longer.

Big plays on special teams and forced turnovers helped put makeup on a lot of zits.

Perhaps overlooked was Dylan Haines' INT at the Texas 2 with 20 seconds left in the half that helped overcome a 17-yard punt by Michael Dickson that went out of bounds at the Texas 38. (Dickson bounced back with a couple boomers, including a 59-yarder that went out of bounds at the Rice 8 in the third quarter.)

But you saw glimpses of the future with freshmen making plays all over the field - Heard to Burt, Boyd causing the fumble returned by Jefferson. Holton Hill and Boyd were playing CB late in the game. 

"That's where your future is right now - with those young guys," Strong said. "You have a very talented young group. The more they play, the better they are going to get. There may be some games where we may not play as well. But they will be out on the field, and what you like about them is they compete. And they've done everything we've asked them to do."

There are more struggles ahead.

Count on that.

I repeat, count on more struggles ahead with Cal (2-0), a 35-7 winner over San Diego State Saturday ... Oklahoma State (2-0) ... No. 3 TCU ... and ... No. 19 Oklahoma, a 31-24 overtime winner at Tennessee Saturday, are up next.

But Texas put some confidence in the tank on offense and found a QB it can rally around.

Plays are being made on special teams after that unit stunk it up all season in 2014.

Who woulda thunk the offense and special teams would help carry Texas to a victory after the last three games?

Just before Smokey exploded as the clock went to zero on a 42-28 victory over the Owls at DKR, Breckyn Hager dropped beautifully into coverage and came up with an INT for turnover No. 5 produced by the Horns.

Add Hager to that youth movement.

Saturday night was just a step after a school-record three straight losses by 20 points or more.

Depending on what happens the next four games - maybe it was a baby step.

But on a day when the announced attendance was 86,458 (capacity 100,119) at DKR and an airplane banner flying before the game read "PATTERSON MUST GO" - it was a positive step when Texas desperately one.

"I think everyone wanted to see something different," Strong said. "And when Jerrod (Heard) took that field, you could see the crowd all excited.

"He's exciting to watch. He can make plays. He's a winner and has an attitude about him. I finally just said, 'Hey, put him out there. Let's just go with him. We'll see what happens. Let's just go.'

"When your quarterback has juice, then your team is going to have juice. And he (Heard) has a lot of it. So the team feeds off of him. They know he's going to bring it."


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