Rice Preview: UT Has A 'Bone To Pick Against Owls

There was a time when the road to a conference championship came down to the outcome of the Texas-Rice game. Of course, that was the time of mini-skirts, Hula-Hoops, and relatively unknown band from Liverpool called The Beatles.

Even so, old-timers may turn a nostalgic eye toward Saturday's matchup in which Rice enters with a five-game winning streak. The contest renews Texas' fourth-longest series as the Horns and the Owls meet for the 87th time. Texas A&M (110 games), Oklahoma (98 games) and Baylor (93 games) are the only opponents that UT has faced more than the Owls.

So, other than a sense of history, what can Orangebloods expect when the Horns and the Hooters hook-up, 6 p.m. (CDT), at DKR in a regional telecast (Fox Sports Southwest)?

If things go according to what coaches have predicted all week, Texas will: force the issue with its passing game, work to get its TEs into one-on-one situations, provide significant snaps for backup RBs (especially true freshman Ramonce Taylor), get guys like QB Chance Mock and SLB Garnet Smith onto the field for the first time this year, and still try to convince us that the defense really has done nothing for the past 10 days but try to figure out how to stop the wishbone. (No!, no!, no!, no!, no!, players insist. There has been absolutely no preparation, let alone looking ahead, to OU.)

Head coach Mack Brown's oft repeated forecast has been that Rice will play Texas just as tough as Arkansas did. He said the game will be close. He actually likened Rice FB Ed Bailey to Earl Campbell (see below). Brown is a master of coach-speak and his players wisely follow suit.

"The fans may be looking past these guys but we definitely aren't," RDT Larry Dibbles said. "We go to practice every day to try to get better and to come out with a 'W' every week that we play."

OWL OFFENSE

Twenty years from now, Rice will still be running the wishbone. Following a pair of wins over two UH schools (Houston, Hawaii), Rice's ground game is averaging 284 ypg (NCAA No. 9).

"They operate the option really well," WLB Derrick Johnson said. "They've been doing it for years. They're really good at it. You have to play fundamentally sound football. Everybody has to do their job."

The job this week for the Longhorn D has been to work on cutback blocks as well as the discipline that comes with player-assignment football against the triple-option attack. The fact that the Wishbone is now such an aberration is precisely why the Owls continue to operate out of the set. Defenses rarely see it.

"That's why I think Ken is so smart to run it," Brown said. "You don't have enough time to prepare for it. It is different. It's totally different from everything else that you do. Every blitz has to be coordinated with the triple-option."

The Horns did get a foretaste of the Rice offense when they faced Arkansas on September 11. But whereas the Razorbacks continue to employ the double-option, Rice's triple-option attack means that the FB inside dive becomes more of a factor. FB Bailey carried 37 times for 234 yards against Hawaii, the fourth-best rushing output in program history.

"All he does is that he runs the ball right up the middle like Earl Campbell," Brown said. (Uh-huh. Just like Earl. He, He, He. Don't you love coach-speak when it's so obvious?)

In all fairness, Brown probably meant that most of Bailey's yards have, like Campbell's, come on quick-hit plays between the tackles. Bailey's personal-best against Hawaii was also the most rushing yards by an Owl during coach Ken Hatfield's 10-year tenure.

"He's not real tall (5-9) but he's a rugged runner," Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson said. "After contact, he makes a lot of yards."

The main reason for Rice's five-game winning streak was the team's ability to overcome key injuries in mid-2003, Brown surmised. Rice has rallied around senior QB Greg Henderson who started five games last season when former starting QB Kyle Herm was sidelined. Henderson is credited with 291 yards on 53 carries this season to rank No. 8 nationally (145.5 ypg). He tallied 135 yards rushing and ran for three TDs in last Saturday's win. Indicative of the Owl offense, Henderson put the ball in the air 12 times (completing five, mostly off play action) against Hawaii.

"They're going to try to get the deep ball," Brown said. "They're not going to try to get the underneath stuff. They try to control the ball, time and time again, and then try to get the ball deep against you."

The Owls will also operate out of a 'wingbone' set in which the offense will either line up with two wings, or the running back will line up in the wing before going into motion.

"This is the only game all year that we'll play this type of offensive set," Brown added. "It's a week that you have to get away from some of the things that you ordinarily work on just to work on the wishbone."

What the Texas D would "ordinarily" be working on this week is containment (given QB Matt Jones' ability to elude the grasp of Longhorn defenders two weeks ago) as well as pressuring the QB (the defense has not registered a sack this season).

"We're working on trying to get to the passer more and, at the same time, you have to incorporate the wishbone and that takes away your pass rush," Brown said. "That takes away your (emphasis on) containment because you're working on the disciplinary parts of (defending the wishbone). Somebody's got the dive, somebody's got the quarterback, somebody's got the pitch and then the play-action pass with the free safety."

The Owls return seven offensive starters, including WR Marcus Battle (leading returning receiver with 333 yards on 19 catches). Most of the seasoned veterans will be on the O-Line, including LT Scott Mayhew, LB Micah Meador, RG Greg Wilson, not to mention TE Joe Don Wood. The Owls starting interior line this weekend averages 6-4 and 303 pounds per man.

WACK STAT: RICE RUSHING D LEADS NCAA

When Texas and Rice square off, the contest pits Texas' top-ranked rushing offense (386 ypg) against Rice's top-ranked rushing defense. Three weeks into the season, the Owls are surrendering all of 7.5 ypg on the ground.

Say what?

The Owl defense may be improved but it's no Steel Curtain. Those numbers have come against the likes of Hawaii and Houston, teams that run the ball about as much as Texas Tech does. It just means that the Hooters are giving up 283.5 yards through the air. Rice starts three sophomores in its secondary, each of whom survived a rocky indoctrination as freshmen. The long-range forecast for the Owls calls for turbulence Saturday as Texas coaches have vowed to press the passing game. Rice is rated No. 79 in pass efficiency defense. What's more, either RB Cedric Benson or QB Vince Young could average 7.5 yards-per-carry against the nation's No. 1 run defense.

"It shows what you stats are worth," Brown said. "Nothing."

Rice set a school record with nine sacks against Houston and added five more against Hawaii. The Owls, who return seven defensive starters, have registered 14 sacks in two games compared to 18 sacks all last season. As a unit, Rice limited Houston to either 'zero' or 'negative' yards on 32 of 65 plays in its season-opening win.

Junior DE John Syptak and junior WLB Adam Herrin were each credited with nine tackles against Houston while bandit Chad Price had 13 stops against Hawaii.

THINK IT CAN'T HAPPEN?

A Rice upset over No. 5 Texas in Austin would go down as the biggest upset of the 2004 season. Ain't no way it's gonna happen. Then again...

The unthinkable happened ten years ago this season. Fresh off a 17-10 win over Oklahoma (forever remembered as QB James Brown's first start and DT Stonie Clark's game-saving goal line stop in the final minute), Texas' final trip to Houston to face Rice as a SWC foe ended in a 19-17 shocking upset. QB Shea Morenz (who missed the OU game due to knee injury) was back under center. The game, played in a monsoon, was moved to a Sunday night national telecast because the NFL regular season had been interrupted as a result of a players' strike. The loss snapped a 28-game win streak for the Horns against the Owls.

"I looked at their win over us in '94 and they kept the ball for 39 minutes and 11 seconds," Brown said. "They can get you in trouble with ball control."

The 1999 game was agonizingly close. PK Kris Stockton added a fourth quarter FG as Texas impressed no one with an 18-13 squeaker.

The series resumed last season when Texas took out its frustration for the Arkansas upset by thrashing Rice, 48-7, at Reliant Stadium.

"We have to play to a standard," Derrick Johnson said. "Expectations are high here. Regardless of who it is that we play, we have to play to the best of our abilities."

JUST DROP IT

Brown's brother Watson served as Rice's head coach in 1984-85. While there, he hired current UT strength and conditioning coach Jeff 'Mad Dog' Madden who served as the Owls strength coach for five season. During Watson's tenure, Rice considered dropping football.

"Thank goodness they didn't," Mack Brown said. "We had a vote when I was at Tulane about dropping football. It was a real close vote."


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