While Mack Brown is still looking to win the Big One, his Texas teams have not lost to the kind of squad visiting DKR this weekend. (Brown pointed out this week that opponents that have combined for 18 wins against Texas in his six-plus seasons have all gone on to winning seasons, if not bowl games and national rankings.) In other words, he doesn't lose to Little Sisters of the Poor or the New Mexico School for the Blind as have other programs.
So, what do we make of a Rice team that brings a five-game winning streak into Saturday's affair?
You can largely credit that streak to the steadying presence of senior QB Greg Henderson (who came on at mid-season in 2003) and the capability of Rice's triple-option offense to milk the clock. It's no coincidence that the Owls have won the Time of Possession battle in past ballgames. In their home-opening win over Houston, Rice had the ball for 34:30. When Rice shocked Texas ten years ago, their offense was on the field for 39:11. If Texas really does try to press the passing game this weekend, Rice stands to win the TOP battle and at least hang with Texas for nearly three quarters. Unless, of course, Texas is able to work out the kinks in its air assault and exploit Rice's young and undersized secondary (three sophomores, all between 5-8 and 5-11).
Nothing takes Rice out of its game like an early deficit. Case-in-point was last season's 48-7 win in Houston. Rice hung around, and hung around, in the previous meeting (1999) before Texas prevailed, 18-13.
"We jumped out ahead of them last year and they had a problem catching up because that's not their cup of tea," Mack Brown said.
The Burnt Orange crystal ball says Texas will roll with its NCAA leading ground game and the passing attack will initially look to get the veteran TEs isolated one-on-one against Owl defenders. The feeling here is that one of the SEs (Brian Carter or Limas Sweed, if he's healthy enough to play due to a left leg injury) will have a breakout game. And I would love to see true freshman FL Nate Jones emerge so that he is a viable option two Saturdays from now in Dallas.
Rice's NCAA-leading 7.5 ypg run defense is the most misleading stat in college football. RB Cedric Benson could average that many yards per tote. In fact, Texas could have two ball carriers top the century mark Saturday. The only question is whether QB Vince Young or backup RB Ramonce Taylor joins Benson in the 100+ rushing club.
The Owl's ball-control offense will keep this one from duplicating the North Texas laugher. Still, Texas wins another Little One under Mack Brown. Texas 45, Rice 16.
Pearle -- In his Rice preview, Bill reminded us of the Owls' shocking win over Texas 10 years ago in a game that, to this day, I still can't believe really happened, though I watched every ghastly second with my own two eyes. He also reminded us of the '99 tilt, where Rice ran their game plan to perfection, eating up the clock and making Texas scrap for every minute of possession and every point to win ugly, 18-13. The point being, weird bounces happen in this game played with the weird-shaped ball, and though a Rice win over Texas would be about as weird as things get, well, it wouldn't be the first time.
But folks, that was the 90's, and this is the roaring '00s, and guys named Benson, Young, and Johnson are now leading the Texas charge. Five game win streak or 15, the Rice Owls have virtually no chance in this one, at least from where I'm sitting.
The game last year I believe is a pretty good barometer of what we will see Saturday -- a Texas team that moves the ball virtually at will, and a Texas defense that swallows up the Owls' gutsy but out-gunned offense. Rice will make a few plays in this one -- I am a bit worried about the Owl option getting wide around the Horns outside contain as Arkansas often did two weeks ago -- but the Rice offensive ground-gobblers will not be able to stay within a country mile of Texas' Benson/Young-led scoring machine.
Mack Brown says he thinks it'll be a close one -- You Da Man, Coach Brown, but I gotta call you on this one: your guys should put up half a hundred on Rice while barely breaking a sweat. I'm going Horns 56, Owls 14.
Ross -- One thing -- and one thing only -- can get the Horns beat Saturday night in DKR: turnovers. A whole lot of 'em. Returned for touchdowns.
Don't take that to mean Rice is a horrible team. The Owls do what they do -- option football -- well, well enough to win five straight. And Texas is susceptible to some breakdowns defending the option (see Arkansas game), but the Horns also have the defensive speed to ensure that an assignment mistake is a seven-yard gain, not a 70-yarder. In other words, Rice may well move the ball in the middle of the field and even own the time of possession battle, but as the field shortens and the defense contracts, I just don't see Greg Robinson's gang surrendering TDs to these guys. A few field goal attempts here and there and perhaps one TD (in the second half), but anything more would be a disappointment.
What will be more intriguing to watch, I believe, is the play of the Texas offense. Particularly whether the coaches treat this as a glorified scrimmage, focusing on a passing game that needs lots of work to approach championship caliber, or whether they stick to the tried and true ground attack which could rack up 400-plus yards vs. the Owl D and mitigate the potential TOP advantage Rice hopes to use to shorten and tighten the game. Mack Brown and Co. have said they plan to air it out, so we'll see if that comes to pass under the lights when the game is on the line.
Regardless, with Oklahoma looming in two weeks, Texas must take advantage of its opportunities vs. lesser competition to sharpen its attack, in scheme and in execution and determine optimal personnel groupings (at WR, D-line and LB particularly). That's what this one should be about. Texas 42, Rice 9.