For all intents and purposes, this one was over at intermission. And Texas played in the second half as if they knew that.
"I was real pleased with the first half," OC Greg Davis said. "I thought we moved the ball well and did a good job on third down conversions (5-of-10) and keeping the football. I'm glad we came out in the third quarter and scored. But I thought we lost focus as the game went on and I'm not pleased with that. Any time you get a win, you take it and you move on. A lot of guys got to play and that was encouraging."
The Horns notched TDs on each of their first four possessions, but then played practically every able body in uniform as things got a little ragged in the second half.
Speaking of able bodies, here's what we know about LDT Rodrique Wright's status. Wright sprained his left ankle on the first play of the second half and was carted off the field for evaluation. He wore an ankle brace as he walked into the locker room at the end of the game.
"All they told me was that the x-rays are fine," head coach Mack Brown said. "We didn't need to put him back in at that point."
Much like the North Texas game, this one was over at halftime. But, unlike the home opener, this time the Horns didn't go for the jugular when they had a bloodied opponent on the ropes.
"I thought the final score wasn't indicative of the game," Brown said. "It wasn't close."
Indeed, Texas punted just once all evening and that was with 3:45 remaining in the contest. The Owls took advantage of Richmond McGee's 46-yarder by making the score more respectable with backup QB Joel Armstrong's 44-yard TD run.
"I wasn't as pleased by the way our backups played against Rice as I was by how they did against North Texas, but Rice is a better team than North Texas," Brown added.
Brown said the first thing he looks at on the post-game stat sheet is turnovers and time-of-possession. Turns out those were just about the only statistical categories that the Owls actually won. The Horns had not suffered a turnover all season but were guilty of three give-aways (two INTs, one fumble) while the Owls were less giving (one fumble late in the third quarter). As expected against a ball control, wishbone offense, the Owls won the TOP battle (32:07 to 27:53).
Yet the single most important statistic for Brown (other than scoring offense and scoring defense) is rushing offense. ("We haven't lost since we've been here when out outrush our opponent.") The Owls entered Saturday's contest surrendering a NCAA-best 7.5 ypg after opening the season against a couple of run-and-shoot offenses. On Saturday, Texas gorged Rice with 339 rushing yards on 44 attempts. The Horns racked up 525 yards of total offense, the 33rd best output in school history.
Meanwhile RB Cedric Benson, with 558 rushing yards in three games, is off to the best start of any RB in program history. It's even more remarkable considering Benson only played three quarters against Rice and just one second-half series against North Texas.
"How long do you keep your tailback in?" Brown asked rhetorically. "I knew Alabama lost their quarterback last season with a 38 point lead."
Benson rumbled for 189 yards on 20 totes (that's 9.4 ypc), including a long of 58 yards (the fourth longest dash from scrimmage of his career).
"I've been having a lot of fun this season and I can't say enough about the guys up front," Benson said. "They make it happen. They play hard every Saturday. We all enjoy it together. I've spent a lot of time working on being a complete back this summer and I think it's paying off."
QB Vince Young also sat out the fourth quarter but not before throwing for 161 yards on 11-of-17 passing, including three TDs and two INTs. Young added 64 yards rushing on eight carries while FB/TB Will Matthews also got into the act with 50 yards on seven carries (both are personal bests for the bruising senior).
Is it just me, or does WLB Derrick Johnson look that much faster? D.J.'s always been known for his closing speed but now it's as if someone is pointing the Fast Forward button on the Butkus Award favorite. Johnson led a defensive charge that limited the Owls to 172 yards rushing on 51 attempts, more than 100 yards below their 284 ypg average. Rice was just 2-of-13 on third down conversions.
"I think our defense played well," Johnson said. "We had some key guys who haven't played much and we got them out there. I think we played to our standard."
Texas marched 80 yards in seven plays to jump to an early 7-0 lead when Young found TE Bo Scaife over the middle for a 10-yard TD toss. The drive was set up by Benson's 58-yard dash on a draw play to the Owl 11. Texas burned two timeouts on the opening drive to avoid delay of game penalties.
The Owls responded with a 39-yard Brennan Landry FG to make it 7-3 with 8:10 remaining in the first quarter. The nine-play drive, covering 59 yards, was set up by RB Marcus Rucker's 22-yard run on the option pitch around left end and a 15-yard facemask penalty against CB Tarell Brown.
But Texas would quickly answer, starting with VY's 14-yard sprint over left end on first down. After Benson carried for 10, Young again connected with Scaife over the middle -- this time for 21 yards -- spotting Texas a first down at the Rice 31. From there, Young reeled off 18 over left end on the zone read. The Horns went with their jumbo package (three TE set), paving the way for Benson's two yard plunge on first-and-goal. The nine-play drive gave Texas a 14-3 lead with 4:13 left in the opening frame.
The Owls went backward on their next possession as the Texas defense forced a three-and-out. It took the Horns all of two plays and 15 seconds to cross the goal line. On first down, Benson raced 43 yards from the Longhorn 35, topping the century mark with 126 yards on his first ten carries. From the Rice 22, Young hooked up with TE David Thomas for his second TD toss of the quarter. The Horns upped their lead, 21-3, with 83 seconds left in the quarter following the 65-yard drive.
Andray Downs returned the KO 52 yards before McGee dragged him down at the UT 46. But the D forced another three-and-out, culminating with Derrick Johnson's highlight reel, in-your-face swat of QB Greg Henderson's pass attempt. (Johnson was so airborne that the ball actually hit him in the helmet.)
"I got so high that I was worried about hitting the ground," Johnson said.
Brown reached into his bag of tricks with 9:35 remaining until intermission. That's when holder Tony Jeffery dove into the end zone from three yards out on the inside fake after Texas lined up for an apparent Dusty Mangum FG. It was a called play from the Longhorn sideline and caught Jeffery by surprise when Brown's decision reached the huddle. The result was the first rushing TD of Jeffery's career and fourth overall. The Horns' fourth TD drive in as many possessions, covering 80 yards in 13 plays, staked a 28-3 lead. Benson also carried nine times for 40 yards on the possession.
This, of course, represents the worst case scenario for a groundbound wishbone offense.
A phantom 15-yard face mask call on fourth down against SLB Eric Hall (replays clearly showed Hall collared the ball carrier by the back of the shoulder pads) gave the Owls a first down. The drive, however, resulted in Jared Scruggs third consecutive punt.
DB Clifford Sparks' 16-yard INT return of Young's tipped pass to the UT 23 was Texas' first turnover of the season. The Owls would settle for a 23-yard FG following a false start on fourth-and-goal from the Texas one. The Horns took a 28-6 lead into the locker room.
David Thomas is finally getting a chance to tap into his vast potential that we have seen intermittently during his first two seasons. On Texas' first possession of the second half, the Horns were in a two tight end set with two flankers and Scaife was the intended receiver. Young, however, found Thomas on a drag route across the middle. The most impressive part of this 49-yard TD play was Thomas' head fake near the 20, followed by his headbutt at the five as he bulled his way into the end zone. His determined pass-and-catch increased the Longhorn lead, 35-6, at the 11:22 mark of the third quarter, capping a three-play, 56-yard drive. Thomas led all receivers with 90 yards on four grabs, including a pair of TDs.
"I thought they were gonna knock him out of bounds but he did a great job of cutting back against the grain," Davis said.
Texas' next possession ended with Young's second INT, this time in the right corner of the Rice end zone. The Owls returned the favor when DE Neale Tweedie recovered an Armstrong fumble at the Owl 46. The Longhorn drive ended when Mangum missed from 37 yards out.
Brown said the biggest concern was at backup RB (freshman Drew Kelson carried three times for 34 yards) but the deep ball is still an unanswered question with Big 12 play starting next Saturday. It's clear that the tight ends will be VY's best friend but he still does not consistently have the touch on the deeper routes. Young's biggest area of improvement has been his progressions and he obviously is a freak of nature when he carries the rock. But, at this juncture, the thought of VY having to pass the team downfield in a must-score situation is enough to keep most Orangebloods awake at night.
"I thought Vince, other than in the third quarter, probably played his best game in terms of what we saw," Davis said. "The touchdown to Scaife was a game plan play that we thought would be there in that situation. The second touchdown to David Thomas was a play we talked about at halftime. Vince threw a great ball. The interception in the end zone, Vince got a pre-snap read that the corner was lined up inside and he thought he could get (WR) Myron (Hardy) in the back of the end zone. That's something we've got to work on. He thought he could get a one-on-one situation. That play was really his worst play of the ballgame."
"We watched them in pre-game warmups," Brown said. "They looked okay but not 100 percent."
That opened the door for Nate Jones, who not only notched his first career start at SE but also became Texas' first true freshman to open with the first team this season. His first career reception came on a three-yard sideline pass from Young to move the chains on the opening possession. The redshirt came off Hardy on Texas' second series of the game.
SLB Garnet Smith played for the first time this season, entering the game in the third quarter. QB Chance Mock and RB Ramonce Taylor checked in with 12:41 remaining. But the offense wheezed and sputtered (thanks primarily to a backup O-line that gave Mock precious little time to operate) generating just 51 net yards in the final frame. The senior finished with 25 yards on 5-of-13 passing.
One other key stat that Brown will want to address is kickoff return yards. Rice accumulated 107 yards on four returns while the Horns posted just 18 yards on two returns. (And the return specialists will be a lot more special in two weeks at Dallas.)
"We're undefeated and that was the most important thing coming out of tonight," Brown said.
The 3-0 Horns open Big 12 play, 11:30 a.m. (CDT) against Baylor.