You'd have to go back several years to find a collegiate game that had more national hype than Texas-Ohio State. This week, Mack Brown has been a one-man hype-machine who has built up the Rice game from every conceivable angle. This includes...
...the history angle ("This is the 88th meeting between these two teams...");
...the home town angle ("We've got a lot of guys from Houston who grew up around Rice, and that makes this game a more important game than some one might think...");
...the weird offense angle ("The fact that we're seeing the kind of offense that you only see once a year gets the guys more ready to play...");
...and the Rice-is-better-than-usual angle ("They've got more speed than at any other time since we've played them...").
Doesn't exactly get the ol' Burnt Orange blood flowing like last week at this time, does it?
Frankly, there are plot lines of far greater interest to most Horn fans: Will FL Jordan Shipley see his collegiate debut? Will RB Jamaal Charles log his first collegiate start? Will coaches finally find a way to successfully incorporate Ramonce Taylor into the offense, or will the 'poor man's Reggie Bush' become the 'poor man's Ted Ginn, Jr."? How often will Athletic Department officials replay Limas Sweed's 24-yard TD grab on the Jumbotron? Will Texas cover a kickoff? Heck, will we even see the kickoff return team more than once?
Almost to a man, the Horns speak of the great challenge awaiting them this Saturday. And that challenge has to do with maintaining focus against the most outmatched opponent remaining on the schedule. That's why so many Horns are taking a business-like approach to the final nonconference game of the regular season.
"We've got to go into each week ready to work," said FL Brian Carter. "We've got to be just as excited about Rice as if they were Ohio State, OU, or any game. If you come out there on Saturday not ready to play, anybody can jump on you. SMU beat TCU, and TCU beat OU. If we play as if every game is our last game, I think we'll be all right. It's at the point where we've worked so hard, why shouldn't we come out 100 percent?"
Brown needs only to reference the last time Texas gave less than 100 percent to make the same point.
"You go to our game at Kansas last year where we didn't play as inspired as we needed to," Brown said. "We nearly lost."
This season marks the 40th anniversary of Rice's last win in Austin but there have been some excruciating squeakers in the series since then (the 18-13 win in 1999, the 23-21 nailbiter in 1992 and the controversial 31-30 comeback in 1989). These days, the Horns are a seasoned a bunch in which the younger players (notably at RB and outside linebackers) have shown maturity beyond their years. Meanwhile, 18 Owls saw their first collegiate game last week in the 63-21 loss at UCLA.
"I think they were scared spit-less," Rice coach Ken Hatfield said of his troops. "All of a sudden, you're out there and the lights are on, the 25-seconds are going and everybody's moving, then those big ol' hairy-chested guys are hitting you in the mouth. It's mind-boggling, and every one of our guys felt that way when they started. That's something they learn: they've seen the speed of the game and they know they better attack somebody."
Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik can't even remember the last time he schemed against the kind of triple-option that Rice puts on the grass. He certainly never saw it in the SEC, nor even during his four-year stint at Central Florida. The last time, as far as he could recall, came during his days at Stephen F. Austin (1992-97) when the-school-formerly-known-as Southwest Texas State presented the spread option against his Lumberjacks.
"I haven't played an option team like this in a long, long time," Chizik said.
The Owls reliance on the throwback scheme is fairly obvious: Hatfield hopes it can be somewhat of an equalizer facing teams who only prepare for it once a year. Last season, the ground-bound Owls racked up an NCAA-best 307 rushing ypg.
"They were number one in the country in rushing last year," Chizik said. "That jumps out at you."
But, no worries: "We have a great idea about what we're going to do (defensively)."
Now, there are signs that Rice wants to bring balance its historically one-dimensional attack (or at least improve on its passing efficiency rating that finished just No. 114 out of 117 D-I schools last season).
"Kenny (Hatfield) is doing more with the shotgun," Brown said. "He's throwing the ball and running some screens and some draws. They're running multiple sets."
The trigger man is QB Joel Armstrong, who started five of the last six games of 2004 as a true freshman (all losses) on the way to a 3-8 campaign. Backup RS-freshman Chase Clement should also see some snaps Saturday.
"They've got two good quarterbacks," Brown said. "Both can run the option and both can throw."
The A-back is Quinton Smith, a Cedar Park product who averaged 6.0 ypc in 2004. The starting SE, Jarett Dillard, is also a RS-freshman out of San Antonio but he figures less in the Rice offense than does the RB in Texas Tech's scheme. Rice is the kind of team that occasionally tosses the long ball on play-action against a napping defense that has stacked the line to stop the run. You can also expect the Owls to attempt every fourth down conversion once they cross mid-field.
While Brown points to evidence that Rice is no longer your grandfather's Wishbone team, Chizik begs to differ.
"They've tried to integrate some new things," Chizik said, "but when you get right down to it, they're not changing. They're going to do what they've been doing for however many years they've been doing it."
The 2004 Owls managed one dubious distinction: they racked up 63 points and still lost the football game. (The 70-63 track meet at lowly San Jose State nearly rewrote the record book on defensive futility.)
A bright spot on the typically porous defense is senior DE John Syptak, a first-team all-WAC selection last year after posting 15 TFLs and eight sacks.
"He's really a good player," OC Greg Davis said. "He has a great first step."
The other stud on the Owl defense is WLB Adam Herrin.
"He's always around the ball," Davis said.
Davis expects a much more aggressive Owl defense Saturday, noting that Rice came with 31 blitzes in 70 plays against UCLA. That's why coaches spent extra time this week (especially with the freshmen RBs) working on picking up blitzes.
"We were surprised to see them blitz 44 percent of the time against UCLA," Brown said. "That has not been their personality in the past. We've got to plan on them blitzing and prepare for it."
But in the immortal words of Bill Murray in the movie "Stripes": It just doesn't matter.
Let's finish the Rice game early so we can all go home and watch the Ohio State tape. Again.