Nearly 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy uttered one of the most famous sports-related questions, asking "Why does Rice play Texas?" At the time -- and it hasn't changed much -- Kennedy was talking about the need and desire to pursue the impossible, to reach for the moon. At the time, there was a very fundamental answer to the question. Rice played Texas because both teams were members of the Southwest Conference. It was a yearly battle ordained by conference affiliation.
Fast forward and the Southwest Conference is now long since defunct, with the junior members of the league like Rice, SMU, and Houston long since kicked to the curb in favor of bigger schools with better athletic programs. With the Owls now members of Conference USA, the answer to Kennedy's question now revolves around money and a desire from the Rice perspective to face an opponent that will provide the type of massive challenge that will benefit the team when the conference season begins. There's also a masochistic element -- Rice plays Texas to take a beatdown.
That aspect hasn't changed since the days of Kennedy. Texas leads the series 70-21-1, with Rice able to boast of only one all-time win in Austin in 49 attempts and two victories since that famous speech. Given the end results of the John Mackovic era, perhaps it's not surprising that the last loss to the Owls came on his watch, a 19-17 defeat in 1994. Looking back, it's a bit surprising that terrible defeat didn't result in his firing.
After a successful start in 2008, Rice head coach David Bailliff has struggled over the last couple seasons, largely because he's still trying to build a nucleus as strong as the Chase Clement, Jarrett Dillard, and James Casey trifecta that lead Rice to a 10-3 season and a win in the Texas Bowl against Western Michigan. And, of course, was beat soundly in Austin by Texas. Such is Rice "success."
After going 6-18 the last two seasons, Bailiff's team does look much closer to becoming consistently competitive. The squad finally has a quarterback, redshirt sophomore Taylor McHargue, the Vista Ridge product who surprised Texas last season with his legs as the unexpected starter. An injury derailed both his and Rice's season in 2010, but the team rebounded with victories in the last two games against East Carolina and UAB when McHargue returned, as the young quarterback was efficient with his arm and successful with his legs picking up yardage.
The strength of the Rice team is the running back corps, featuring a name Texas fans -- and Texas high school football fans -- are familiar with, Michigan transfer and Cy-Fair product Sam McGuffie, the white running back who liked to hurdle opponents in high school. He won't likely be trying that against Texas on Saturday, but he will be trying to build on a season that saw him pick up more than 1,000 combined yards on the ground and through the air. Bailiff's offense will look to get him the ball in space on zone running plays, screens, and flares, where McGuffie can use his straight-line speed to his advantage.
Since the Texas defense has plenty of speed, the bigger concern might be bruising back Jeremy Eddington, a redshirt sophomore from Paris, Texas who burst onto the scene late last season with monster efforts against East Carolina and UAB running the Wildcat for Rice, including 143 yards and four touchdowns against ECU. Look for him to continue building on that success early in 2010 as he shares carries with McGuffie and runs behind a line that features 105 combined starts.
At the tight end and wide receiver positions, the Owls feature some massive targets for McHargue, including 6-5, 260-pound receiver Vance McDonald, who is making the transition from tight end to wide receiver -- an unusual move for a player that large -- a year after leading the team with eight touchdown catches. Two tight ends will also figure prominently into the equation -- 6-5 Luke Wilson, the leading receiver in yardage in 2010 and 6-7 Taylor Cook, a Miami transfer, who is making the move from quarterback.
In his own preview, Scipio Tex essentially summarized the Rice defense in a paragraph:
the defense should be poor despite nine returning starters. They’re smallish, lack playmakers (6 interceptions on the year), and their base nickel surrendered big passing yardage last year while allowing 8.7 yards per attempt. Don’t fault the secondary entirely – Rice’s front four proved incapable of mounting any kind of pass rush and the entire team accounted for 14 sacks. That’s how you give up 38.5 points per game.
Let's look a little more deeply into the numbers to see just how poor the Rice defense was in 2010.
Last season, the defensive line put little pressure on the quarterback, putting tremendous pressure on the secondary to cover for long periods of time. The Owls were one of the worst teams in the country in sacking the quarterback, finishing 109th. Overall, the team was even worse making plays in the backfield, finishing dead last in the country with only 37 tackles for loss. Those type of numbers result in few turnovers -- 14, to be exact.
As Scipio Tex mentioned, the return of nine starters doesn't mean that much except that there seems to be little upside to this Rice defense. What upside there is rests mostly with senior defensive lineman Scott Solomon, a former All-Conference performer who missed the entirety of the 2010 season with an injury. The only problem for Rice is that Solomon is 260 pounds and while he does have 15 career sacks, he's probably not the answer off the edge and will likely spend more time inside where he has more of a quickness advantage.
Despite some talk from Bailiff that the cornerbacks improved during the spring, it's hard to see this Rice defense making significant improvements unless either the front four can more consistently put pressure on the quarterback and spend more time in the offensive backfield or the secondary suddenly discovers the playmaking that was entirely absent last season. More likely, the Rice defense will continue to resemble a sieve much more closely than a brick wall.
In previous seasons, the Texas coaching staff would be content to treat the Rice game like a glorified scrimmage, using an overwhelming talent advantage to beat the overmatched Owls and put little on film for future opponents -- never run a real offense before OU!
The hope is that those "gameplans" are a thing of the past with Bryan Harsin running the offense and the aggressive Manny Diaz dialing up blitzes from all angles.
Going up against a slightly undersized interior line for Rice and an equally undersized linebacking corps, expect Harsin to make liberal use of his Power O variants with a steady dose of Fozzy Whittaker, Joe Bergeron, and Malcolm Brown, letting the strong interior of line bludgeon Rice and attempt to spring Bergeron and Brown to the second level where they can run over Rice defenders.
What will be different from years past is that Harsin will use those early plays to help set up what he wants to do. If they work and continue to work, it could turn out to be a simple gameplan for Texas, but if Rice starts to adjust, look for Harsin to start countering, either throwing the ball downfield on playaction or starting to work to outleverage the Rice defense by using his speed on the outside, particularly DJ Monroe.
If Harsin wants to throw the ball early and often, the Longhorns likely won't have to worry much about pass protection even with an untested left tackle like Tray Allen given the anemic pass rush featured by the Owls. Garrett Gilbert should have plenty of time to throw the ball, but will have to execute in the red zone, something Texas did exceedingly poorly last season.
Defensively, don't look for Manny Diaz to hold much back, especially since McHargue has little game experience despite entering his third year in the Rice program and could become rattled if Texas can successfully pressure the quarterback. Last season, Texas struggled to defend the read option game with McHargue, something the fire zones preferred by Diaz could help combat.
There are two major concerns entering the game defensively. While McGuffie is the widely known name at running back, the bigger problem for Texas could be Jeremy Eddington, who will likely test what was last season often a soft middle of the defense for the Longhorns. Can a second defensive tackle step up next to Kheeston Randall and can middle linebacker Keenan Robinson fight off blocks? The second concern is in the red zone, where the Owls could use their height advantage on the outside in jump-ball situations. Look for some linebackers to match up against Cook and McDonald in the red zone. As always, the best recipe for red zone defense is keeping the opponent out of the red zone.
Overall, this Rice team could still struggle to win games against a tough schedule, but the offense should be improved and could give Texas some trouble. If the Longhorns come out flat again, it won't be easy to put Rice away, especially if the Owl offense gains some momentum early and can control the ball and the clock on the ground. Don't underestimate David Bailiff's group. Hopefully Texas won't for the second straight season.