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Texas Game Week: Rice

No theme here, just some random thoughts and links as we bask in the glory that is the return of college football.

Horns_bullet_mediumFun with the run. In my write up on the defensive line for The Eyes of Texas 2010, I noted that this marks the fourth straight year Texas has lost a pair of critical linemen to the NFL.

It's almost becoming routine: In 2007 it was Brian Robison and Tim Crowder, in '08 Frank Okam and Derek Lokey, a year ago Brian Orakpo, Henry Melton, and Roy Miller, and this year Sergio Kindle and Lamarr Houston. Each year Texas has weathered the losses, picked up right where the last group left off, and been the hardest team in the nation to run the football against--finishing first nationally in rush yards allowed per game last year, third in '08, sixth 'in '07, and third in '06.

Fast forward to last week, when the venerable Doc Saturday wrote a generally excellent piece on Garrett Gilbert and Landry Jones, concluding:

If the Red River Shootout is set to play its usual role as the gateway to the top of the Big 12 and the thick of the BCS championship scrum, the team that rides through on Oct. 2 is bound to be the one whose young gun has grown up the fastest.

There's some truth to that, of course, but I think it misses the mark in framing quarterback play as the key to the match up. Instead, consider the following chart of rushing in the Red River Shootout during the Mack-Stoops era (after the jump):

2009 22 -16 40 142 UT 16-13
2008 26 48 35 161 UT 45-35
2007 41 170 29 61 OU 28-21
2006 36 124 32 124 UT 28-10
2005 33 77 40 203 UT 45-12
2004 52 301 40 154 OU 12-0
2003 47 189 34 171 OU 65-13
2002 46 266 35 53 OU 35-24
2001 31 63 25 27 OU 14-3
2000 56 245 17 -7 OU 63-14
1999 18 15 36 225 UT 38-28

Notice a pattern? Hinton's right that -- all other things equal -- quarterback play will be important, maybe even decisive. But it's that qualifier that I think is the proper focus of the game -- all other things equal, and specifically, whether one team will be able to run the football. OU was moderately successful rushing the ball with Adrian Peterson in '06 and Demarco Murray in '07, but they've been stuffed in three of the other four Texas wins, while running wild on the Longhorns in four of the five wins during The Streak.

How far along Landry Jones is will be important to the Sooners this season, but he's got to get some help on the ground or it won't matter against quality defenses. Between 2006-08 the Sooners finished no worse than 30th nationally in both rushing yards per game or average yards per carry, while scoring 25, 34, and 45 rushing touchdowns. Last year the production dropped across the board, to just 134 yards per game (77th nationally) on 3.6 yards per carry (90th), and 18 touchdowns (70th).

Given the Bradford injury, there's a chicken-or-egg question here, but at least where the Red River Shootout is concerned, experience suggests the inability to run the ball that is the contest's most decisive factor. From my vantage point, there's considerable question about both teams' offensive lines and both team's ability to rush the ball against quality defenses. And while it is the case that if neither team proves capable of rushing the ball on October 2nd, the play of Gilbert and Jones is likely to be decisive, as a question of first order I want to know whether either team is going to be able to pick up yards on the ground. If Texas can and OU can't, Jones can be further along than Gilbert and I'll still take Texas to win. And the opposite is true if OU can move the ball on the ground, but Texas cannot.

Hinton is right that there's not a great deal of separation between the two defenses on paper, but even more than the play of Gilbert and Jones, my focus will be on the health and effectiveness of Kheeston Randall and Adrian Taylor inside. Both teams will be tough as nails with them, but in trouble without. (And more generally, I'm looking at how strong each defense is up the middle. In recent years, that advantage has been with Texas, while in the first half of the decade OU dominated up the middle with guys like Tommie Harris, Teddy Lehman, Derrick Strait, and Roy Williams.)

Horns_bullet_mediumLiking that line. Las Vegas opened the line in Saturday's contest versus Rice at 28 points, a spread that quickly jumped up to 29.5. That still seems too low, considering the Owls' national-worst 43.1 points per game allowed last season. Rice is starting over in the back seven, which is probably a good thing considering last year's results, but they'll be inexperienced before they become better, if that makes sense. The front four is the strength of the defense and our line will be challenged by explosive pass rusher Cheta Ozougwu and the deceptively powerful Scott Solomon, both of whom led the team last year with 10.5 tackles-for-loss. I'll stop short of calling the Owls' front four a "test" for Texas, but look, we couldn't execute our running scheme against Wyoming last year. If the blocking schemes and approach are broken again this year, we might get to 200 yards rushing, but it'll be on 55 carries. (Edit: From the comments, looks like I missed the news that Solomon is out for the season. Burst foot calcium, natch.)

Offensively, Rice is ill-equipped to challenge Texas in any meaningful way. The Owls brought back David Beatty to be offensive coordinator (a key member of Applewhite's successful stint at Rice, spending the last two years as a member of Mangino's staff at KU), but they're breaking in a whole new crop of receivers, while last year's inexperienced offensive line should be better but has little chance of withstanding the onslaught Muschamp's defense will bring. In the backfield, Rice returns its top two rushers from last year (Charles Ross and Tyler Smith), plus Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie -- who's good for some highlight plays but will need to be as magically elusive as Barry Sanders to find yardage.

All told, a 30 point spread for Texas is a reflection of our breaking in a new quarterback and some skepticism about our scheme. That's fair insofar as it goes, but Texas is as likely as not to put up points via defense and special teams, as well. For the most part, Texas has hammered opening cupcakes, and have won five of the last six against Rice by 40+ points. I'd say we're a good bet to do so again. Rice isn't putting up more than 10 points in this one. If you're confident the Horns can get to 40, this looks like a cover.

Horns_bullet_mediumScipio says... Our friend Scipio Tex has a brief opening monologue preview of Rice up at Barking Carnival. If you're still on the fence about Texas' ability to cover, here's some further affirmation for you. Mostly, though, just enjoy the humor. The best bit for my money:

RB has good talent and features Leaping Supa Wigga Sam McGuffie. He transferred from Michigan after Rich Rodriguez wouldn’t let him wear his helmet sideways. He’s extremely fast, likes to leap over people who aren’t paying attention, and he may die on the field if he tries to do that to Christian Scott.

Horns_bullet_mediumThe Statesman says... Over in the mainstream, Kirk Bohls is convinced that Texas' offense is ready to take a turn for the better:

But write this down and commit it to memory: In 2010, the Texas offense will grow up, flex some muscle it didn't know it had, finally commit to the run and become Southern Cal-East. Especially the USC offenses of the Leinart-Bush-White-Smith vintage, as in 2005, when the Trojans had the best offense in the country with the fifth-ranked passing attack (320 yards a game) and sixth-most prolific rushing game (260 yards).

I think that's actually a fair and good comp for what Texas is trying to do, and while it's almost certain that this group -- even if successful -- won't match the 2004-05 Trojans in explosiveness, matching their balance would be a substantial, and important, accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Cedric Golden has three depth chart observations, the best of which pertains to Okafor:

It's no surprise that defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is finding explosive athletes to plug in at defensive tackle. The long-armed Okafor is the latest.

Muschamp insists Okafor has the right body type to grow into a terrific tackle by the time he's finished here. Okafor could end up becoming one of those hybrid types who can present matchup problems, particularly up front when the Horns morph into a 3-4 defense.

Right on the money, and well said.