"Why does Rice play Texas?"
On the 53rd anniverary of president John F. Kennedy's famous speech, the reeling Texas Longhorns made sure that the Rice Owls still had a hard task to pick up a historic win in Austin, using some much-needed explosive plays on offense and game-changing plays on defense and special teams for a 42-28 victory.
Redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard made his first start at quarterback and immediately had an impact, converting a 3rd and 11 on a long scramble reduced by a downfield block in the back by sophomore tight end Andrew Beck. Six plays later, Heard hit sophomore wide receiver Armanti Foreman on a 35-yard touchdown pass.
With a 4-of-7 performance through the air that produced 120 yards and two touchdowns, augmented by 10 carries for 96 yards, Heard seemingly took control of the quarterback position with Jay Norvell calling the plays. Junior Tyrone Swoopes didn't see the field until the game was well out of hand in the fourth quarter and missed two long attempts targeting Foreman.
Back in the first quarter, the defense gave up a first down on Rice's second possesion, but on the ensuing punt returnsenior wide receiver Daje Johnson broke several tackles and found some open field to make his first big play since the Oklahoma game in 2013.
Charlie Strong used to tease Daje Johnson about not making any plays since OU in 2013. No longer. Punt return TD pic.twitter.com/9VpljqWxMz— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 13, 2015
A 56-yard punt return by senior cornerback Duke Thomas as the up man in traffic gave the Longhorns a short field to quickly convert a third score on the ground after the defense once again stopped the Owls.
The second quarter was dominated by a Rice touchdown drive that took advantage of a fumbled interception return by Texas sophomore safety Jason Hall and a 16-play, 87-yard touchdown drive. Rice running back Sam Stewart finished that long march when senior cornerback Duke Thomas got blocked on the edge, Hall took a bad angle, and redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney got vaulted by the Rice running back.
Fortunately, Heard and new play caller Jay Norvell responded in the third quarter after sophomore safety Dylan Haines ended a late Rice threat with an interception in the end zone.
On the first play out of the break, Norvell dialed up a play-action deep pass to freshman wide receiver John Burt and Heard made one of the best throws of his football career -- a perfect spiral that hit Burt dead in stride for a game-changing 69-yard touchdown.
One of the major questions that Heard faced entering the game was his ability to get vertical in the passing game and he proved that he's improved in that area. Combined with his special ability to create off-schedule plays with his feet, Heard looked like he could be the long-awaited answer for Texas at quarterback. In retrospect, Heard's performance made former play caller Shawn Watson's assertion that Heard in fall camp was where Swoopes was last year seem silly.
Not content with the two first-half interceptions, the Texas defense forced one fumble and then another when cornerback Kris Boyd and linebacker Malik Jefferson combined for a freshman takeover moment on the ensuing Rice possession. Boyd came up hard out of the boundary to force a bad pitch by Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson that Jefferson picked up and returned for a 26-yard touchdown.
A 31-yard punt return by Johnson led to another short field for the offense and set the team record with 175 punt return yards.
However, the Texas defense struggled to get off the field, allowing too many third-down conversions and losing the line of scirmmage too many times. Overall, the Horns allowed the Owls to extend drives on 14-of-21 third downs and the single fourth down attempted. The pass rush didn't look much better than against Notre Dame and while the freshman cornerbacks provided some spark, it was disappointing to see a lack of improvement from redshirt freshman John Bonney at the boundary.
Overall, Rice out-gained Texas 462-277, with virtually every Longhorns player missing a tackle on Jackson at some point in the backfield. Jefferson was active during the game, but he had trouble bringing down the Rice quarterback, who only gained 15 yards on 12 carries, but was in sum much more dangerous than that in hidden yardage.
So it wasn't a perfect performance and there are still major concerns about the defensive front's ability to stop the run after the Owls gained 228 yards rushing. The defense also gave up two late touchdowns after putting the game out of reach at 42-14. Then the special teams wasn't able to recover a Rice onsides kick with just over 30 seconds remaining, but freshman linebacker Breckyn Hager ended the threat with an interception.
But what the Longhorns needed on Saturday was to win the game easily, find a rhythm offensively, and create some big plays in all phases. In those areas, the game was a success, with plenty of room for tough coaching this week.