Total yardage, time of possession, and third down conversion rate paint a very rosy picture for the visiting Rice Owls. But a huge win in the third phase, plus a massive lead in the turnover margin, were enough to compensate for that for the Texas Longhorns. Oh yeah, and there's that whole deal about breaking in a new QB....
4 - 7, 120 (17.1), 2-0: Jerrod Heard pass completions - attempts, passing yards (yards per attempt), passing TDs-INTs
10 - 96 (9.6): Jerrod Heard rush attempts - rushing yards (yards per carry)
The long-awaited arrival of Jerrod Heard came with explosive results. In a very basic offensive gameplan under new play caller Jay Norvell, Heard showcased some opportunistic deep passing and excellent elusiveness. In the first drive of the game for Texas, Heard showed off his impressive speed in turning a pass play into a long scramble downfield (50+ yards originally, netted 35 after a needless block in the back penalty). He capped off the drive with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Armanti Foreman that, while late, was in the right spot.
He kicked off the second half with much better timing, finding John Burt streaking downfield for 69-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage. At the half, the coaching staff noted Rice's tendency to drop the boundary safety into the box to outnumber the run game and play press coverage on John Burt to that side. To attack that tendency, the staff planned to attack the coverage with a go route for the freshman. It's an opportunity that should be available often for Heard as teams dedicate numbers to smother the Texas run game, and Heard provided plenty of encouragement by nailing the throw.
3 - 119 - 1, 1 - 35: Daje Johnson punt returns - punt return yards - punt return TDs, kick returns - kick return yards
If not for the debut of Jerrod Heard, Daje Johnson's Big 12 special teams player of the week honors performance would likely have been the talk of the Rice game.
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
The second score for the Horns came on Daje's impressive 85-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter. Much like Johnson's TD return against OU in 2013, not calling for a fair catch was a risky proposition, but Johnson's low center of gravity and excellent balance helped him make a couple of jukes before outrunning everybody. His other three punt and kick returns eased him along to 154 return yards on the day. Adding in Duke Thomas's 56-yard punt return to Johnson's punt return yardage gave the Horns 175 total punt return yards, a Texas record.
Despite Daje's productivity on special teams, and being the sole bright spot on offense against Notre Dame, the senior wide receiver didn't notch a touch on offense. Equal parts "flow of the game" and the remedial passing game used to ease Jerrod Heard and Jay Norvell into their new relationship, Daje didn't have any opportunities. With the offense likely to take more than 38 snaps on offense next week, and the probable need to score plenty to keep up with a dynamic Cal offense, Daje could be quite involved on offense as the Horns round out non-conference play.
9 - 1 - 1 (1): Malik Jefferson tackles - tackles for loss - fumble recoveries (defensive touchdowns)
Prediction: I will sound like a broken record repeating "Malik Jefferson led Texas in tackles and was the best defensive player on the field". Against Rice, Jefferson led the way in tackles and is currently second in the Big 12 in total tackles. Not a bad start for the true freshman.
Included in Malik Jefferson's performance were four quarterback pressures. Representing Texas's lone pass rushing threat, Jefferson found himself in position to take down Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson in the backfield on several occasions, but was taken to school by the veteran quarterback in an evasion clinic. At this point, Jefferson is still largely relying on his (impressive) athleticism to make plays, but can be seen gasping for air as that athleticism was consistently tested. Malik was the culprit on several of Texas's missed tackles against Rice.
As Jefferson's game develops, he'll turn those pressures into sacks, which will go a long way in solving Texas's third-down struggles....
58 - 228 (3.9) - 2: Rice total rushes - rushing yards (yards per carry) - rushing TDs
23 - 38 (60.5), 234 (6.2), 2-3: Rice pass completions - attempts (comp%), passing yards (YPA), passing TDs-INTs
44:02: Rice time of possession
14 - 21: Rice third down conversions - attempts
While watching the game, it felt like Rice was gouging the Texas defense on the ground. It felt like Rice had gained all of the 462 yards of total offense they finished with, a full 185 yards more than the Texas offense.
In the end, the Rice offense was all about volume. Their 38 pass attempts went for a pedestrian 6.2 yards per attempt, and the gaudy 58 rush attempts amounted to only 3.9 yards per carry. Texas's 3-3-5 defense is designed to give up some yards in the ground game but limit successes on third down. And the 3.9 yards per carry illustrate the success of the run defense in limiting the damage, but the 14-of-21 third down success rate for Rice was pretty atrocious.
As Ian Boyd of Inside Texas points out, Texas is struggling with situational football right now ($). Despite overall success against the Rice offense, the Texas defense far too frequently gave up third-down conversions of all varieties. And while the short conversions are frustrating, the Texas defense gave up seven third-down conversions of 3rd and 5 or longer. It's just too much.
The most obvious solutions to the third down troubles are an improved pass rush and better play from the secondary. Hassan Ridgeway's improving health could be a boon, as he found life in the second half when returning to nose tackle. He was either blowing single blockers off the line or commanding double teams that opened up the other pass rushers.
Additionally, either the veterans in the Texas secondary need to improve their play in zone coverage or they need to make way for the younger members of the unit. Regardless, the secondary likely will be facing some changes. The players that need to be protected in your coverages can't be both safeties, and one of the corner spots needs to be manned by somebody that can single cover a side of the field. The current mix is not getting that done.