AUSTIN — As head coach Steve Sarkisian and the No. 11 Texas Longhorns open the 2023 season — the final season in the Big 12 for the Longhorns — the standards are high at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday against the Rice Owls with Texas now favored by 35.5 points.
On Monday, Sarkisian laid out several objectives for the Longhorns, including avoiding pre-snap penalties, tackling well, and covering on special teams. But there are other objectives, as well, like staying healthy with junior linebacker Mo Blackwell the only player out against Rice and further determining how position battles are shaking out — Texas has co-starters or backups at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, right guard, weakside linebacker and field cornerback.
On offense, the storylines surround the improvement of redshirt sophomore Quinn Ewers in his second season as a starter, especially his ability to connect on deep passes, how Sarkisian approaches touches at running back, and whether the interior offensive line improves.
For defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit, it’s about the defensive line turning in the expected dominant performance, how Anthony Hill Jr. plays at weakside linebacker, and the secondary showing more playmaking ability with JT Daniels making his third appearance at DKR.
- In perhaps the most humorous moment in pregame warmups, a freshman walk-on place kicker hit his long snapper right in the butt on short field-goal attempt.
- Overall, it’s easy to agree with Sarkisian’s assessment that this team is “what it’s supposed to look like,” from the size in the trenches to the length at the skill positions.
- No position looks more different this year than wide receiver with the addition of two-time national champion AD Mitchell, the return of Isaiah Neyor, and the freshmen wide receivers. Mitchell and Neyor in particular should help the Longhorn improve significantly on contested catches.
- Freshman quarterback Arch Manning’s delivery is so quick and clean, exactly what someone would expect from the last name on the back of his jersey.
- In seven-on-seven drills, Texas showed a 12 personnel package with junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders in a two-point stance tight to the formation and junior tight end Gunnar Helm in a three-point stance on the other side. With Helm’s improvement this offseason, that looks like a better personnel grouping now than it did in the spring.
- Sophomore safety Michael Taaffe took first-team reps ahead of senior safety Jerrin Thompson, who was announced as the starter in the stadium and listed as the starter on the depth chart.
- Team captains — Ewers, senior WR Jordan Whittington, junior DT Byron Murphy, and senior LB Jaylan Ford
- Rice won the toss and deferred; Texas receives
Texas started the season at the 25-yard after a touchback in 11 personnel with CJ Baxter at running back, flipping the ball out to Whittington for a modest gain, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs at the 33-yard line when Ewers couldn’t connect with Sanders on 4th and 2.
Rice picked up a first down with a pass and a run to move the ball just outside the Texas red zone before the big base stuffed a run by the Owls on first down. Sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks broke up the second-down pass and Rice was stopped for a loss on a direct snap to wide receiver Luke McCaffrey to force a 43-yard field-goal attempt that gave the Owls a 3-0 lead.
In 12 personnel for the second drive with Baxter still at running back, the freshman ran for four yards on the first career of his college career, then junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy went up for a contested catch on a 13-yard gain and made a defender miss for a 24-yard. A potential third catch into the red zone, however, was negated on review. The Longhorns quickly made up for the incomplete pass with a well-designed throwback screen to junior running back Jonathon Brooks, who scampered 37 yards untouched for a 7-3 advantage.
The first kickoff of the season for Texas sophomore kicker Will Stone went for a touchback, giving Rice the ball at the 25-yard line. A short completion by the Owls and a nice job by Longhorns senior strong-side linebacker Jett Bush to set the edge forced a 3rd and 7 by Rice that resulted in an incompletion with quarterback JT Daniels under pressure from Texas senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat.
The Longhorns took over at their own 25-yard line following a 47-yard punt and picked up a first down on a run and a screen pass prior to a long incompletion intended for Worthy that didn’t quite lead the Texas standout far enough — the ball got trapped on the back of the Rice defender. Flushed from the pocket on 3rd and 9, Ewers was tackled behind the line of scrimmage to end the drive.
A low, line-drive punt from senior Stanford transfer Ryan Sanborn resulted in a fair catch at the Rice 15-yard line. Freshman Texas cornerback Malik Muhammad recorded his first career pass broken up on first down and had a strong tackle on third down to force a punt by the Owls with redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kris Ross pressuring Daniels on a stunt.
Starting at the Texas 41-yard line, the Longhorns got behind the chains when Ewers wasn’t able to connect with junior wide receiver AD Mitchell on a post route, but Worthy caught a six-yard pass on second down and Rice moved the chains with an offside penalty. The first quarter ended with Brooks picking up another first down on two carries.
A glance route run-pass option to Whittington picked up 26 yards to open the second quarter before Texas had to face a 3rd and 8 from inside the 10-yard line, but Brooks dropped a rail route of the backfield to force a field goal. Sophomore kicker Bert Auburn extended the Longhorns lead to 10-3 with a 27-yard field goal.
Rice picked up its largest gain of the game by hitting a shallow cross for 36 yards on 3rd and 6, but a sack by Murphy and senior linebacker David Gbenda helped produce an interception by Ford over the middle on 3rd and 16.
To start the drive for Texas, Baxter hit a Counter up the middle, then bounced it outside for 32 yards, but got banged up at the end of the play when he landed on his shoulder. The first pre-snap penalty of the season, a false start on sophomore right guard DJ Campbell, forced the Longhorns into a 3rd and 18 that resulted in an incomplete pass intended for Sanders. Auburn pushed the margin to 13-3 with a 46-yard field goal to end the drive.
Daniels threw a second consecutive interception under pressure from Sweat as sophomore nickel back Austin Jordan recorded his first pick for the Longhorns.
Austin Jordan’s first career INT pic.twitter.com/Czj5meJzTr— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) September 2, 2023
Illegal touching by Worthy on first down negated a 13-yard gain and Texas turned the ball over on downs for a second time when Brooks was hit in the backfield on 4th and 1, the third consecutive running play for the Horns.
The Owls picked up a first down with a 13-yard reception to open the drive before the Longhorns put Daniels under further relentless pressure to create another stop. After an angled punt by Rice pinned Texas deep in its own territory at the 3-yard line, Texas gained 17 yards on a completion to Worthy, lost 12 yards when Ewers was sacked, gained back 18 yards, and extended the drive with a five-yard catch by Brooks. The downfield passing game remained a work in progress when Ewers missed an open Worthy with a throw onto the sideline.
Ewers scrambled for 14 yards to move the chains on 3rd and 8 after sophomore Jaydon Blue picked up 14 yards on two carries — nearly breaking the first one up the middle. With the clock ticking down on the first half, Texas took a timeout with 29 seconds remaining facing 2nd and 2 at the 35-yard line, but Ewers was sacked for again, forcing another timeout. A screen pass to senior running back Keilan Robinson secured the first down with Ewers preserving the final timeout by spiking the ball with 11 seconds left. Rice blitzed and put a put big hit on Ewers on an incomplete pass intended for Mitchell. Auburn came through once again with a 49-yard field goal to end the half.
Defensively, Texas held Rice to 64 total yards on 2.9 yards per play with two interceptions and four quarterback pressures. The Longhorns defensive line was particularly stout, as expected — the Owls lost two yards on eight rushing attempts. Through the air, Daniels wasn’t efficient, either, going 6-of-14 passing for 66 yards and the two interceptions, a passer rating of 53.9.
The Texas offense played well enough to produce 254 total yards and several chunk plays, but Ewers struggled once again connecting on deep balls and was under too much pressure as Rice sacked Ewers twice, in addition to a tackle for loss on a scramble, and often forced the Longhorns starter to move his feet in the pocket. Struggles by the interior offensive line for Texas were notable in the running game and the passing game, a disappointment given the returning experience and the talent of DJ Campbell making his first start at right guard.
Baxter departing the game with a shoulder injury after his 32-yard run in the second quarter also loomed as a concern for the Horns, though Brooks and Blue both filled in ably with Robinson serving as the change-of-pace back.
And Texas produced only six points in the red zone and three points off turnovers in settling for four field goals in the first half.
The Longhorns started the second half with Stone kicking the ball out of bounds, allowing the Owls to start at the 35-yard line. The offense for Rice couldn’t find any better rhythm than most of the first half, however, going three and out for the third time.
For the first time, the Horns were able to set up a punt return for Worthy, who found a seam for 21 yards, but couldn’t beat the last defender before the punter. On a screen pass to start the drive, Worthy took the sideline for 11 yards. A short run and a pass that hit Sanders in the helmet before he could find the football forced a 3rd and 8 that Ewers converted with his second first-down scramble.
Another completion to Worthy and a short run by Blue moved the Longhorns inside the 10-yard line of the Owls, allowing Mitchell to record his first touchdown catch in burnt orange and white, winning on a slant route for the nine-yard score to make it 23-3 after the extra point.
Strong kickoff coverage from Texas held Rice to a 12-yard return to the 17-yard line. Senior defensive tackle Alfred Collins flashed on second down with a pass batted down to set up 3rd and 6 coming out of a Rice timeout. Daniels was able to move the chains by moving outside the pocket to find a receiver covered well by Muhammad. On the ensuing 3rd and 2, the Owls tried a direct snap to McCaffrey again without much success before the Longhorns got a stop on fourth down to get the ball back in Rice territory.
Texas only needed one play to take advantage as Ewers hit Sanders up the seam and the big tight end did the rest by stepping through a tackle attempt for a 44-yard TD and a 30-3 lead.
Rice went three and out once again thanks to sophomore Buck end Ethan Burke picking up his first career sack for Texas with help from Bush, who flushed Daniels up the pocket.
A 35-yard punt by the Owls set the Longhorns up close to midfield. Three runs from Blue weren’t enough to pick up the first down, setting up a 4th and 1 converted by Brooks with a gain of five yards. Another missed deep ball by Ewers — hurt by poor footwork — could have produced defensive pass interference, but the offense didn’t miss a beat as Blue ran for 19 yards and Whittington made a 16-yard reception before Ewers converted a zone read from one yards out. And the route was officially on with the Horns taking a 37-3 lead late in the third quarter.
The Longhorns picked up some fumble recovery luck — missing last season — just before the end of the third quarter when the Owls running back fumbled the exchange and Bush was there for the recovery.
The turnover ended the day for Ewers and marked the collegiate debut for redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy, who only needed two pass attempts to show off his cannon of a right arm on a 13-yard completion to Neyor for the Wyoming transfer’s first catch in burnt orange and white.
Maalik Murphy fires a dart for his first career completion. pic.twitter.com/rwydGfWxLw— CJ Vogel (@CJVogel_TFB) September 2, 2023
Freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook had his first career reception negated on the following play when senior tight end Patrick Bayouth was called for a pick on the mesh concept. A facemask penalty on junior left guard Hayden Conner put the Horns farther behind the chains and facing 1st and 40. Texas wasn’t able to convert as Murphy showed the downside of his arm strength on a third-down pass intended for Neyor that was outside of Neyor’s frame and too hot to handle. Auburn then missed short and left from 56 yards.
In extended garbage time, Hill delivered a big hit on a Rice tight end, although the Owls were able to mount their first real sustained drive of the game, prompting the return of some first-team defensive linemen for the Longhorns for a fourth down converted by Rice. On 3rd and goal from the 15-yard line, Daniels found McCaffrey for the only touchdown by the visitors, at which point Texas ran out the final three minutes to win 37-10.