Offensively, the Longhorns have found their stride in the passing game, with quarterback Sam Ehlinger leading the charge, helped by breakout stars Brennan Eagles and Devin Duvernay. However, Texas still needs to figure out what is happening on the ground in order to keep balance on the offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, Texas has some things to clean up, hoping to get more consistent play from the secondary. The task becomes even tougher with the loss of talented sophomore B.J. Foster , who will miss at least a couple weeks with a hamstring injury. The game on Saturday against Rice will provide Texas one final opportunity to get it right before heading into conference play in two weeks.
Burnt Orange Nation: The biggest question surrounding the Rice Owls centers around Wiley Green and his health as they head into Saturday after a scary injury against Wake Forest. Can you give an update on how he is doing?
The Roost: As scary as the injury was at the time, the updates we’ve gotten since have been about as good as could reasonably be expected. Wiley was out of the hospital that night, and all tests that have been done have come out negative. Mike Bloomgren said at his press conference [Tuesday] that he’s doing much better outside of some neck soreness, and we hope to have him back as soon as possible. For the team’s sake, I hope he’ll be back for conference play, but obviously the number one priority is his long-term health.
BON: On the field, Harvard graduate transfer Tom Stewart will step in for the injured green. What does the Rice offense look like what with him taking the snaps at quarterback?
TR: I expect it to be largely the same. However, the Owls are pretty scheme-diverse on that side of the ball. They run a little bit of just about everything: from no-receiver jumbo sets out of 23 or 32 personnel to under-center I formation stuff to modern spread option and RPOs with 11 personnel. One of the reasons Green won the starting job in the offseason was his command of the offense, as Bloomgren noted that Stewart had some difficulty digesting the playbook with only the summer and fall to adjust. So it’s likely the playbook will be pared back some to accommodate the plays Stewart feels comfortable running.
That dovetails with the approach they were likely to take anyway. Even at its most wide-open, the Rice offense, like the Stanford system that inspired it, is going to be slow-tempo and run-heavy. In a game like this, Bloomgren and OC Jerry Mack will look to take the air out of the ball even more, minimizing possessions and maximizing variance. Ideally that’ll mean more than the 44 plays they ran in Week 1 against Army, but the Owls will look to play ball control. Depending on how much of the playbook Stewart is comfortable with, they’ll want to test the discipline and knowledge of the Longhorns’ rebuilt front seven with their diverse run schemes.
BON: The Owls have struggled defensively in their first two games, giving up 41 points to Wake Forest a week ago. Have the Owls been simply out-matched or is there something schematically that has been missing for them?
TR: I’ll push back a bit here, because the Owls’ defensive performance has generally exceeded expectations so far. They held an Army squad that pushed Michigan to overtime to just 14 points and under 300 total yards on the road in Week 1, and outside of a backbreaking 96-yard TD, the run defense was good against Wake Forest as well. The front seven has been impressive overall, especially senior DT Myles Adams and ILBs Antonio Montero and Blaze Alldredge.
Scheme-wise, coordinator Brian Smith was the secondary coach under Don Brown at Michigan prior to joining the Owls last year in Coach Bloomgren’s first season. He brought Brown’s scheme with him, featuring physical man coverage on the outside, exotic pressures from the front seven, and a hybrid OLB/S/nickel position called the “viper”. The front seven has shown promise in the scheme in each of the last two seasons (particularly this year). In the secondary, the Owls were unprepared to run the scheme in a transition year and were burned for multiple long TDs almost every week.
This year, the results for the secondary have been... mixed. They mostly played well against Army, but Army runs an option offense and only threw eight passes. Against Wake Forest, they were dealt a blow when starting CB TyRae Thornton was ejected in the 1st quarter for targeting. The other members of the secondary, including CB Andrew Bird and safeties George Nyakwol, Prudy Calderon, and Naeem Smith, generally played well. However, Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman was spectacular (no seriously, he’s incredible), threading a number of great throws into tight coverage. The Rice DBs were (usually) in good position, but the tallest among them is the 6’1” Bird, and Wake’s receivers are almost as big as y’all’s (Scotty Washington is 6’5” 225 and Sage Surratt is 6’3” 215). This was a case where Rice was just physically outmatched on the outside. That’s not to say they couldn’t have played better, but they generally did what they were supposed to do in a complex scheme.
Rice’s defense will go as the DBs go. I don’t think they have issues with the scheme. When they face great QBs and big, fast, physical receivers (like they will Saturday), they’ll likely struggle. When they face less accurate QBs and receivers that don’t have outlandish physical advantages (as they will in most of conference play), they’ll do well enough to keep Rice in the game.
BON: What do you hope to see from the Rice Owls Saturday in NRG Stadium?
I said all offseason that for Rice this year, in “Year One” (last year was as much of a true Year Zero as you’re going to scheme) of the Bloomgren era, quality of play will be far more important than wins and losses, and that’s generally going to be the case on Saturday. The Owls have thus far shown dramatic improvement from last year despite being 0-2, and the biggest thing will be for them to continue to improve. Bloomgren’s already said that he and the team are getting tired of “moral victories,” but from a practical standpoint it’s going to be a tall task to put one in the win column for another two weeks at least. My main hope, really, is that they stay healthy, because with what they’ve shown so far, they have a chance to make some noise in C-USA once conference play starts.
That said, don’t expect Rice to roll over. This is a big game for these players, and they’ll be ready to give their best effort. After a heartbreaker on the national stage against LSU, can Texas stay the same? Rice can’t match the athletic potential of UT’s former four- and five-stars, but if the Longhorns aren’t ready to play they may be in for a rude surprise. My hope is that Rice will execute as well as possible on Saturday. If they get beat because the Texas players are bigger and faster, I can live with that.
BON: The Rice MOB is known for lampooning their opponents in hilarious ways each and every week. The current conversation around the Longhorns is teeming with opportunities for satire. What do you expect from the MOB?
TR: With an open wound like that LSU loss right there for the taking, I’m definitely expecting the MOB to pour a heaping dose of salt in it. I’m not sure what else they’ll be going for, but I’m looking forward to it. Their shows can be hit or miss at times as to whether the jokes land, but I always hope that for them to inspire angry message board posts and blog comments (something Texas fans have no experience at all with creating, I’m sure), and if we’re lucky, indignant letters to the Rice administration.