clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Texas rush defense will be tested vs. Rice

“They’re going to try to pound it, cut the game in half and extend drives.”

NCAA Football: Rice at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the first two weeks of the season, the Texas Longhorns have been tested nearly entirely. Sam Ehlinger and his pass-catching corps have been tested not once, but twice against two notable secondaries from Louisiana Tech and LSU. The latter, featuring an abundance of size, strength, and athleticism in the trenches, tested Texas’ offensive line and its ability to not only pass protect, but carve out some running room, while the Tigers’ revamped offense, of course, tested Texas’ secondary.

Texas has passed some of these early tests with flying colors, while other outcomes — namely, the secondary surrendering 471 yards through the air to LSU — were less than encouraging, to say the least.

But given that the Horns opened the season with two opponents that spread the field and air the ball out, it remains to be seen how well Texas can defend the run against a team that actually aims to emphasize it.

That will change on Saturday against the Rice Owls.

“They’re going to try to pound it, cut the game in half and extend drives,” Texas defensive coordinator Orlando said. “It’s not option football but the mentality is very much like option football.”

Thus far, the Texas rush defense has been tested on only 37 percent of its snaps, with Louisiana Tech leaning heavily towards attacking through the air with 54 pass attempts to just 26 rushes, while LSU’s 29 rush attempts were largely overshadowed by its 39 pass attempts.

Meanwhile, the Rice offense has rushed on 57 percent of its offensive snaps, and even that figure it likely a bit conservative compared to what the Owls actually want to do.

For example, Rice rushed on 30 of its 44 snaps to open the season against Army, but was essentially forced to become much more balanced the following week, totaling 37 rush attempts to 35 pass attempts, largely because the Owls spent their entire 41-21 loss to Wake Forest playing from behind. Ideally, Rice’s offensive emphasis will more closely resemble the season-opening loss to Army, which was a 7-7 contest until the final few minutes.

This emphasis on the ground game is most evident by the personnel the Owls employ.

Though Rice will, at times, look to spread the field with three, or even four receivers, the Owls typically set up shop in 21, 22, or 23 personnel, as Orlando noted.

“Rice is unique because there’s a lot of two tight ends, three tight ends, two backs in the backfield,” Orlando said. “It’s something we had to work on. It’s just different. We’re used to seeing spread stuff, we’re used to seeing fast-paced, and now we’re seeing three tight ends and a huddle. So it’s different. We’ll have to be different.”

To counter, Orlando said the Texas defense, which has relied upon defensive-back-heavy sets thus far, will often use four linebackers at once on Saturday, with Juwan Mitchell joining Ayodele Adeoeye (Mac), Jeffrey McCulloch (Rover), and Joseph Ossai (B-Backer) in the second level.

The talents they’ll be tasked with slowing? Seniors Aston Walter and Nashon Ellerbe, which have each eclipsed the 100-yard mark to begin the season. Both run with notable burst and shiftiness. Furthermore, in a twist that seems foreign in modern football, Rice, often rushing out of the Power I Formation, will even hand the ball off to 6’3, 220-pound senior fullback Reagan Williams, who received four carries for 16 yards against Wake Forest.

The good news as far as Texas is concerned is that the Horns have fared fairly well against the run thus far this season.

In the opener, Texas limited Louisiana Tech to just 73 rushing yards on 2.8 yards per attempts, and leading rusher Jaqwis Dancy’s seven carries netted just 25 yards. The following week, the Tigers totaled only 102 rushing yards on 3.5 yards per carry, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire leading the way with 87 yards, and more than a third of that came on just two of his 15 attempts.

But, of course, unlike Dancy and Edwards-Helaire, Rice’s running backs will often enjoy the luxury of seven and eight big bodies up front blocking for them, which is a look Texas simply hasn’t seen this season, especially not for the bulk of its defensive snaps.