After last week’s brutal loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Texas Longhorns aim to rebound a bit with an in-state matchup against the Rice Owls.
Mike Bloomgren enters his fourth season as the head coach at Rice, but has yet to win more than three games in any season. The Owls notably kept it close with the Razorbacks for three quarters before losing 38-17, and then looked out of sorts against Houston in Week 2, getting blown out 44-7.
Rice’s last win in Austin came back in 1963, but they’ve lost their last 15 games against Power Five opponents by 30 points per game. Texas looks to continue that trend this week.
If there’s one stat that sums up the Rice football program under Bloomgren, it’s that from 2017 to 2019, at least three different quarterbacks started at least one game. Last year, Rice only played five games, but two different quarterbacks started at least once. They’ve already reached that same mark through two games this season with Wiley Green starting against Arkansas and Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey starting last week against Houston.
Neither has looked sharp through two games, combining for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and six interceptions.
Both quarterbacks played against Arkansas in Week 1, but with the score tied up at 17 entering the fourth quarter, Bloomgren opted to stick with the sophomore Wiley Green for the final frame. Green ended the game with three of the final four Rice drives ending in an interception.
McCaffrey played the entire game against Houston, throwing for 86 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. But despite the stats, McCaffrey does give Rice the best chance to win and Bloomgren confirmed during his weekly press conference on Tuesday that he would start against Texas.
He can keep plays alive with his feet and has a stronger arm than Green, but hasn’t been able to show that yet at Rice. With the Cornhuskers, McCaffrey was used more frequently in the run game with designed run plays.
McCaffrey finished the 2020 season with 364 rushing yards and three touchdowns in seven appearances with two starts. He also tossed for 466 yards with one pass touchdown, but threw six interceptions, including three against Illinois. But as noted, Coach Bloomgren likes McCaffrey because of his playmaking potential.
“The ability to keep plays going and do things in the run game with his legs are really the reason right now,” Bloomgren said.
Rice doesn’t have the same offensive line that Nebraska did with two redshirt freshmen starting along with a sophomore. This season, Rice is averaging 2.8 yards per rushing attempt and about 103 yards per game. If you take away the COVID-shorted 2020 season, Rice is on pace for one of their worst rushing offensive attacks since 2009.
Rice will feature a pair of young but explosive tailbacks in Khalan Griffin and Ari Broussard. Neither particularly did anything against Arkansas, but Griffin ran for 86 yards (4.5 YPC) against the Cougars while Broussard averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
After the Horns allowed seven yards per rush against Arkansas, it would be safe to expect the Owls to try and replicate the same formula.
Two of Rice’s top targets — Bradley Rozner Jr. and August Pitre — missed last week's game against Houston and weren’t listed on this week’s depth chart.
Pitre caused a few problems for the Razorbacks, catching four passes for 97 yards with a touchdown while Rozner is a 6’5 weapon who had this 41-yard catch against Texas back in 2019.
If they aren’t good to go, it will drastically hurt the Owls passing game, but look out for the tight end Jordan Myers. Against Houston, Myers caught five passes — McCaffrey only complete nine — for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Bottom line: I don’t think the Owls have the offense to hang with Texas. Rice had seven drives against Houston where they didn’t pick up a first down. The only consistent part of this Rice offense is that they’ve turned the ball over three times in each game this season. They can’t afford to do that against Texas.
It’s hard to get a good read on the Owls defense. Through two games they’re giving up 41 points per after giving up 18.8 last season, which was 12th best in the nation. However, they held Arkansas to just 17 points in the opening three quarters before Green threw three interceptions in four drives to allow the Hogs to pull away.
Rice did a good job of limiting the Arkansas offense and KJ Jefferson, who was just 4-for-11 passing for 21 yards in the first half. But between turnovers and the Razorbacks finding their rhythm in the second half, Arkasas finished with 245 yards on the ground (5.6 yards per carry). Jefferson finished with 128 yards in the air, but was able to hurt Rice with his feet.
Houston’s Clayton Tune was able to do the same, leading the Cougars with 49 rushing yards with 44 yards coming on this long run.
Jefferson also made the Owls pay with this quarterback draw run up the middle.
This bodes well for Casey Thompson’s scrambling ability — he rushed for 44 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas despite playing in limited action.
It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest difference in the Owls defensive performance between Week’s 1 and 2, but the answer might just be there was a little hangover after the tough loss.
Starting linebacker Antonio Montero said this week that their performance against Arkansas “shows that we can really play with anybody. Stars don’t necessarily matter. It’s all about effort and scheme and trusting the system.”
While it took a little time for the Arkansas offense to create rhythm, Houston scored on their first three drives while running an up-tempo offense. The Texas offense seemed to play a bit quicker under Thompson against Arkansas and I would be surprised if we didn't see Sark try and do the same against Rice.
The key is to quickly get this Owls defense on their heels and get the Texas offense running downhill like the Cougars did. The Owls have only scored 24 points all season. If you get up by two scores against their offense, the game might be very well out of reach.
Tune averaged nearly 11 yards per completion against Rice, throwing for 236 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Bottom line: The one thing going for the Rice defense is that they return 10 starters from last year, but unless they play with the same intensity as they did against Arkansas, they will be outmatched by the Texas offense. Even then — unless Casey Thompson struggled in the 1st half like Jefferson did in Week 1 — Texas should be able to pull away early. But if Thompson is missing throws and Texas continues their struggles on first and second down, it could keep Rice in it.