Rice Owls vs. Texas Longhorns: Complete Game Preview

Zach SheltonFeatured Columnist IIIApril 3, 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05:  Head coach Charlie Strong of the Texas Longhorns on the sidelines during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns' matchup with the Rice Owls couldn't possibly come at a better time.

The Horns mustered a mere 163 yards of offense en route to a 38-3 shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame. And fresh off its third straight humiliating loss, Charlie Strong's team needs a confidence boost.

"The outcome on Saturday is not what we expected, and is not acceptable," Strong said at a media conference on Monday. "And this week we're going to take our time."

Strong's absolutely right. What Texas did on Saturday was not only an embarrassment, it was an embarrassment on national television. The Horns were exposed in the worst way for all of college football to see.

This team desperately needs to see something go right, and Saturday is its first shot at that since last November. Texas has beaten the Owls by double-digit points in 11 of the last 12 times the two have met, including during that brushfire 2010 season.

The pressure's on for Texas, but it would take a massive organizational failure to lose this game.

 

Date: Saturday, Sept. 12

Time: 8 p.m. ET

Place: Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium

TV: Longhorn Network

Radio: Texas Longhorns Radio Network, Rice Owls Radio

Spread: Texas is favored by 15.5 points, according to Odds Shark.

 

When Rice Has the Ball

The Owls bullied poor Wagner College on the ground, and they'll certainly try to do the same to the Longhorns.

Led by redshirt freshman Austin Walter, David Bailiff's squad piled up 401 yards on the ground on 54 carries. Six of the seven Owls who carried the ball averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry and four had carries of over 20 yards. These guys did whatever they wanted all day.

But hidden in those numbers are the four sacks given up on 25 dropbacks. The opportunity will be there for Texas' defense to get into the backfield, though it struggled mightily in that department against Notre Dame.

The Longhorn defense should get back on track in this one. As noted by 247Sports' Bobby Burton, Notre Dame fielded one of the best offensive lines in the country when it dismantled the Horns.

That's not the case this week.

 

Will Swoopes still be the quarterback when Texas takes on Rice at home?
Will Swoopes still be the quarterback when Texas takes on Rice at home?Jon Durr/Getty Images

When Texas Has the Ball

All eyes will be on the Texas offense this week, as another horrible showing would put several jobs at risk.

Over their last three games, the Longhorns have been outscored 117-20. They had eight three-and-outs on 12 drives against Notre Dame, which was the result of getting dominated at the point of attack while quarterback Tyrone Swoopes ran for his life.

The game was a disaster, and both offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and Swoopes stand to lose their jobs because of it. As explained by Burnt Orange Nation's Wescott Eberts, Watson's play-calling was puzzling at best, whereas Swoopes looked totally rattled.

Swoopes will now find himself back in competition with redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, and Strong spoke as if he's growing impatient with Watson's contribution to the staff:

We have to evaluate [the offense], and it has to come from that whole offensive staff. I know Shawn is the coordinator, but there's other guys involved, even myself involved, and we've just got to evaluate this week and just see exactly where we are. We have to change. We have to get better on offense.

No matter what, senior Johnathan Gray should see far more than the eight touches he received in South Bend, Indiana. Past that, it's anyone's guess, as the passing offense would drastically change if the coaches decided to roll with Heard.

The senior back should see north of 20 touches, and look for Daje Johnson to stay heavily involved after leading the team with six receptions on Saturday.

 

Can Driphus Jackson's dual-threat ability keep Rice in the game?
Can Driphus Jackson's dual-threat ability keep Rice in the game?Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Key Player for Rice: QB Driphus Jackson

Coach Bailiff told reporters that he'd rather see Driphus Jackson run around a little less, but his quarterback's legs are the one thing that could spark an upset over the Horns.

Jackson finished just behind Walter with 101 yards on the ground against Wagner, including a 43-yard run in the third quarter. He wasn't as efficient as a passer, going 10-for-19 with a pick, but he's a playmaker who plays with a chip on his shoulder.

The Owls should completely turn Jackson loose in Austin. He may not be able to befuddle the Horns like Malik Zaire did, but you have to make Texas prove it can handle his dual-threat ability.

If he can bust loose a couple of times, Rice's upset chances would go way up against an offense that's struggled in every phase of the game.

 

Texas has to commit to getting Gray involved in the offense.
Texas has to commit to getting Gray involved in the offense.Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Key Player for Texas: RB Johnathan Gray

Regardless of his decision at quarterback, Watson will be under the microscope when his offense takes the field on Saturday. He can make things much easier on himself by feeding his best player.

It's laughable that Gray saw only eight carries against the Irish. When he's healthy, which he has been since late last season, he's capable of picking up steady yardage while also bringing the home run element to the backfield. He's the best weapon Texas has, and it's not really close.

Instead of feeding Gray, Watson gave him just eight of Saturday's 29 carries. The senior averaged five yards per carry on those chances, while the other six ball-carriers managed under three yards a pop.

Yes, Swoopes was running for his life and the complementary players like Daje Johnson and D'Onta Foreman need their work, but Gray has to get his.

Strong echoed that sentiment on Monday: "We've got to get the ball in [Gray's] hands. It's very obvious because he's someone that when the ball is in his hands he's electrifying, and he can make people miss and he can get positive yards for us."

Get Gray going, and the rest of the offense will open up. There's a reason his three best games of last season coincided with three of the offense's four highest-scoring games in 2014.

 

Prediction: Texas 27, Rice 14

The Longhorns looked absolutely horrible in South Bend, but this team still has talent. In a truly desperate situation, that talent will prevail.

This is a must-win game for Texas. If the Horns lose this one, absolutely nobody's immune to the consequences. You just can't lose to Rice at home.

And though the Owls looked impressive last week, let's examine the context. The Wagner Seahawks are a middle-of-the-pack FCS team that went 7-4 last season. That game was a tune-up, through and through.

Against actual FBS athletes, Rice's 12 missing starters from last season will be more apparent. We'll wait anxiously all week to see how Texas addresses the offense, but the Horns have more than enough to win this game.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com and RiceOwls.com.