Texas Longhorns: What Needs To Happen Against Rice


How far have the Texas Longhorns fortunes fallen?  The Longhorns opened the week as a mere 16 point favorite for this week’s game against Rice.

The saddest part about that spread is that I think it’s overly optimistic.  Brace yourselves, Longhorn Nation, because Rice actually represents a threat to this team.

All Texas fans have heard by now the famous quote from then President John F Kennedy asking why Rice plays Texas.  What most people don’t understand is that when he said that, the overall series was nowhere near as one-sided as it is now.  Rice was a fairly competitive team until the early 60s.  This year, though, presents the Owls with their best chance to beat the Horns since the mid-90s when Rice last won, beating John Mackovic’s 1994 team 19-17 in Houston.  The Owls haven’t won in Austin since 1965.

More from Texas Football

There is a lot at stake for the Longhorns heading into this game.  If Texas should lose to Rice at home Saturday night, the ‘Fire Charlie’ movement will gain momentum and things could quickly spiral out of control.  Given how poorly the last three games have gone for Texas, I would not guarantee Charlie Strong a third year in Austin.  He needs to get this figured out, and quick.

Moreover, Texas needs to beat Rice handily to stem the tide.  Even the most diehard Orangebloods have had their faith shaken by recent events.  Strong said after the Notre Dame game that they have to give people hope.  I think it will take significantly more than beating Rice to begin to restore the faith of the fan base, but it is an important starting point.

The move to replace Shawn Watson as play caller had to be made.  The only problem that I have is that Strong delayed so long.  It should have happened Saturday night on the flight back.  I had thrown out the idea before the season that Watson may not be capable of changing his style, despite promises to the contrary.  That proved to be correct and even Strong was disappointed to see that no tangible changes had been made to the offense.

Jay Norvell should be fine as the new play caller.  It is understood that Watson has more experience in that regard, but Norvell has experience calling plays.  More importantly, he helped coordinate Oklahoma’s offense, so he understands where this offense should be.

Jan 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; West quarterback Jerrod Heard (12) runs with the ball during U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school football game at the Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest challenge facing Norvell comes down to one simple question.  Was the offense ever really changed?  It didn’t look any different Saturday night than it did last year.  Was that because Watson’s playcalling, or is it the structure of the offense?  If the plays are already in the playbook, then simply changing the play caller should reap benefits.  However, if the offense simply isn’t structured to run the way Strong intended it to, Norvell’s hands will be tied and he won’t have time, at least this week, to install much.

The entire situation has been a fiasco and was doomed to fail from the start.  The hiring of Watson was uninspired as it was, but the entire ruse of hiring Joe Wickline as coordinator, then indicating that playcalling was going to be a three to four person job with Watson getting the final word was both needless and silly.  Strong should have hired the best OC he could and let the OC hire the staff he wanted beyond that.  By playing cute, Strong has essentially delayed his own progress by two years and put his job in jeopardy.  If Norvell can’t provide some kind of spark, the whole sordid mess may turn into Strong’s fatal mistake.

So what do the Longhorns have to do Saturday night to begin repairing the damage that was done by the Notre Dame loss?  There are a number of things that I think needs to happen.

First, Texas needs to start Jerrod Heard.  Rice presents the best opportunity to begin working him in until the second half of the season, by which point the season could already be lost.  Tyrone Swoopes is clearly not the answer.  Given the entire offseason and fall camp to correct his problems, Swoopes failed miserably.  Yes the offensive line was horrid last Saturday, but Swoopes missed easy throws, self sacked and did nothing to inspire confidence in his teammates.  He seems like a good kid and I was rooting for him, but it is not going to happen for him.

Second, if they do start Heard, they must not pull a Mack.  Remember in 2011 after David Ash was elevated to starter?  Texas had two winnable games against overmatched opponents in Kansas and Texas Tech to get Ash into the flow of the offense.  Instead, they chose to go the easy route and ran the ball as much as possible instead of letting Ash run the regular offense.  When they could no longer do that against better defenses, Ash was unprepared and failed.  Mack was often guilty of this play-it-safe method of QB development and it bit him in the butt more than once.

If Heard is the guy, then he needs to run the whole offense.  It is tempting to insulate the young QB by protecting him with safe play calls, but that isn’t going to help in the long run.  Heard needs to run as much of the offense as possible.  Easy won’t cut it against TCU and Oklahoma.  Best to get his work in now.

Third.  The O line needs a shake up.  The experiment with Kent Perkins at tackle does not work.  It didn’t work last year and it is not working this year.  Perkins is a guard and he needs to be a guard. Let’s take our chances with Marcus Hutchins at tackle.  Then if you want Patrick Vahe to continue learning on the job, move Sedrick Flowers to the bench.  Flowers has always been a stop-gap option at best. He could add needed depth as first OL off the bench.

Sep 5, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Malik Zaire (8) leaps over Texas Longhorns defensive end Bryce Cottrell (91) in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 38-3.

The defense needs to step up.  The Longhorn D was MIA in South Bend.  Yes, Notre Dame has a good offensive line and some nice position talent.  That doesn’t excuse a team that couldn’t hold the line of scrimmage at all, played way too loose in pass coverage and showed a shocking inability to tackle.  Merely tackling better could have helped stem the tide and put the Irish in some more challenging down and distance situations.

Against Rice, Texas has to tackle better.  The Owls are a very capable running team and poor run fits or bad tackling will open up rushing lanes and allow the Owls to control the clock and the flow of the game.  The line needs to win the point of attack or this will get very comfortable.

Texas needs to beat Rice the way Texas should beat Rice.  A comfortable but ugly win won’t do much to allay the fears of Longhorn Nation.  The defense needs to dominate and suffocate.  The Owls may break some plays but Texas needs to control the overall flow.  The offense needs to move the ball consistently and score.  My base expectation is 34 points.  Anything less will not do.

It’s amazing to imagine, especially given the hope that Strong first infused in the program, that fifteen games into his tenure, Rice looms as a big game.  The schedule does Texas no favors after this, so Texas must hit the reset button and begin laying the foundation with an overall strong effort against Rice.

Next: No Better Time to Start Jerrod Heard than Now

More from Hook'em Headlines