“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”
Not many rivalries can claim a spot in famous American speeches, but the one between Rice and Texas lives on in John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, delivered at Rice Stadium in 1962.
The old Southwest Conference rivals meet again this week and the game will transpire at NRG Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans. So, why does Rice play Texas, a team currently situated at No. 12 in the nation?
Certainly, it’s not for moral victories. The Owls appear to be on the upswing in Mike Bloomgren’s second year at the helm. But with an 0-2 record resulting from a brutal non-conference slate (Army, Wake Forest, Texas, Baylor), Bloomgren isn’t satisfied with just improvement — he wants visible results in the win column.
“There just can’t be moral victories,” Bloomgren said following Rice’s 41-21 loss to Wake Forest. “I almost hate hearing how much better we are than last year right now. I want to find a way to win a game. I want these guys to feel what that’s like in the locker room. I want to beat somebody we ‘shouldn’t.’”
By all Vegas oddsmakers, Texas is a team Rice ‘shouldn’t’ beat, as the 32.5-point spread suggests. The Longhorns are fresh off a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia and sit comfortably in the AP Poll despite dropping a game to LSU last Saturday night. Texas has defeated five ranked opponents in Tom Herman’s last 12 games, while Rice has yet to beat an opponent that finished with a winning record since the 2014 season. While great contrast exists between the two programs, the message is the same from both coaches.
“There will never be moral victories at Texas,” Herman said following the loss to LSU, per The Dallas Morning News.
Texas enters NRG Stadium with a chip on its shoulder after starting a third consecutive season 1-1 under Herman. The Longhorns’ heartbreaker against the Tigers is largely predicated on their defensive performance. Texas allowed five touchdown drives in under three minutes of possession time while permitting LSU quarterback Joe Burrow to throw for 471 yards.
The Longhorn defense, led by a talented safety tandem of Caden Sterns and Brandon Jones, will be pitted up against Harvard grad transfer quarterback Tom Stewart in his first FBS start. Stewart checked in during the Wake Forest game in relief for Wiley Green, who suffered a terrifying injury after a head-on collision in the first quarter in Week 2. Green was carted off the field and Stewart finished his first action as a Rice Owl with 185 passing yards and one touchdown on 30 attempts.
“I think I’m going to try to do the same thing that I’ve been doing,” Stewart said Friday. “It’s kind of a tricky thing to learn if you’re a backup quarterback. You have to prepare like you are going to be the starter because you are one play away. And that’s just going to continue to be my mindset.”
In the rushing department, Rice hasn’t shown consistency through two contests. Against Army, the Owls averaged over six yards per carry with Nahshon Ellerbe leading the way with over 100 yards. But Wake Forest limited Rice to just 1.8 yards per run, which account for the four sacks the Demon Deacon defense issued that game. Rice’s offensive play-calling against Texas should mirror that of the Wake Forest game, testing the Longhorn defense with a healthy balance between passing and rushing. In the passing game, Texas can expect heavy doses of Austin Trammell and Brad Rozner, who each split six receptions in the team’s home opener.
Texas’ defense is replacing eight starters from last year’s Sugar Bowl team, but the offense is still composed of several veterans from 2018. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger remains one of the best at his position in the FBS with 677 passing yards, nine total touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Ehlinger is adept at escaping pressure and he is the kingpin of the Longhorns’ goal line offense, rushing for 16 touchdowns a season ago (second among FBS quarterbacks).
Rice’s secondary allowed Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman to average nearly 12 yards per pass last Friday. Now, the secondary must face Ehlinger and his arsenal of weapons, which includes a 6’4” strong-armed, high-jumping wideout in Collin Johnson.
While Rice needs to amend issues from the secondary last game, the Owls’ run defense has noticeably delivered this season. Rice held triple option-based Army to just 14 points in West Point and held the Demon Deacons to 3.1 yards per carry, when excluding Kenneth Walker’s 96-yard rush in the fourth quarter.
The unit possesses several strong tacklers, including defensive tackle Myles Adams and inside linebacker Antonio Montero. Rice’s run defense frequently sheds blocks at the line of scrimmage and often tackles at first contact — tremendous signs of improvement from 2018. The opposing Longhorns are currently struggling in the ground game. Keaontay Ingram is Texas’ feature back and was the only running back to receive a carry against LSU last week.
Texas’ backfield is suffering a major injury epidemic this year, with Ingram as the only key contributor remaining healthy. However, running back Daniel Young has been cleared to play and could do some damage as a third down back, but the Longhorns haven’t exactly established a reliable run game since D’Onta Foreman left the program for the 2017 NFL Draft.
With Adams (the only starting senior) captaining the defense, Rice will attempt to maintain its forceful run-stopping unit when Texas comes to town. However, the coverage unit is in dire need of improvement in order to compete with Ehlinger and the Longhorns through the air. Lastly, Rice must finally establish an offensive rhythm as well. The Owls average just 14 points per game in comparison to Texas’ 41.5 mark. But with a marquee opponent looming and an opportunity to play at an NFL venue, Bloomgren remains excited about preparing to face Texas at NRG Stadium.
“I think that’s really cool,” Bloomgren said. “They’ll get dressed in an NFL locker room. They’ll step on an NFL field and your juices get you flowing. I’ve talked to you guys before about how valuable that LSU game was for us and how much our kids got up for it, and how that really galvanized our team in terms of really understanding we can fight with anybody.”
And that understanding is why Rice plays Texas.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Network: CBS Sports Network
Location: NRG Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Texas (-32.5)
ESPN FPI: Texas has 97.5% chance to win
All-time series: Texas leads 72-21-1
Last meeting: Texas 42, Rice 28 — September 12, 2015
Texas has won 13 straight over the Owls, dating back to 1995. Rice last defeated Texas in 1994, four years prior to Mack Brown’s takeover of the program. The Owls haven’t won consecutive games in the series since 1953-54, and ironically, the lone tie in the series occurred the same year as JFK’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech.
Rice’s improvements are noticeable. The Owls handled Army almost as well as Michigan did. And last week, the team showed poise rallying behind a backup quarterback to score 14 unanswered on Wake Forest and tie the game in the late first quarter.
But those improvements probably aren’t as noticeable against Texas. The Longhorns remain hungry after a tough loss to LSU in Austin last Saturday, and the team exhibits too much talent all-around from Ehlinger to Johnson to Sterns. Texas improves to 2-1 and sits on the fringe of the Top 10, while Rice falls to 0-3 in NRG.
Prediction: Texas 45, Rice 10