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2021 Week 3 Preview: Rice Owls @ Texas Longhorns

Owls search for their first win of 2021 in Austin, with sights set on ending the 14-game skid vs. the Longhorns.

NCAA Football: Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 18 at 8:00 p.m. ET

Network: Longhorn Network

Location: Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium — Austin, TX

Spread: Texas (-26)

ESPN FPI: Texas has 97.4% chance to win

All-time series: Texas leads, 73-21-1

Last meeting: Texas 48, Rice 13 — September 14, 2019


The rivalry goes to the moon

“Why does Rice play Texas?” is a quote embedded in one of America’s most iconic monologues. Former president John F. Kennedy uttered those words right before stating the more renowned sentence, “We choose to go to the moon!” in an iconic 1962 speech at Rice Stadium.

Thus, the rivalry contains historic value, and the Owls and Longhorns have settled differences on the field 95 times dating back to 1914. The teams shared membership in the Southwest Conference for nearly the entirety of the 20th century. Recently, the in-state showdown has pointed sharply in the Longhorns’ favor. Texas currently rides a 14-game win streak heading into Saturday night’s matchup in Austin.

“When you look back at the history of this game and how many times its been played, it’s a great rivalry,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “It’s been a little bit of a one-sided rivalry. The last win we had in this program was 1994, but we’ve done a lot of firsts in the last three years and we’d sure like to find a way to earn this victory.”

Rebounding from frustration

Saturday night was not the finest moment for Rice, nor Texas. Both teams faced lopsided pulverizations, far from the promise they showed in the sport’s opening week. Texas faced its rival of yesteryear in Arkansas and watched its ranking disappear as the Razorbacks stormed for 333 rushing yards in a 40-21 shellacking. Rice suffered its most lopsided defeat since October 2018 in a 44-7 beatdown from crosstown rival Houston.

There weren’t many bright spots for the Owls, which hope their Week 2 performance was an anomaly. The most glaring focus will be shoring up the offensive line after allowing four sacks and seven tackles for loss vs. Houston. Additionally, Rice ranks 12th-to-last in rushing yards and opposing defenses have thwarted off run blockers with ease in the trenches. Amending those errors will be especially vital when facing a Texas front featuring a litany of four and five-star athletes.

“It was frustrating to watch because the offensive line is one of those positions that you probably don’t notice much until something goes wrong,” Bloomgren said. “Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback’s performance, but when there’s three runners coming at the quarterback and there’s pressure on him all game long, it’s tough to evaluate. We should be at a point with our offensive line that we do not have those issues.”

Rice’s offense also stalled without its two starting receivers Bradley Rozner and August Pitre III on the field to face Houston. Both players’ statuses are undisclosed for Saturday, and Rice must figure out how to generate the offense if neither is available as Rozner and Pitre account for 34 percent of all 2021 receiving production.

Quarterback changes

On Week 1, Rice sent out fourth-year veteran Wiley Green in Fayetteville, AR to assume the starting quarterback role. Green completed 12/25 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in the defeat, along with three interceptions in the final 16 minutes of game time. The Owls ran with two quarterbacks in the opener, however, and transfer Luke McCaffrey rotated in to command three series that afternoon.

“We made a decision going into the Arkansas game that Wiley Green had earned the opportunity to start,” Bloomgren said. “Everything he’d done, his body of work through spring ball and camp, and the fact that Luke didn’t have the mastery of everything. Every week that Luke has in the program, every week that Luke gets those reps with the ones, he gets better and better and better.”

NCAA Football: Houston at Rice
QB Luke McCaffrey led his first touchdown drive in a Rice uniform last week, finishing with a 5-yard pass to RB Jordan Myers.
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Bloomgren opted to start McCaffrey for Week 2, and McCaffrey fielded every snap until the buzzer sounded. The Nebraska transfer showed signs of promise in the first half by firing in his first touchdown pass an Owl and entering the break at an efficient 8-for-12 passing. But he finished 1-for-7 in the second half, and his first start at Rice was burdened with three interceptions to the Houston defense. Still, another opportunity is in the works as McCaffrey will retain the starting role heading into Austin.

“He gives our team the best opportunity to be successful,” Bloomgren said. “There’s things that he brings to the position and to the team that are different — the ability to affect the game with his legs, the ability to keep plays alive. When he’s comfortable and he stands in there and throws, or when he’s on the move and sees the thing right, he has a super strong arm. But the ability to keep plays going and to do things in the run game with his legs are really the reasons right now.”

Texas similarly is trotting out a different quarterback in Week 3 than it did on opening weekend. Redshirt freshman Hudson Card shined in the opener against Louisiana, but Texas struggled to generate offense with the Austin native under center in Arkansas. The Razorbacks sacked Card three times and limited him to eight completions on 15 attempts.

Casey Thompson handled relief duty and led the Longhorns to two touchdowns in two possessions to finish the night. Last December, Thompson was the hero of the Alamo Bowl for Texas by completing 80 percent of his passes and delivering four touchdown strikes in a near-perfect performance. Now, for the first time since arriving on campus in 2018, he’ll serve as the starting quarterback.

“I think changing the quarterback up and going with Casey — I think that’s gonna lend itself to more quarterback run game for them,” Bloomgren said. “We’ll probably see Hudson too. Hudson’s more of the dropback guy. I think Sark said very clearly that we’re gonna see both quarterbacks so it’s something we will prepare for.”

Common opponent analysis

When Rice studies film for this week, the Owls are watching plenty of tape stemming from Fayetteville, AR. The Owls launched their 2021 season against Arkansas, and Texas faced the Razorbacks in Week 2. While both Texas-based teams lost in the Ozarks by roughly 20 points, the trajectories of the defeats could not have been any more different.

Rice held a 17-7 advantage over the Razorbacks with 10:28 remaining in the third quarter. At the exact same point in time, Texas was held scoreless, trailing its future SEC rival 16-0. The Longhorns were steamrolled in wire-to-wire fashion, while the Owls entered the final frame deadlocked at 17 before a brutal fourth quarter collapse ensued. Rice’s competitiveness from that Arkansas game creates a wave of belief within the organization that it can challenge the Longhorns.

“When you look at what our defense was able to do to Arkansas through those first three quarters, it was pretty impressive when you go back and look at the way Arkansas was able to run the ball last Saturday night,” Bloomgren said. “It should be very encouraging to our guys to watch what we did against vs. Arkansas and watch (the Texas) game and know we can stand toe-to-toe to these guys.”

The Owls notably stifled Arkansas’ backfield with more success than Texas did when comparing the results in Fayetteville. Additionally, Rice’s offensive line yielded half as many stops in the backfield as Texas permitted. Players have taken notice of these advantages in film study this week, manufacturing a feeling of confidence in the locker room.

“It shows that we can really play with everybody, and that stars don’t necessarily matter,” inside linebacker Antonio Montero said. “It’s all about effort and scheme and trusting the system. I’m optimistic about that. I know we can play with anybody.”

Countering Bijan

Rice’s defense entered the 2021 season returning all starters except First Team All-C-USA linebacker Blaze Alldredge. Currently anchoring Missouri’s defense, the former Owl star has registered 23 tackles and 3.5 sacks through two games this season.

Replacing that production is no easy task, but Antonio Montero has risen to the occasion. Montero is in his fourth year as a starter and this season appears to be his best yet. Two games into the books, he already owns a pair of double-digit tackle outings to his name. As the team leader in solo tackles and tackles for loss by a significant margin, Montero will lead the charge in freezing Texas’ run game this Saturday.

“Obviously, there’s more tackles to go around without as good as a player as Blaze, but I don’t see it like that,” Montero said. “I just try to play my game. I make mistakes just like everyone else, plays I wish I could get back, but I feel like I’ve been playing hungrier than I did in the past.”

The Longhorns exhibit a rising star in the backfield in running back in Bijan Robinson. The former 5-star recruit made an immediate impact as a true freshman, averaging 8.2 yards per carry and claiming the 2020 Alamo Bowl MVP honors for a 183-yard showing in San Antonio. Containing Robinson in the red zone is of utmost importance to the Owls, who have allowed eight touchdowns and one field goal in their opponents’ nine red zone opportunities this season.

“We haven’t been good enough in the red zone and we’ve definitely given up too many points,” Montero said. “It’s not the way we wanted to start our season defensively, but we have 10 more games to correct it and I know we will.”

NCAA Football: Texas at Arkansas
Through two games, All-American hopeful RB Bijan Robinson has 172 yards and two touchdowns for Texas.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Homecoming for Baker

If you’re gonna play at Texas, you probably have an Austin native in the band. Austin area high schools produce an assembly line of collegiate talent and Rice rolls into town with one of its own locals. Fourth-year starting guard Shea Baker grew up in the nearby suburb of Round Rock and frequently attended Texas games throughout his youth. Baker’s family ties with the university are strong as his stepdad is a professor there and it’s the same site where his mother earned her executive MBA.

“We have family ties there but it’s gonna be awesome to play there,” Baker said. “I have a lot of respect for that program growing up there and playing them two years ago and now playing them again.”

Baker will be greeted with a large supporting cast at Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium this weekend in his first collegiate game in Austin. But Bloomgren believes this atmosphere will be a valuable experience not only for his right guard, but for the entire team.

“Everybody who grew up in Texas dreamed of playing in that stadium, on one side or the other — for the Longhorns or against the Longhorns,” Bloomgren said. “Since we all came to Rice, we look forward to these opportunities to play that team and we look forward to nothing more than a victory Saturday night.”


Prediction

Roughly 27 years and 14 meetings have passed in this rivalry since Rice last eked out a victory. The Owls enter Austin with a winless record and are pegged as heavy underdogs.

Rice’s offense hasn’t been able to generate much promise thus far, and both facets of the game have struggled to consistently gain an edge. The Owls finished the Arkansas game with under 100 rushing yards and failed to break the century mark through the air on Houston. In order to compete with the Longhorns, both the running and passing attacks will require significant boosts, but that will be difficult against a large, fast, and physical Texas defense.

The Longhorns should see a spark with Casey Thompson starting at quarterback. Thompson has been nothing but spectacular in his limited opportunities, and returning back home to Austin should benefit the offense again after a disastrous weekend in Fayetteville. Rice’s defense typically challenges opponents off the bat, and it controlled Arkansas for over a half. But Houston just snapped the Owls’ 15-game streak of not allowing a touchdown on opening drives, exposing many flaws in coverage. If the Owls’ defense executes similarly to its last five quarters of play, this one could be over in a hurry.

Prediction: Texas 42, Rice 13