- Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: FOX
- Location: Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium — Austin, TX
- Spread: Texas (-35)
- Over/under: 59
- All-time series: Texas leads, 74-21-1
- Last meeting: Texas 58, Rice 0 — September 18, 2021
- Current streak: Texas, 15 (1995-21)
Why does Rice play Texas?
“Why does Rice play Texas?” are five words from one of the most famous American speeches. Presented at Rice Stadium in 1962, President John F. Kennedy utilized this football allusion immediately before uttering the most famous line of the speech: “We choose to go to the moon.”
The 35th president later expanded on this comparison, stating, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...”
As Kennedy referenced 61 years prior, the Texas Longhorns are a difficult matchup for Rice, and the Longhorns have posed a greater challenge than any other opponent in recent memory. The programs previously collided in Houston in 2019, where Texas breezed to a 48-13 victory and then again in Austin in 2021, where the Longhorns pitched a 58-0 shutout on the visiting Owls.
Rice hasn’t attained a point outside of the fourth quarter in these matchups, being outscored by an aggregate amount of 96-0 in the first three stanzas. Owls head coach Bloomgren reflected on these lopsided results, and how this iteration of his team could approach this matchup differently.
“In retrospect, I look back and wonder if I, or we as a coaching staff, made too big of a deal about that burnt orange logo on the side of the helmet,” Bloomgren said. “When you have Texas kids that grew up here, it’s a big deal to play those guys. There’s been no talk. We’ve talked about what a cool environment it’s gonna be to play in DKR to play in front of 100,000 people. Not only are the eyes of Texas gonna be upon you, but FOX national TV is gonna be upon you. But I guess if I look back, me hyping this game up so much in the past made these kids— I don’t know, but we’re so different now. I can tell you there’s nobody that’s enamored with their logo, there’s nobody that’s scared about the opportunity to perform in this game.”
2023 is a landmark season for Rice, as the program officially moves from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. That transition is one challenge the Owls must navigate, as they aim to win their first opener against FBS competition since 2008, and ultimately, secure their first winning record since 2014. In year six at the helm, Bloomgren believes this team is closer to accomplishing those goals than all the other previous groups that graced the campus in Houston.
“We are the closest we’ve ever been as a football team,” Bloomgren said. “I think it’s easy for every coach to say that at the start of the season, but I believe it will continue, and we’ll be all for each other and all for the Owls.”
JT Daniels: Austin’s No. 1 tourist
Rice returns more than half of its starters on offense and defense alike, but the team also brought in 42 newcomers this offseason. Headlining those newcomers is former 5-star quarterback JT Daniels, who Bloomgren originally attempted to recruit while serving as the Stanford offensive coordinator in 2017. Daniels, now on his fourth program, instantly earned team captain status as the Owls’ chief facilitator.
“The fact that he got voted a captain by our group in such a short period of time... to come in here and work the way he did and show our guys what they’re capable of,” Bloomgren said. “His voice is priceless on the practice field whether there’s coaches out there or not. He’s coaching every receiver. This kid’s just a football junkie and he’s just taken our system, and his comfort level is so out of control.”
Daniels is set to make his third appearance at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Playing in a visitor’s stadium three times may be common for fifth-year seniors, especially in the COVID redshirt era. But come Saturday, Daniels will have the rare designation of starting at quarterback on three occasions with three different programs in the Big 12’s largest venue.
“I can’t imagine there’s someone else who’s started against Texas at Texas in three different uniforms,” Daniels said. “It’s just a great opportunity and it’s always fun. It’s as cool a stadium as there is. They get loud, they get rocking, they have a great time, and it’s a very good team — a great test to start the season.”
Daniels’ first trekked to the Lone Star State’s capital in 2018 as a true freshman with USC, seeing his first 300-yard performance on 48 passes in a 37-14 defeat to the Longhorns. He never faced Texas in his two-year stint with Georgia, but upon transferring to West Virginia for 2022, Daniels returned to drop 253 passing yards and one touchdown without committing a turnover. Even after two solid performances in the venue, Bloomgren believes the sixth-year quarterback’s best is yet to come.
“That team we’re playing this weekend, they’ve got 4 and 5-stars all over their roster,” Boomgren said. “But we got a 5-star and we’ve got a 4-star too. We don’t have a team loaded of them, but that tells you what JT was coming out of high school. I’ve watched his growth at each institution because I recruited him, because I cared about him, I always followed his career. And I just can’t imagine that he’s played better than he’s playing now at any of his spots.”
Now, with familiarity with the Longhorns’ defense due to film study sessions last October, Daniels aims to claim his first win in the city, suiting up in front of roughly 100,000 spectators in burnt orange. Even though the quarterback hasn’t claimed the sought-after victory in Austin, the trip has become routine to the point where Daniels doesn’t get overly psyched about any single opponent or environment.
“I’ve played on a really good team against G5 opponents, games we were projected to lose throughout my career, but they all feel pretty damn similar,” Daniels said. “I’ve said it almost every day with the guys. The difference in talent from the top of the top to whoever you want to play is not very much. I played UNLV as my first game in 2018, doesn’t feel super different from playing Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl in 2020. Once you get to this level, Power 5 and G5, everyone is really good at football. There’s probably a few differences in depth and numbers, but everyone is really good. Everyone belongs.”
Owls to watch
Rice’s offensive identity has always been one of a run-heavy team since Bloomgren took the job in 2018. The Owls will trot out sixth-year senior running backs Ari Broussard and Juma Otoviano, as well as Dean Connors, in hopes of improving upon last year’s 80th-ranked ground game.
But with Daniels operating at quarterback, Rice’s greatest offensive strength may be the passing attack, fresh off its best per game numbers since 2008. The offense saw an increased semblance of verticality in 2022 under second-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, and Rice’s newfound aerial presence was assisted by the explosiveness of wide receiver Luke McCaffrey.
In his first season transitioning from quarterback, McCaffrey led the Owls in receptions with 58 and obtained 723 receiving yards. Even with just one season playing the position, McCaffrey possesses overwhelmingly more in-game experience than any other receiver on the roster, due to the transfer of his partner-in-crime Bradley Rozner and medical retirement of Cedric Patterson III. Now, McCaffrey takes on a role as the clear leader of the group.
“I talked to JT periodically throughout the summer, and it’s like, ‘Hey, what are you seeing?’ He’s like, ‘I just love how Luke thinks like a quarterback. He knows where to be. He’s always doing this well,’” Bloomgren said. “There are all kind of things Luke can do whether it’s running with the football, whether it’s throwing the football, and right now with his primary role being a receiver, he’s feeling things in the slot so incredibly well. But he’s also playing Z and occasionally jumping over to X.”
To complement McCaffrey, the Owls reloaded through the transfer portal by acquiring UCLA’s Matt Sykes, a 6’4” receiver who brings 10 receptions and 113 yards into his new program. But another key factor at the position, set to earn his first start Saturday, is also taking his first breaths at the collegiate level. Landon Ransom-Goelz just turned 18 years old last week, but the true freshman will immediately crack the starting lineup against the No. 11 team in the country — becoming the first true freshman starting skill position player at Rice since 2006.
“He was one of our four January enrollees in the first time Rice University allowed guys to come in in January, and going through the spring was priceless for Landon,” Bloomgren said. “That was a key component to getting to the point where he will be starting this game on Saturday.”
On the other side of the ball, the Owls feature a veteran linebacking corps consisting of team captains Josh Pearcy and Myron Morrison. Pearcy is principally in charge of igniting the pass rush on the outside, boasting team-highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles (10.0) for loss in 2022. Meanwhile, Morrison will be tasked with slowing down the Longhorns’ new-look run game featuring redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks and true freshman CJ Baxter — who replace Doak Walker Award winner Bijan Robinson and fourth round NFL Draft selection Roschon Johnson.
“Everybody wants to talk about the two backs they lost to the National Football League,” Bloomgren said. “They’ve got good ones coming back including the No. 1 freshman in America at the running back position (Baxter).”
One thing that Rice will certainly exhibit Saturday is depth. While the Owls return a fair share of experience, the team expects a handful of second team players to earn valuable reps 160 miles down the road in Austin.
“Depth is a big plus for our football team,” Bloomgren said. “We all look at who’s first on the depth chart today and there’s times where it’s like, ‘Gosh we needed this guy to stay healthy,’ and you always your guys to stay healthy. Your ones are your ones for a reason, but the separation between our ones and twos at some positions is so minuscule that those guys are gonna get a chance to play and be competing for the starting role every week of the season.”
Longhorns to watch
Steve Sarkisian enters his third season as Texas’ head coach, displaying incremental improvement from 5-7 in 2021 to 8-5 in 2022 in the dawn of his tenure. Renowned as an offensive guru, the Longhorns boasted top 25 scoring offenses in each of Sarkisian’s two seasons, and Rice is fully prepared for the explosiveness his bunch presents in the opener.
“He’s just an unbelievable offensive mind that’s very surgical,” Bloomgren said. “I know they’re gonna have great schemes for us in addition to those talented players, but that certainly doesn’t stop me from being eager to see our team take the field at DKR on Saturday.”
Perhaps the centerpiece of the unit is Xavier Worthy, who was the only unanimous Preseason All-Big 12 selection, and deservedly so. The star receiver attained All-Big 12 status each of the last two seasons, producing 981 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021 and 760 yards to go along with nine scores in 2022.
The junior found the end zone for his first time as a Longhorn two years ago when Rice strolled into town, and the Owls will use a similar cast of cornerbacks to limit Worthy and Co. — Jordan Dunbar and Sean Fresch, who have shown marked improvements since that 2021 meeting and led Rice to a 38th-ranked pass defense in 2022.
“It’s gonna be a great matchup,” Bloomgren said of Fresch guarding Worthy Saturday. “I’m sure people on paper when they look at Sean Fresch and see the size differential and some of those things, but Sean Fresch is playing the most outstanding I’ve ever seen him play on special teams and at the cornerback position. It’s just a completely different kid.”
Distributing the ball to Worthy, as well as other viable options Jordan Whittington and Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell, is second-year starting quarterback Quinn Ewers. The former 5-star recruit had an up-and-down freshman campaign, but showed tremendous potential toward the year’s conclusion with 369 yards on a 66 percent completion rate in the Alamo Bowl.
“Everybody wanted that kid,” Bloomgren said of Ewers. “He was the first NIL baby if you will — that made a big splash with some of that stuff. Now he ended up back at Texas. He’s a large human with a howitzer for an arm and he makes good decisions. He’s a lot to deal with, so you’ve got him and Worthy out there.”
Defensively, the Longhorns present a formidable run defense led by the massive defensive tackle duo of Byron Murphy II and T’Vondre Sweat. Those two should cause plenty of havoc against Rice’s line in the trenches, and star middle linebacker Jaylan Ford will be the premier run-stopping presence. Ford contributed a team-high 119 tackles in a breakout campaign, stuffing the stat sheet with four interceptions, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and a pair of recoveries.
The more vulnerable component of Texas’ defense is the secondary, which ranked 91st in yards allowed per game last year, while yielding a 63 percent completion clip. The Longhorns focused on improving the unit this offseason by acquiring Arkansas transfer Jalen Catalon, who recorded two interceptions against Rice in the 2021 opener. Catalon was among the names Daniels, a noted film junkie, mentioned when highlighting the stars of Texas’ defense.
“Their boundary corner (Ryan Watts) has been a good player for a while — does a really good job and moves well for his size (6’3”, 213 pounds),” Daniels said. “All around up front, they’ve always been a really good run defense, really hard to stop. They’ve got a lot of experience especially with Jalen Catalon coming in. I remember him from Arkansas and think he’s an elite, elite player.”
The spread separating the Longhorns and Owls is roughly five touchdowns. Recent history between these programs suggests dominant Texas victory is on the way, even though the 2023 version of Rice may tout its best offense, or best team in general, since Bloomgren took over in 2018.
But this Texas squad comes with its loftiest expectations in quite some time, earning a No. 1 ranking in the preseason Big 12 media poll for the first time since the league went divisionless in 2011. The Longhorns are loaded at a slew of position groups with potential All-American talent appearing at wide receiver and linebacker, among other spots. Expect the Longhorns to come out firing immediately, force turnovers, and test their new-look run game to upend the Owls for the 16th consecutive meeting in comfortable fashion.
Prediction: Texas 49, Rice 10