Texas will face an improved Rice football team from last year's 4-8 squad. The Owls return almost all of their starters, have found their QB of the future, and feature an offense that's an innovative tweak of the traditional spread option.
Imagine if the New England Patriot's two TE offense had a baby with Chip Kelly. Now add humidity and a good SAT score. You've got David Bailiff's 2011 Rice offense. The Owls run the spread with flexed tight ends and oversized wide receivers to win physical battles on the edge, use size and confusion to garner one-on-one match ups in the passing game, and move the chains by making physically superior defenders focus on responsibilities instead of chasing the ball.
Owl QB Taylor McHargue started against us last year as a freshman. He's 6-1 215 with good running ability, strong leadership qualities, and an OK arm. His injury initiated the Owl's 2010 spiral and it's no coincidence the Owls won their last two games when he returned (he rushed for a combined 152 yards on 27 carries in those games and threw for 3 TDs against East Carolina).
Meet 6-2, 230 pound all-purpose back Jeremy Eddington. He's the Rice Wildcat maestro. Rice struck gold with him late last year and this is Eddington's stat line in their last three games: 14-103-1/16-143-4/10-66-2. That's 40 carries for 312 yards, 6 TDs and almost 8 yards a carry. Do you think we'll see Jeremy Eddington on Saturday? One catch: Eddington can't really throw.
Former Wolverine Leapin' Sam McGuffie is the featured RB and his 883 yards and 6 TDs were well earned after McHargue went down. He has good straight line speed and excellent hands out of the backfield, as his reception stat line of 39-384-3 TDs attests. I expect 1,500 total yards from him this year if he remains healthy.
Let's combine the Owl WRs and TEs because in the Rice offense, the divisions are often illusory. TE Luke Wilson is 6-5, 250 and led the team in receiving with 33 catches for 425 yards. Slot WR Vance McDonald is 6-5, 260 - no mistype - and WR Randy Kitchens is 6-3, 225. McDonald is a huge red zone threat - literally - and 8 of his 28 catches went for touchdowns. Donte Moore 6-0, 180 is their normal sized WR with good speed (Rice track guy). If Rice WRs seem inordinately large, there's a method to that madness. Rice can line up in spread or power sets without personnel changes and that forces your defense into making choices. Do you play the formation or the personnel? There are consequences to either choice. And if you're starting midgets in your secondary, it's a good bet Rice will find them inside the 20.
Rice's OL is one of the most experienced groups in college football and I count 105 combined starts. They're squatty, mobile, and average around 300. They struggle in traditional pass protection situations and Rice calls plays accordingly. Expect shovels, screens, 3 step drops, QB draws, with shots taken downfield strategically.
Rice's offense is about putting size on your small guys while making your big guys run to get there. Over time, cracks appear. Not to mention assignments busts. I like what Bailiff is doing with his talent.
As bullish as I am on Rice's offense, the defense should be poor despite nine returning starters. They're smallish, lack playmakers (6 interceptions on the year), and their base nickel surrendered big passing yardage last year while allowing 8.7 yards per attempt. Don't fault the secondary entirely - Rice's front four proved incapable of mounting any kind of pass rush and the entire team accounted for 14 sacks. That's how you give up 38.5 points per game.
The Rice DL goes 270-280-290-250, but the guys inside don't make plays and DE Scott Solomon is the only proven dynamic presence with 15.5 career sacks and 30.5 TFL. He sat out 2010 and Rice welcomes his return. He could play for any program in the country. LBs Nwosu and Allen go 5-10, 235 and 5-11, 220 and those program listings may be optimistic. Allen, the transfer from Idaho, had 136 tackles last year in his first starting campaign. One damning statistic with respect to their front 7 - no player on the Owl defense had more than 6 tackles for loss on the year.
Rice's base nickel features experienced corners Jammer (28 starts) and Gaines (top Rice DB last year) and they're physical tacklers. Safeties Porras, Webb, and Frazier are experienced, but they don't run all that well collectively and Rice is forced to play a lot of off coverages. If you can run good routes and make the throws, the candy is there. Rice is hoping that you can't pull off a 11 play drive without making a mistake.
This defense should be improved, but they have only so much to work with.
Kyle Martens is an All-Conference USA punter and had a 46 yards per kick average last year. The kick returners are Eddington and Charles Ross (29.1 yards per return average) and that's a pretty good combo.
Expect the Rice offense to give us a challenge before athleticism wins out. If we falter on offense, I expect it to be purely executional: dropped balls, bad passes, stupid penalties or turnovers. Once that irons out, I'm hoping for a coming out party for the new Texas offense.
In any event, there's a reason we're 48-1 against them in Austin. Superior team chemistry.
After Rice plays us, they get Purdue in Houston, play Baylor in Waco, and travel to face a loaded Southern Miss squad. I'll be curious to follow their fortunes. It wouldn't surprise me to see them finish the year at .500 after a rough start.
By the way, where the hell are we supposed to watch this?
Photo Credit: neilfein