AUSTIN — Texas had to show progress and give its fans hope, coach Charlie Strong said earlier this week. The Longhorns’ 42-28 win Saturday against Rice featured RS-freshman Jerrod Heard’s first collegiate start and snapped a horrific 3-game skid. But it begs the question: are we having fun yet?
In other words, does a 14-point win against Rice truly signal a change in the trajectory of the program? Shouldn’t we caution against calling this a new era? This much is certain: Texas did not play with the tightness that has hampered it as of late, Strong believes. Enter Heard.
“If the quarterback has juice,” Strong said, “then the team has juice.”
Juice has a trickle-down effect. And it spilled into a stadium that had more than 15,000 empty seats (Official attendance: 86,458).
“What everybody wanted to see is something different,” Strong continued. “If anything, they just wanted change. When Heard took the field, I saw how exited the crowd was when he ran out there. The thing he can do is make plays. He is so exciting to watch. He is a winner. He has an attitude about him. He’s continuing to grow and, finally I said, ‘Put him out there’”
Heard will start working with the 1’s this week, Strong announced, after the QBs split time with the starters last week. Incumbent Tyrone Swoops did not enter the fray until there was 6:33 left and Texas leading 42-21.
Heard’s debut included 96 yards on 10 totes plus 120 yards through the air on just 4-of-7 attempts. More than half of his passing yards came on a 69-yard TD strike to freshman WR John Burt on the first play of the 2nd half.
Heard was not informed until just before kickoff that he would replace Swoopes in the starting lineup.
“I felt we needed a spark,” said Strong. “The spark we needed to go with is Jerrod.”
Unfortunately, it’s not all Texas needs. Take away its school record 175 yards on four punt returns and this shaped-up as evenly-matched ballgame against a historically outmatched foe. The offense desperately needed a shortened field, and a surprisingly porous defense at least did its part by forcing five turnovers, including on three consecutive possessions but that makes it difficult to project where the beleaguered Longhorns offense is right now (other than in the relatively confident hands of Heard).
The Horns not-so up-tempo offense managed just 38 snaps while Rice crushed the stat sheet. The Owls balanced attack generated 462 yards off 96 plays (96!) while devouring 44:02 of the play clock.
“We came in here thinking we could get a win,” said Rice coach David Bailiff. “
The improving Owls have a clear offensive identity while Texas has offensive intangibles, thanks to Heard. We still don’t know, for example, how Daje Johnson factors into Jay Norvelle’s game plan – the speedster’s touches were strictly limited to special teams on this night. And does Johnathan Gray realistically get 15-to-25 touches – the senior just does not have the burst he had prior to the Achilles injury – as Strong ordered this past week?
But this much is clear: the head coach is now talking about a QB (Heard) who can elevate the play of his teammates rather than saddling players with the responsibility of building up their QB (Swoopes).
Heard’s got swag. He loves the big stage. He dances and does push-ups between snaps. He’s got breakaway speed. His best plays will be ad-libbed after the protection breaks down. Case-in-point: his 53-yard run on 3rd-and-11 from the 19. There was a questionable block-in-the-back call against TE Andrew Beck on the play, erasing 18 yards from the sprint.
“He just took off,” Strong said. “You knew something exciting as going to happen.”
Heard should thank X-receiver Armanti Foreman for making a great adjustment on an underthrown 32-yard toss down left sideline. It was Heard’s first collegiate TD pass and capped a 9-play, 80-yard opening drive.
Speed never has a bad day. Daje turned on the jets during his 85-yard punt return to make it 14-0 with 6:43 left in the opening frame. It was Texas’ first punt return for a TD since Johnson also took one 85 yards to the house against Oklahoma in 2013.
Not to be outdone, Duke Thomas returned the next Owl punt 57 yards to the 6. Gray churned for five before hitting pay dirt untouched behind Patrick Vahe. It was another quiet night for Gray, managing 25 yards on nine carries. Still, Texas surpassed its point total from the past three games, after just 11 plays, with 3:22 remaining in the first.
Texas’ first (and only) turnover of the season belonged to its defense. Jason Hall was stripped of the ball following his 31-yard INT-return from the end zone, and the play flipped the momentum from the UT sideline for the rest of the half. Rice parlayed RG Peter Godber’s fumble recovery at the 35 into Sam Stewart’s 22-yard TD run to make it 21-7 just 3:37 into the 2nd quarter.
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford berated his squad last week after Notre Dame converted five 3rd downs requiring at least seven yards. It was déjà vu all over again on Rice’s next series. That’s when the Owls moved the sticks on 3rd-and-five, 3rd-and-8, and again on 3rd-and-9 as part of a 16-play, 87 yard scoring drive.
Stewart’s 16-yard TD run capped a march in which the Owls notched seven 1st downs to pull within 21-14.
“We missed so many tackles,” Strong said. “I told Vance during the game that we missed at least 20 tackles.”
For nearly three quarters, Rice had tremendous success running between the tackles to stay ahead of the chains. The Owls ran right at Texas on its opening series of the 2nd half, crisply moving to the Longhorns 25. That’s when a crashing Edwin Freeman forced a Darik Dilliard fumble that DT Paul Boyette recovered at the 26.
An offensive pass interference against Armanti Foreman killed any hope of a Texas response.
Michael Dickson’s 17-yard shank spotted the Owls in prime real estate at the Texas 38 with 66 seconds left. Dylan Haines goal-line INT snuffed the threat, but Rice would have boasted a halftime lead if it could defend the punt return.
“Everything we did was self-inflicted,” said Rice QB Driphus Jackson. “We had five turnovers, and that’s something we’ve never done as a program.”
Heard did a great job of selling play-action on a night in which he basically was the Longhorns’ running game. His 69-yard play-action toss to Burt, on the first snap of the second half, was right on the money.
A delay penalty hampered Texas’ next drive, but its defense momentarily pinned its ears back and got after the visitors. Next Owl possession, freshman Kris Boyd lassoed Jackson on a 3-yard sack-and-strip. The loose ball bounced into the mitts of fellow frosh Malik Jefferson, who sprinted 26 yards into the south end zone to regain Texas’ 21-point cushion, 35-14, with 8:14 left.
Texas forced a pair of punts after stopping Rice a consecutive third-and-shorts, including Poona Ford’s one-yard TFL on 3rd-and-one
Johnson’s 42-yard punt return to the Owl 28 set up Heard’s 19-yard scramble to the Rice 13. He added five on a keeper before D’Onta Foreman notched his first career TD with two-yard TD plunge. That made it a 42-14 scoreboard with 65 seconds left in the third.
Rice responded with 18-play, 75-yard TD drive that took 9:24 off the clock. The Owls added a 14-yard TD toss in the waning seconds that mattered only in Vegas.
Arguably, what matters most for Texas (going forward) is that it finally has made a much-needed and generally-expected change at quarterback. Swoopes had clearly regressed toward the end of 2014 and, for now, much of the uncertainty has been lifted from that position.
This team has a pulse now. Heard has given them that spark.
“I’m just so happy with the way we competed,” Strong said. “We needed to get a victory and get our confidence going.”