As naysayers and rivals prepare to watch members of the Texas offense perform the latest version of the Longhorn Limbo, the guys taking the field tonight against Rice seek to stop the “How low can you go?” speculation.
Texas heads into the contest in Austin (7 p.m., Longhorn Network) ranked last among the nation’s FBS schools in total offense and scoring following last week’s 38-3 loss to Notre Dame. That’s an unprecedented double at a place that ranks third among NCAA football programs in career victories (881), won its most recent national championship in 2005 and has played in bowl games following 16 of the past 17 seasons.
But the Longhorns’ offense struggled mightily against the ninth-ranked Irish, producing just 163 yards and one field goal in last week’s opener in South Bend, Ind. Combined with offensive meltdowns in losses to TCU (48-10) and Arkansas (31-7) to cap last season, Texas has been outscored by a combined margin of 117-20 in its last three games.
Of the Longhorns’ 38 drives in those contests, 24 resulted in three-and-out possessions and seven ended with turnovers. Texas’ offense scored on only four possessions (2 TDs, 2 FGs) while allowing three defensive TDs by opponents.
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Those efforts triggered Tuesday night’s change of offensive play-callers and the re-opening of competition for the starting quarterback job. The result of coach Charlie Strong’s emphatic midweek moves will be on display against the Owls (1-0).
“We have to get this program on track. We have to do a better job of coaching,” Strong said in announcing the sweeping changes following Tuesday’s practice. “There’s no reason for us to go out and perform at the level we’ve been performing. We cannot go through another season with a bad offense.”
Strong demoted quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who called plays on game day, and co-offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, the offensive line coach who had input into game plans. He handed the headset to receivers coach Jay Norvell, a first-year staff member who was dismissed as Oklahoma’s co-offensive coordinator after the 2014 season.
The Rice game will mark Norvell’s first as a play-caller since the 2007 season, when he served as UCLA’s offensive coordinator. Strong said he expects Tyrone Swoopes, the Longhorns’ starting quarterback the past 13 games, to share time with redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, who made his college debut during two series against Notre Dame.
“The best person is going to play quarterback,” said Strong, who has not announced a starter for the Rice game.
But the moves made it clear Strong will no longer accept the status quo for an offense that has averaged 6.6 points per game in its last three outings and has been held without a touchdown twice in its last seven games. In announcing the changes, Strong stressed a need to get more touches for tailback Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo who averaged 5.0 yards on eight carries against Notre Dame and had zero receptions in the contest.
50 Years since Texas lost a game against Rice in Austin
“As a team, we just have to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, coach Norvell with his new duties will get the ball rolling,” Gray said during Tuesday’s impromptu news conference in Austin. “The team has to figure this thing out … Last week, that was not the Texas standard. As a team, we know that. We are just trying to get this team back on track and we’ve got to step up to the plate and bring it.”
Historically, this matchup has played into Texas’ hands. The Longhorns own a 40-1 record against the Owls since Rice’s last triumph in Austin, a 20-17 decision in 1965. But Rice coach David Bailiff would love to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that triumph in grand fashion and expressed optimism at his weekly news conference based on recent videotape studies of the Longhorns.
“We’re dreaming big right now,” Bailiff said. “For us to pull it off, we have to be the best team.”
Statistically, Rice is exactly that. But this season’s sample for the nation’s 128 FBS teams includes only one week’s worth of games. Rice’s offensive numbers (543 total yards, including 401 rushing yards) are bloated by last week’s 56-16 rout of Wagner (N.Y.) College, an FCS program.
There’s no reason for us to go out and perform at the level we’ve been performing.
Texas coach Charlie Strong
It is Texas’ offensive numbers that concern Strong, now 6-8 in 14 games since taking over for predecessor Mack Brown. He called it “a tough decision” to demote Watson, the primary play-caller for Strong-coached teams since the 2011 season at Louisville. But he stressed that he had to “do what’s best for the program … to move forward.”
Brown, now an ESPN analyst, made it clear in an interview with the San Antonio Express- News that he feels no responsibility for the Longhorns’ struggles under Strong.
“I really don’t,” said Brown, who coached the Longhorns from 1998-2013. “I think if that was the case, our first year, we would have had to give all the credit to John Mackovic. So, to me, that’s (what) happens when you change. Change is very unique. Sometimes it works great immediately. Sometimes it takes awhile.”
For Strong and his staff, it’s taking awhile. Especially on offense, the unit that will be under the microscope against Rice. Receiver Daje Johnson, a senior who caught six of the Longhorns’ eight completions against Notre Dame (covering 45 yards), described Norvell as a “really vocal” coach capable of steering the Longhorns down a more productive path.
“He loves to put his voice in and let each position know what they need to do to get better,” Johnson said. “Coach Norvell is a great coach. He just wants to see what can work right now.”
Stuck in neutral
A statistical breakdown of Texas’ 38 offensive possessions during its past three games, including last week’s 38-3 loss to Notre Dame:
Opponents’ def. TDs
Three & outs
Texas vs. Rice
7 p.m. today, Longhorn Network