It is too early, even by Texas’ recent meager standards, to declare the Jay Norvell-Jerrod Heard tandem as a season-saving solution for the Longhorns’ listless offense.
But in Saturday’s 42-28 victory over Rice, the dueling debuts of Texas’ new offensive play-caller and starting quarterback pumped instant energy into a team that needed it and offered hope for the remaining 10 games.
A leaky defense, which limited the impact of Saturday’s 21-0 break from the gate, will prevent these Longhorns (1-1) from being much more than middle-of-the-pack finishers in the Big 12 unless things improve markedly on that side of the ball, too.
But for coach Charlie Strong’s crew, the first order of business Saturday was finding a way to jump-start an offense that ranked last among the nation’s FBS teams in scoring and total offense heading into the contest.
Heard, a redshirt freshman from Denton Guyer making his first career start, provided the spark. Norvell, calling plays in his first college game since the 2007 season at UCLA, turned him loose to impact the game with his arm and his feet in ways the Longhorns have rarely seen since Colt McCoy took his final college snap in the 2009 season.
Heard accounted for 216 yards and two touchdowns for a team that fell to Notre Dame 38-3 in last week’s opener and had been outscored by a combined margin of 117-20 in its past three games (all losses) dating back to last season. He posted a quarterback rating of 295.4 in his first start, completing 4 of 7 passes for 120 yards and two scores. He did not throw an interception.
Aided by two long punt returns, including an 85-yarder for a touchdown by Daje Johnson, Heard’s first 15 minutes as a college starter overlapped Texas’ highest-scoring quarter (21 points) in Strong’s 15-game tenure as the Longhorns’ coach. Heard started quickly, scrambling for 38 yards on his first carry to extend an 80-yard touchdown drive on Texas’ opening possession. He capped the march with a 32-yard strike to Armanti Foreman.
When the defense struggled to protect an early 21-0 lead, it was Heard who turned the momentum back in Texas’ favor after Rice (1-1) rolled for 223 first-half yards while trimming the halftime deficit to 21-14. Heard’s 69-yard touchdown dart to freshman John Burt on the first snap of the third quarter proved to be the game turner.
Not only did it boost the offense. It took pressure off a Texas defense that allowed the Owls to convert 8 of 12 third downs in the first half but improved after intermission. Most of all, it registered with Strong, who demoted quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson as his play-caller Tuesday night in favor of Norvell.
“We felt like we needed a spark and Jerrod was the one who gave us that,” Strong said. “When he’d take off, you just knew something exciting was going to happen. He deserved to start. He’s been working hard.”
On multiple occasions over the past two seasons, Watson declared Heard unprepared to run the Longhorns’ offense and stressed that the team’s best chance for victory rested on the shoulders of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who was benched Saturday in favor of Heard.
Swoopes, 5-8 as a Longhorns’ starter, directed Texas’ attack throughout a three-game losing streak against TCU (48-10), Arkansas (31-7) and Notre Dame (38-3) that produced two touchdowns, two field goals, three defensive touchdowns, seven turnovers and 24 three-and-out possessions.
Against Rice, Heard changed the trend of diminishing returns on the scoreboard. The 42 points marked Texas’ highest-scoring contest since last year’s 48-45 victory over Iowa State and the second-highest output of the Strong era.
Texas’ yardage total was not spectacular (277) and tailback Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo, had another relatively silent night (9 carries, 17 yards, TD). But thanks to some significant special-teams contributions (175 yards in punt returns) and a 5-1 edge in turnovers, a team that desperately needed a victory found one to repair its damaged psyche.
Although the defense surrendered 462 yards and allowed Rice to maintain possession for 44:02, the unit stepped up with some game-turning plays. None was bigger than a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Malik Jefferson in the third quarter.
But the bottom line for Texas showed a much-needed offensive pulse that had been missing. And it surfaced during the dueling debuts of Heard and Norvell. Strong praised Heard for an improved mental approach.
“I don’t know if you could have gotten this out of him last season. His attitude this season and last season is totally different,” Strong said. “We still have a long way to go. But he got us going out there.”