Why does Rice play Texas? For the money… and to boost the psyche of the Longhorns, apparently.
For the first time since 2017, the Texas Longhorns recorded a shutout in a 58-0 stomping of the Rice Owls that included three touchdowns runs of more than 60 yards as head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team bounced back from last week’s disaster in Fayetteville with a strong effort on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
In racing out to a 44-0 lead in the first half and then cruising in the final 30 minutes, Texas racked up 391 total yards and 241 rushing yards on 14.2 yards per attempt in the first half as the heavily-criticized offensive line turned in a more consistent performance. When the line opened up some holes, the running backs did the rest.
The party outside the stadium made its way into the stadium late in the first quarter when junior running back Roschon Johnson took a direct snap on 3rd and 2. Behind strong blocks from sophomore running back Bijan Robinson and senior tight end Cade Brewer, Johnson did his part, running through an unblocked defender and then two more Rice players before finishing the 72-yard touchdown with at high speed.
Roschon Johnson REFUSED to go down pic.twitter.com/SnUm3hwqbR
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 19, 2021
“We like to be multiple as an offense,” Sarkisian said. “We like to present issues for the defense with a variety of looks. We like to play to the strengths of the players that we have.”
Johnson made the most of his three carries, gaining 112 yards with his physical style of play.
Ready to expand on a 23-0 lead late in the second quarter, it was Bijan Robinson’s turn to show off his explosiveness in a promising way — on an inside zone play, the type of interior run Texas struggled to execute through the first two games. The line afforded him a crease, the second-level defense for Rice wasn’t there, and Robinson did the rest with an effective cut to finish the 62-yard touchdown run.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 19, 2021
Robinson scored three total touchdowns in gaining 127 yards on 13 carries, going over 1,000 yards in his career.
Early in the third quarter, sophomore running back Keilan Robinson stepped up for his opportunity. Almost certainly the fastest of the Texas ball carriers, Robinson got strong push from the offensive line, found a hole on the right side, and absolutely exploded through the final three Rice defenders for a 65-yard touchdown run.
Pregame I mentioned on @InsideTexas that I wanted more Keilan Robinson touches.. first carry of the night and he delivered.
— Hudson Standish (@WabashIT) September 19, 2021
Listed at 183 pounds, the Alabama transfer isn’t going to move the pile often, but he runs hard and hits top speed quickly. Robinson finished the game with five carries for 83 yards.
Even freshman Jonathon Brooks got into the action, scoring on a 17-yard touchdown run and showing off some wiggle with a strong slide cut on a 25-yard run and then two spin moves on a tough six-yard run. Brooks finished with nine carries for 63 yards.
“I love the way that obviously we were able to run the football,” Sarkisian said after the game. “I thought all four backs ran really well, obviously Roshon and Bijan kicked things off in the first half. I thought we blocked the run very well, they hit the holes well. We challenged the guys to really strain to finish in the run game, to sustain our blocks, and then obviously Keilan coming in and doing his thing.”
Sarkisian credited offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Kyle Flood for emphasizing the little details. To their credit, the offensive line responded to that coaching and Sarkisian’s confidence in them as he avoided a reactionary change in the lineup after the horrific effort against Arkansas.
“It was about, ‘Did you do your job exactly how it was supposed to be done, and then beyond?’ And that’s how the week was and that’s how we coached it and I think that’s how we coached it in game and we saw the results,” Sarkisian said.
At 10.4 yards per carry, the 427 rushing yards were the most since gaining 439 rushing yards against Texas Tech in 2011. Sarkisian noted the effectiveness of running the ball inside, perhaps the most glaring improvement from the first games of his tenure.
The outburst on the ground overshadowed the first start of junior quarterback Casey Thompson’s Texas career, now in its fourth season. Exiting after playing only one series in the third quarter, Thompson led scoring drives on six of his seven possessions, pushing his streak to 16 scoring drives on his last 18 possessions dating back to the Alamo Bowl. The offense isn’t settling for field goals when he’s on the field, either — the touchdown rate stands at 76.5 percent on those drives.
Thompson finished 15-for-18 passing for 164 yards and two touchdowns. A pass-protection breakdown contributed to his first career interception on the second Longhorns possession as Thompson also held onto the ball just a split second too long on the shot play.
Producing explosive plays down the field remains a work in progress, although Thompson did connect on a 13-yard touchdown to freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy late in the first half with an impressive back-shoulder throw. Thompson also hit redshirt freshman wide receiver Kelvontay Dixon on a 22-yard pass to convert a 3rd and 17.
Other plays looked close to connecting — Worthy nearly drew a pass-interference penalty on another shot play when he got his feet tangled with the defensive back and junior wide receiver Joshua Moore did draw one as the defender opted to avoid the risk of giving up a long touchdown pass.
Sarkisian feels like the offense is moving in the right direction there, so call it a marginal improvement as the Longhorns still search for more consistent vertical explosiveness in the passing game.
Until Texas gets substantively better in that area, working the perimeter more often and more effectively is a viable option to sustain drives.
In practice, Texas has been working on getting Worthy the ball in space and those concerted efforts paid off on Saturday as Sarkisian finally felt comfortable calling those plays in a game. In fact, the first offensive play of the game was a four-yard push pass to Worthy in jet motion, a play that Sarkisian called twice, and Worthy also had a positive gain on a throw into the flat.
But it wasn’t just the emphasis on getting Worthy the ball that stood out — the toughness of the 160-pounder was evident as well.
“Xavier was great — that was a point of emphasis of just trying to get him the ball in space and see what he could do,” Sarkisian said. “The thing that that I like about him is for as fast as he is, and he’s not the biggest guy, he has some physicality about him. He had a couple times on the sidelines where I think a lot of guys might have stepped out of bounds, but he dropped the shoulder and finished the run, and that’s a quality and trait that we try to preach here about contact courage, and he definitely exuded that tonight.”
Robinson did, too, according to Sarkisian, and flashed his ability on special teams, flying off the edge to block a punt at the end of the first quarter.
“I love that special teams had an impact on the game getting that blocked punt early because I think that’s an aspect of the game that is a strength of ours that we need to continue to build on,” Sarkisian said.
Rice was already missing two its its top receivers on Saturday and suffered further blows at quarterback when starter Luke McCaffrey and backup Wiley Green both left the game with injuries. So it was difficult to get a strong evaluation on the defense, but the group did force two fumbles, recovering one, and once again got playing time for just about every healthy scholarship player and a handful of walk ons.
A 31-yard run and 4.9 yards per carry overall for the Owls will stand out as negatives for defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski in film review. And there were more opportunities for negatives plays than the four tackles for loss and three sacks recorded by Texas.
Still, the first shutout in four years, including two stops in the red zone for a defense that has been excellent in keeping opponents from scoring touchdowns in that area, as well as a big drop in missed tackles from last week, are something to build upon heading into conference play.
“This creates a new challenge, right? Last week we had a bad taste in our mouth and we had to get back to work and really dig in and have really good intent,” Sarkisian said. “This week is no different, and we’re gonna really challenge the players on, we can’t relax, now’s not the time to just relax and take a step back and I think that was a lesson learned coming out of the Louisiana game going to Arkansas. So now we get another opportunity to do that this week with our preparation to get ready for conference play here with Tech next week.”