By Ryan Sprayberry
That’s a sentence you don’t read often. Williams carries Texas past Rice. The University of Texas needs a one-man performance to beat Rice? Well that was exactly what happened September 27, 1997. The ‘Horns were coming off a disappointing 66-3 loss to UCLA and Rice looked to be an easy rebound.
So many stories have been told of Ricky Williams’ heroics, that many of his games go forgotten. Ask any college football fan their favorite or most memorable Williams moment and they undoubtedly will have an answer. When he won the Heisman Trophy. When he ran for 350 yards to break Roosevelt Leaks’ school single-game rushing record that had stood for a quarter-century. Most will probably recall Williams bulldozing through maroon jerseys headed for the end zone and the NCAA career rushing record (of course, he also led UT to an upset of #6 Texas A&M on that day).
I doubt if anyone would point to the 1997 Rice game as their favorite moment. But that’s part of being a legend – a forgotten game for a legend would be a career game for almost any other player. We should remember that September day in 1997. If nothing else, the Rice game was a harbinger of things to come.
Texas was struggling. Heads were down on the sideline and all of the momentum lay with the Rice Owls. Following the UCLA loss, it looked like the Longhorns might be headed for more humiliation. In the first quarter, Texas ran a total of four offensive plays while holding the ball for just two minutes and 45 seconds.
UT head coach John Mackovic sensed things were starting to go awry so he walked over and tapped his star player on the knee. No words were said, but looking each other in the eye, they both knew what was needed. Mackovic was going to lean on Williams and Williams knew he had to respond.
“He just looked at me, and I knew what he meant,” Williams said after the game. “I was really determined. I knew I would get the ball a lot and be a major factor. We knew they couldn’t stop our running game.”
That last sentence might have been the biggest undersell of the entire 1997 season. Williams responded with touchdown runs of nine, 49, four, 25 and 15 yards for five total rushing touchdowns – a Big 12 record at the time. Texas wasn’t running up the score either, they needed Williams.
The Longhorn defense had been bewildered and bested by the Owls’ triple-option attack all day, allowing one Rice player to gain over 200 yards rushing and another to break 100. Rice’s rushing attack ranked third nationally coming into the Texas game and they made the UT front seven look terrible.
The Owls gained 478 yards with an astounding 452 coming on the ground. Even with Williams’ incredible day, Rice still led by 10 late in the third quarter.
Texas’ defense did finally make a stop when it mattered most, forcing a fumble as Rice was driving down to score again, already up 31-28 in the fourth. After the fumble, Rice forced Texas to punt, but were flagged for roughing the punter. With a fresh set of downs, the ‘Horns rode Williams to his fifth and final score, finally gaining a lead of 35-31.
To go with his five scores, Williams rushed for 249 yards and caught three passes for another 25 yards.
Compared with many of his games during his senior season in 1998, Williams’ totals on this day seemed pedestrian. In ’98, Williams would finish games with 259, 259, 318 and 350 yards – breaking his own mark four times. But his total of 249 yards against Rice in 1997, was the second-best rushing total for a single game in school history and, more so, it clearly demonstrated that Williams could be utilized as the singular offensive weapon and still be effective.
Williams would break the 200-yard mark four more times in 1997, including leading Texas to a 27-24 victory over interstate rival Oklahoma. Against the Sooners, Williams ran 40 times for 223 yards and two scores.
No one may remember the 1997 UT-Rice game or choose it as their favorite moment in Ricky Williams’ great career, but maybe they should.
After the game, Mackovic said, “This was a big step for us, but it’s not the only step. We’re moving forward, but we have a long way to go.”
If only he’d know how far Ricky would go in 1998.
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame