Mack Brown insisted this offseason that with Colt McCoy gone, No. 5 Texas would re-establish a running game that had gone stale as the Longhorns leaned on their star quarterback in recent years.
At least for the first game of the post-Colt era, the Longhorns' coach showed he was serious.
Gilbert, who threw four interceptions filling in for McCoy in the loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, didn't turn the ball over in this one. Still, his day didn't go as smoothly as Longhorns fans had hoped.
He finished 14 of 23 for 172 yards. Texas ran 46 times for 197 yards.
Texas was stopped on fourth-and-goal down at the 1 on its first drive and settled for a 51-yard field goal on the second. Gilbert bounced a few passes, but showed pinpoint accuracy on others, including a 47-yard throw to Malcolm Williams in the third quarter.
Brown got a bit snappy when asked if he'd rather run than pass though.
"I am at a point where I would rather win," he said. "I don't care. I really don't. I liked Colt McCoy completing 80 percent of his passes. Some people didn't. It really bothered them. (They) got emotional, got counseling. I liked it. I liked Garrett completing a bunch of passes tonight."
Texas finally got going on its first full drive of the second quarter taking a 10-3 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Newton. He ran up the middle and just out of reach of the outstretched arms of two Rice defenders for that score.
That drive was fueled by a 22-yard catch and run by Marquise Goodwin, a play where the Longhorns finally seemed to find a rhythm. The Longhorns gained just 53 yards in the first quarter, but piled up 69 on their first touchdown drive.
"I think there is a lot of things we need to work on, but it is something we can build upon," Gilbert said.
The defense got involved after Newton's first score, with Sam Acho sacking Rice freshman Taylor McHargue and causing a fumble. Keenan Robinson scooped it up and returned it for a 10-yard touchdown and Texas had turned a 3-3 tie into a 17-3 lead in less than two minutes.
"There will be an upset today when we start looking at scores from other games across the country, and that scares you to death," Brown said. "You're excited to win the opener, and I told the players they ought to be real proud to be 1-0, but there are a lot of things that we can work on."
Newton, who finished with 61 yards, also had a 2-yard score in the second quarter and a second 1-yard TD in the third.
"There is probably a lot (to work on), but the coaches will let us know tomorrow," Newton said. "We'll get to see the mistakes that we made today. We'll learn from them and we'll move on."
Newton lost the starting job to Cody Johnson, but still got plenty of carries. The 250-pound Johnson had trouble early. The Longhorns had a first down at the Rice 4 in the first quarter. Johnson gained a yard on first down and two on second before being stuffed on third and losing four yards on fourth down.
Johnson had 15 carries for 59 yards and Fozzy Whittaker added 51 yards rushing.
"I thought the running game was good, but I didn't like the short yardage and the two times we didn't make it," Brown said. "But we were physical, and we used three backs that all made yards."
Rice's first touchdown came on a fluke play. McHargue's pass bounced off the hands of Vance McDonald and right into the arms of Randy Kitchens. Kitchens had a step on Christian Scott, but Scott grabbed his leg and hung on as Kitchens dragged him to the goal line for the 47-yard score which made it 24-10 just before halftime.
"You get lucky every now and then," McHargue said. "Really that's it."
Rice coach David Bailiff was pleased with McHargue's debut.
"He did some great things and he did some freshman quarterback things," Bailiff said. "He's got four more years to continue to grow and we really think he's going to be something special."
Rice's Sam McGuffie had 14 carries for 47 yards in his Rice debut after sitting out for a year after transferring from Michigan. McHargue was 6 of 11 for 90 yards and an interception.
"Overall this is a game that we can look at and build on and improve," Bailiff said.
Texas opened away from home for the first time since 1995 at Hawaii. But this could hardly be called an away game with the overwhelming majority of the crowd of 70,445 at Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans, clad in burnt orange and rooting for the Longhorns.
McCoy's younger brother Case McCoy took over at quarterback with about six minutes remaining. He attempted one pass.