Rice football put up a strong effort on defense but never found enough offense, dropping a home contest to UTSA and falling to 1-5 (0-2 CUSA).
After a long hiatus from Rice Stadium, the Owls returned home in Week 6 to play the UTSA Roadrunners. It was a low-scoring contest throughout much of the game that saw one touchdown scored in the first 30 minutes. Trailing 13-0 at halftime, Rice was unable to much in the way of reducing the deficit in the second half.
The Owls ended the game with nothing to show from their offense but a 28-yard field goal from Haden Tobola. Rice attempted six fourth down conversions, succeeding on three. On a night in which the defense played their best game yet, the offense never found the spark it needed to kick into gear.
When it was all said and done, Rice football walked away with a heartbreaking loss their to fall to 0-2 in conference play. There were a few bright spots, but there’s still work to be done if this team is going to find that second win. Here are the biggest takeaways from the defeat.
1. The defense is getting better
Who stole the defense? The unit that came out to play on Saturday against UTSA looked like a completely different set of players compared to those that took the field against Wake Forest and Southern Miss. The defensive line was aggressive, the linebackers were disciplined and the secondary kept UTSA from getting behind them.
Up front, the push from the starting four was enough to make UTSA quarterback Cordale Grundy pay attention to the pass rush. That opened up the door for defensive coordination Brian Smith to dial up a few blitzes, several of which put Grundy on his back. The Owls tallied one sack, three quarterback hurries and had seven tackles for a loss.
Earlier in the week Martin Nwakamma said all this defense needed to do was play top-down and do what the coaches had been telling them to do. Those words turned into action against UTSA. The Roadrunners still found a few holes between the second and third levels of the defense, but a strong pass rush prevented them from developing into big plays.
The secondary played what was hands down their best game of the year. Justin Bickham faced a lot of deep targets but battled all night, leading the team with three breakups, including a touchdown denying swat in the endzone.
After allowing 18 touchdowns and more than 300 yards per game through the air in their first five games, holding Grundy to 6-of-18 passing for 33 yards was a much welcomed first step toward improvement. He’s far from the best passer the Owls will face this year, but silencing him is proof this team has what it takes on the back end.
2. Stacked boxes remain a problem for the offense
Intellectual brutality invokes the very ethos of smash mouth football. Lining up in a power formation with several tight ends and pounding the rock is what this offense is supposed to do. That’s no secret, and it’s something that opposing defensive coordinators are prepared to face.
UTSA, like many defenses that have worked to contain the Rice offense so far, put body after body at the line of scrimmage and dared the Owls to run. Time after time, Emmanuel Esukpa plowed into the line of scrimmage only to be swarmed by all-white jerseys.
Part of the reason opponents have been able to throw the kitchen sink at the run game has been the inconsistent performance of the offensive line. Quarterback Shawn Stankavage was being harassed all night, giving him little opportunity to make plays down the field. Even when players did break open, he was forced to navigate a disintegrating pocket rather than throw the ball down the field.
Rice opened up the offense in the second half and found success in pistol and shotgun formations. They still ran the ball, but giving the defense a different look helped all aspects of the offensive attack.
3. Is there a quarterback battle brewing?
The short answer to this one is no, Rice has their quarterback. That’s not a blanket endorsement of Stankavage or a critique of Jackson Tyner. It’s more so a byproduct of what has caused the downward trend in quarterback play for the Owls. Poor pass blocking have limited what the Owls can do offensively. Knowing the playbook and making the right reads don’t come into play if the line doesn’t protect the quarterback.
With that crucial caveat, there are still opportunities for both guys to improve. Tyner saw his first snaps since the Houston game against UTSA and was not productive. Whether it was jitters or a rotten case of bad luck, he has an interception and a fumble to his name in the final box score from a game in which he played a handful offensive snaps.
Stankavage, as expected, saw more usage. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 175 yards. He was under duress all night but did not turn the ball over until garbage time. If you’re looking for one all-important stat that should solidify his status to start next week against UAB, that’s the one to look at.
4. Jack Fox is a stud and the special teams are still elite
Mike Bloomgren made sure he gave Jack Fox praise during his first ever postgame press conference as the head coach at Rice. Those words, “Jack Fox is a stud”, have continued to be his mantra about the Owls’ do-it-all specialist from that point forward. Fox lived up to the billing again against UTSA.
Fox put three punts inside the 10-yard line. He averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. He did everything he could to flip the field and keep the Owls in the game.
When the offense struggled, he remained consistent, even throwing in a little razzle-dazzle of his own. Rice lined up to punt on the opening drive of the second half, but Fox kept the ball and delivered a well-placed pass to Jordan Meyers to pick up the first down.
The return game was limited, but they weren’t afforded many opportunities. Austin Walter and Austin Trammell combined for 37 return yards. Walter with one kickoff return for 15 yards and Trammell with two punt returns for 22 yards.
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