Rice football hasn’t won a game over the last three seasons when they’ve accumulated less than 20 first downs. That’s a number that needs to change for the Owls to move forward.
There is a time and a place for intricate offensive schemes, trickery and creative playcalling. The razzle-dazzle always sparks Oohs and Aahs in the crowd when it works, but the effort that goes into installing such unique play calls can often outweigh the rewards. Before Rice football tries to get complicated they need to get back to mastering the basics: first downs.
The first down might be the simplest concept in all of football. Teams have four (although traditionally three) downs to get 10 yards. If they can’t do that the other team takes over. Keeping possession and driving down the field will not only enable the Owls to score but will limit the opportunities for their opponent. Shortening the game against some of the high-powered offenses they’ll face in 2018 is a good place to start.
The 1979 and 1992 Owls each demonstrated the ideal outcome of this philosophy, each against the Houston Cougars. Both teams accumulated 35 first downs in their respective games against UH, a record that still stands to this day. The last Rice team to top 30 fresh sets of chains came in a loss to 42-28 Texas in 2015. Had the Owls not spotted the Longhorns two easy touchdowns on poor special teams plays in the first quarter they might have had enough offensive success to topple the college football giant.
Rice has played 36 games over the last three seasons. They reached 20 first downs in exactly half of those contests, 18. Over that period Rice is 0-18 when achieving less than 20 first downs. They’re 9-9 when getting 20 first downs or more. Those numbers could not be any more disparate.
If Rice wants to get more points they need to find a way to move the ball. That goes back to fundamentals, the basics and traditional hard-nosed football. There will be plenty of time for flair later. For now, let’s get the first down.