Rice football took down Prairie View 31-28 in their season opener. It was closer than expected, but the Owls are happy to walk away from this one with the victory.
Things started off well, with Rice taking a 16-0 lead as the offense marched up and down the field. Then things went downhill, fast. Then they turned around. That’s how the Rice football season opener played out on Saturday night. There was a little bit of everything in this one, including a scare of historic proportions.
The last time a current SWAC team beat an FBS squad was 1985 when Grambling State beat Oregon State. Current SWAC members are now 2-99 against FBS teams in their history, the aforementioned win by Grambling State and Alkorn State’s upset over Central Michigan in 1978.
Fortunately for the Owls, Rice wasn’t added to that list. Prairie View came dangerously close, but Rice was ahead when the clock hit zero, and that’s what matters.
There will be plenty to digest coming from this game in the following days. Here are a few initial thoughts.
1. Houston, we don’t have a quarterback, we have two… sort of
Stankavage started strong out of the gate, going 3-of-4 through the air for 24 yards. He wasn’t asked to stretch the field, but he hit the open man and kept the offense moving with a couple big third down conversions with his legs.
After Jackson Tyner entered the game on the final play of the second quarter the offense spread out a bit more. The Owls ran a lot of plays out of the gun and the pistol with Tyner, letting him stretch the defense with his arm. Tyner didn’t have a great day throwing the ball, completing 5-of-9 passes for 44 yards. He did not play in the second half.
Coming into camp it didn’t seem like a platoon between a primary passing quarterback and a primary running quarterback was in the cards, but that’s more or less what we saw on Saturday. When the Owls had to manufacture a comeback in the second half they left Stankavage in but pounded the rock on the ground.
2. Get used to seeing tight ends and fullbacks
The first play of the game was a two-tight end set with a fullback. Emmanuel Esupka took the handoff straight up the middle for a first down. The Owls lined up in a host of different formations after that, but the bread and butter of this offense will always be based on a strong ground game.
11 of the Owls’ 14 plays were rushes. The trend continued as long as Stankavage was in the game. The first quarter was a clinic in how this offense is supposed to operate. Heavy on the ground with short, quick passes mixed in to keep the defense honest. That’s what we saw when the game was tied up in the fourth. Lots of blocks paving the way for several of the Owls talented backs.
Emmanuel Esupka led the charge, racking up 168 yards on 31 carries and one touchdown. Austin Walter had a big day out of the backfield as well, carrying the ball 11 times for 83 yards and two scores.
3. Defensive woes loom large
Everything seemed to be working out well for the Owls early on. The first three Prairie View drives ended with punts, but things started to break down when Prairie View started pushing the ball on the perimeter.
Former 4-star receiver Tristen Wallace, once enrolled at Oregon, absolutely had his way with Brandon Douglas-Dotson and the rest of the Owls corners. When all was said and done, Wallace turned five catches into 147 yards and one touchdown. That’s a rate of 29.4 yards per catch.
When the pass rush couldn’t reach the quarterback (three sacks, two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble) the Owls’ secondary struggled. The defensive scheme is predicated on corners that can win on the perimeter and that remains a work in progress for the Owls. Prairie View tallied 244 yards through the air.
4. Starting off on the right foot
Two decades ago Mike Bloomgren was a graduate assistant for Bobby Bowdon at Florida State. He’s held a variety of jobs all over the country as he climbed the latter, but he’d never been a head coach – not until Rice offered him the job last winter.
Fast-forward to the final weekend of August when the Rice Owls defeated the Prairie View A&M Panthers in front of an energetic crowd at Rice Stadium. Not only is Mike Bloomgren a head coach, he’s a winning head coach. The 2018 season is only one game old and there’s plenty more for Bloomgren to achieve before he calls his time at Rice a success, but you can’t start better than 1-0. Was it messy? Sure. But it was still a win.
1-0 isn’t as easy as it seems. Fred Goldsmith, who coached the Owls from 1989 to 1993, was the last head coach at Rice to win his first game. Since then, Ken Hatfield, Todd Graham and David Bailiff combined to go 0-3 in their inaugural games. That included a loss to Nicholls State in 2007 who failed to defeat any other FBS teams that season.
Yes, it came against Prairie View. Houston will be a much larger challenge next week. But the Owls equaled last season’s win total on Saturday night. That’s as good of a start as anyone could have asked for.
Rice plays Houston. The Cougars weren’t active in Week 0, so this will be their first taste of game action in 2018. Houston defeated Rice 38-3 last season.