Coming into the game as massive underdogs, Rice football gave the Houston Cougars a tough test giving fans reasons for optimism despite the loss.
Rice entered their Week 1 tilt against Houston with a feeling of anticipation. This team didn’t care that they were being cast as the underdog and had lost to Houston last year 38-3. In front of the home crowd at Rice Stadium, the Owls held a two-game winning streak. They gave Houston all they could handle on Saturday.
The Owls came out firing and punched the unsuspecting Cougars in the mouth early. Houston was not ready for an aerial attack, but that’s what they got from head coach Mike Bloomgren and his staff. Rice took a 24-17 lead into halftime, stretching the lead to 10 points in the third quarter. Rice couldn’t keep up the pace, falling to Houston by a final score of 45-27.
A few of the biggest takeaways from the 2018 edition of the Bayou Bucket:
1. Rice made the jump
During his postgame press conference following the team’s Week 0 win over Prairie View Coach Bloomgren was emphatic about the leap his team needed to take during the week. He said the best teams he’s ever been a part of make the biggest jump from game one to game two. The quality of competition was significantly higher this weekend, but the Owls’ own progress was evident.
On defense, the Rice defensive line looked strong through the first half, limiting Houston to 94 yards rushing, 51 of which came on a reverse. Early on Houston couldn’t get into a rhythm on the ground against a front seven that swarmed to the football. The Owls’ fourth down stop in the second quarter kept the momentum on the Owls’ side and set up a Jack Fox field goal.
Last week Bloomgren specifically put running back Emmanuel Esupka on notice, saying his 173-yard performance against Prairie View was good, but he could do better. Esupka responded with 81 yards on 17 carries against Houston including a career-long 52-yard run to set up the Owls first touchdown of the day. It was tough sledding, but he still managed a respectable 4.8 yards per carry.
Even with Ed Oliver in the middle, Esupka pounded away, fighting through a lot of contact in the trenches. On the whole, the Rice rushing attack did enough to keep the defense honest, opening up passing lanes for Shawn Stankavage who made the defense pay.
2. Rice has a starting quarterback
Rice hasn’t thrown three touchdown passes in a single game since Nov. 19, 2016. Sam Glaesmann, now at wide receiver, led the Owls in touchdown passes last year, completing three over the course of six appearances. Stankavage, after throwing for 43 yards and no touchdowns in the season opener, threw three touchdowns in the first half against Houston.
With the exception of one errant pass that was picked off, Stankavage was accurate for the bulk of the game. He completed 20-of-31 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of the better quarterback performances Rice has seen in quite some time.
As promised, Jackson Tyner did get some game action. He completed one of his two passes for nine yards before Fox blasted his long punt. When the chips were on the table, Bloomgren went back to Stankavage, trusting the graduate transfer from Vanderbilt with the ball in the redzone after Houston’s muffed punt.
The value of having two capable passers became apparent midway through the third quarter. Stankavage exited the game with an injury, forcing Tyner to take over mid-drive. He connected with Austin Walter on a beautiful over the shoulder 36-yard reception on third down to move the chains and keep the offense humming.
It’s pretty clear, assuming he’s healthy, this will be Stankavage’s job to lose. Still, having Tyner on the roster could be huge for this team moving forward. Tyner ended his day with 4-of-8 passing for 88 yards.
3. The secondary needs improvement
Here are the Houston scoring drives by the number of plays, length and time of possession:
- 7-plays, 36 yards (1:41)
- 7-plays, 75 yards (2:13)
- 5-plays, 75 yards (1:19)
- 3-plays, 75 yards (0:56)
- 3-plays, 70 yards (0:48)
- 5-plays, 68 yards (1:48)
- 5-plays, 71 yards (2:29)
Quarterback D’Eriq King had a field day with the Rice secondary, moving the ball down the field with relative ease. The corners had a rough outing, and the safeties weren’t much better. The speed of the Houston offense is hard to prepare for in practice, and that showed on Saturday.
The Rice defense allowed 320 yards through the air and three passing touchdowns. They had a few nice plays, particularly on passes across the middle, but the homerun ability of guys like Marquez Stevenson and Courtney Lark proved too much for the secondary to handle. This is the second week that the secondary has looked beatable. The Owls have 11 more games on the schedule some of which include high-profile passing attacks.
4. Trust the process
As Joel Embiid says, trust the process. Rice football is two games into the Mike Bloomgren era. Even if all things do go according to plan it’s going to take some time. Coach Bloomgren inherited a roster that needs more talent and is coming off a 1-win season. It’s important to remember the magnitude of the task at hand.
Bloomgren comes to South Main with a pedigree of physicality and toughness, two characteristics that a team doesn’t acquire overnight, over the summer, or over the course of 12 (or 13 in this case) individual games. Rice football isn’t that far removed from a 10-win season and a bowl appearance. You can win at Rice, but the Owls are going to have to be deliberate with the steps they take if they want to become a consistent player in both Conference USA and the national stage.
On Saturday the Owls hung with a team that has more talent than they do. They ran into the jowls of a Houston defensive line that includes a future top-five NFL draft selection and gave the Cougars a scare. The rebuild is on schedule. Regardless of the outcome of this one game. Rice football proved they’re moving in the right direction.