Rice football took to the air as they battled the Houston Cougars for control of the Bayou Bucket. Along the way a pair of key pass catchers emerged.
The Rice receiving corps find themselves lost in the shuffle of a rivalry game loss. The Owls weren’t expected to upset their cross-town rivals, but they gave the Houston Cougars a run for their money. And they did it through the air.
After racking up 300 yards rushing in Week 0 the Owls followed it up with a nearly-300 yard passing performance in Week 1. Led by 204 yards on the arm of quarterback Shawn Stankavage, Rice strung together three receiving touchdowns — something they haven’t done in more than a year.
Stankavage was the instigator of all three scores through the air, but he was aided heavily by the big play ability of Aaron Cephus and Brendan Harmon. After combing for two catches and 18 yards in the Owls opener, the duo was responsible for 106 yards and a touchdown against Houston. The best might still be yet to come.
“We’re not seeing the ceiling for Aaron Cephus,” proclaimed head coach Mike Bloomgren immediately following the game, “We’re seeing a good Aaron Cephus that’s going to be even better.” That tough love, be better mentality has permeated the Rice locker room.
When asked about how he felt he did against the physical coverage the Cougars threw at him, Cephus was brutally honest: “I’m expected to make the play,” he said, “Regardless of where the hands are at and what the defense is doing.”
“What the defense is doing” on Saturday meant attempting to mug Cephus in a phone booth. The Houston defensive backs had to scratch and claw all afternoon, more than once being flagged for pass interference, as they attempt to slow down the Owls’ big bodied receivers. On one such occasion, Cephus was dragged down in the endzone, nearly managing to hang on to the ball with one hand.
Joining Cephus as a redzone threat was freshman receiver Brendan Harmon, who hauled in a jump ball seconds before the halftime whistle to put Rice ahead at the break. At 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4 respectively, Harmon and Cephus leave the defense with few options in the redzone. The physicality they each showed on Saturday bodes well for Rice’s prospects of moving the ball through the air in the future.
Quarterback Shawn Stankavage, noticeably frustrated with the loss, couldn’t help but smile when asked about the weapons he had in the receiving corps. “Both of those guys are playmakers,” Stankavage said, adding that his job was simply to “give them a chance.”
Harmon and Cephus will see their production continue to climb over the course of the season. Both players are too talented to go much longer than a drive or two without touching the football. If they progress well, Rice football could have a couple of gamebreakers on their hands. That will go a long way to giving their quarterbacks a sense of peace.
For now, both players are still weapons in an offense that is slowly learning how to get them the ball. They’re the quarterbacks best friend and Stankavage summarized their playmaking ability rather succinctly, “It’s fantastic.” And it’s only going to get better.