Rice football stood toe-to-toe with a high-powered Hawaii offense well into the twilight hours, dropping a close contest 43-29.
Rice was a 17-point road underdog to a red-hot Hawaii squad that entered the game as the only team in the country with a 2-0 record. The Owls didn’t back down from the challenge, wrestling with the Warriors until well past 2:00 a.m. local time at South Main.
When the clock hit zero, it was the favorite, not underdog that had won the day (night). But the path the game took to get to that result was unexpected, to say the least. Here are some immediate, sleepy thoughts from the close game in the Pacific.
1. Keep it simple
Everyone who’s listened to Bloomgren this season knows the Owls want to “pound the rock, control the clock and play great defense.” Controlling the clock has been the easiest objective so far, thanks in part to the tempo offenses of Houston and Hawaii. Rice finished with 32:55 of possession, which is more of a testament to their defensive success than a critique of the offensive effectiveness.
On the defensive front, Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald struggled to move the ball consistently against the Rice defense. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards. His prowess both through the air (319 yards passing and four touchdowns) and on the ground (eight carries for 43 yards) was understood entering this matchup. That kind of playmaker is hard to silence, but Rice did the best they could to contain him.
Rice ran the ball fairly well (147 yards on 39 carries), but those opportunities were limited by the early deficit and the stout Hawaii offense. In many ways, a strong rushing attack and a stingy defense complement each other. When the Owls are griding out the clock effectively they limit the opportunities for the opposing offense. In the same vein, lock-down defense props up the time of possession mark and allows the offense to operate in less pressure-intensive situations.
Falling behind early puts the entire process under stress. That was evident against Hawaii, who put the Owls’ focus on rushing and defense to the test early.
2. In Esupka we trust
It’s been no secret that Emmanuel Esupka is the go-to guy for the Owls on offense this season. He toted the rock 32 times against Prairie View, 17 times against Houston and another 17 times against Hawaii.
The biggest limiting factor for Esupka’s usage was the game script. An early deficit limited how often Esupka got the football with Austin Walter, the Owls’ primary pass-catching back seeing an increased workload once again.
When Espuka is churning out yards the Owls are right where they want to be. In the limited sample size, Rice has won every time Esupka tops 20 carries and 150 yards and lost when he’s held below those marks. For an offense that prides itself on grit and physicality, the ability to set the tone with Esupka up the middle is paramount.
Esupka ended the night with 104 yards and one touchdown. He was inches away from a second score on the goal-line and continues to be the bruising bellcow that this offense needs to keep it on schedule.
3. This defense is growing up before our eyes
During fall camp there was a constant back and forth between the offense and the defense. The two units dueled throughout August, alternating big days. Once the regular season started it was the offense that seemed to take center stage. On the ground against Prairie View and through the air against Houston, the Rice offense outplayed their counterparts on the other side of the ball.
The defense won the battle against Hawaii. The offense had their moments, but the defense clamped down from the midway point of the second quarter. After scoring 14 points in their first two drives, Hawaii scored 14 points on their next 9 drives. That includes a one play drive that resulted in a safety and two points for the defense.
Hawaii has playmakers on the outside, just like Houston did. Receiver John Ursua racked up 133 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. The defense wasn’t perfect, they surrendered a backbreaking 46 yard run to ice the game in the final minutes, but the difference between this performance and the second half of the Houston game could not be any more disparate.
4. Resiliency can’t be taught, but Rice has already mastered it
Even the best defensive plans can falter when put under the crucible of speed. Rice knew that’s what they would face against Hawaii, but that knowledge didn’t translate immediately to the field. Practicing for tempo can only do so much. It takes live game action to fully experience how that constant swirl of momentum impacts the game.
Houston took advantage of an untested defense last week, finishing all seven of their scoring drives in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The Owls knew the Rainbow Warriors were going to push the tempo too, but again, took a while to get adjusted. Hawaii ripped off two touchdown drives that each took less than 4-minutes, pushing this team to the brink.
Give the Owls credit, though. Down 14-0 after allowing back-to-back touchdown drives, Rice could have packed it in and accepted a blowout at the hands of Hawaii. After seeing the Rainbow Warriors put up 40+ in each of their previous games, nobody would have faulted the Owls for letting Hawaii rack up touchdown after touchdown. Except for Rice.
Rice would have been frustrated with themselves if they gave up without a fight. That’s a testament to the culture of competition that coach Mike Bloomgren has instilled at Rice. So when other teams might have thrown in the towel, Rice fought back. They didn’t win, but the process continues to move forward.