Rice football was unable to get into a rhythem on offense and fell on the road to Southern Miss in their first conference game of the season.
The Owls fell behind early, surrendering their first touchdown of the game on the first play following a Shawn Stankavage interception. Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham hit Quez Watkins to give the Eagles a 10-0 lead. Rice was in comeback mode after that.
No strangers to a deficit, Rice battled back. They scored two touchdowns of their own in the first half, cutting the deficit to 17-15 before Southern Miss stretched the lead to 24-15 in the final minutes before the break.
The second half was all Southern Miss who put up points in all four quarters, extending the lead as far as 25 points, an insurmountable amount for an offense that couldn’t manage to find its footing on the road.
Here are three quick takeaways from the Owls’ 40-22 loss to Southern Miss in Week 4.
1. Austin Walter and Emmanuel Esukpa need to touch the ball as much as possible
The Rice offense is going to build their offense from the ground up. The Owls have some playmakers on the outside, but the engine that makes this unit run well is their rushing attack. The combination of Esukpa’s power between the tackles and Walter’s shiftiness out of the backfield creates a thunder-and-lightning duo that continues to give the Owls’ opponents fits.
Esukpa faced a lot of stacked boxes against Southern Miss. That didn’t deter offense coordinator Jerry Mack from sticking to the gameplan. Esukpa got plenty of early work, pounding up the middle and wearing out the Southern Miss defense. That tired defense struggled did them no favors against the Owls’ quicker players on the edge.
Walter is the Owls’ home run threat. I called for a long touchdown play from him this week, and he delivered in the opening minutes of the first quarter, scampering around the edge for a 62-yard score. He’s one of the best athletes the Owls have on their roster. When he’s in space he creates mismatches which lead to opportunities for big plays.
Walter hit a big play against Southern Miss, accounting for nearly half of the Owls’ first half offense with a single carry. He provides a dimension for this offense that nobody else does, making him one of the most important players to feed. So far, the Owls have done just that and it’s paid off handsomely.
Esukpa and Walter combined for 156 yards and a touchdown on 25 touches. They’re the 1A and 1B in this offense, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
2. Mike Bloomgren’s willingness to roll the dice is going to pay off
The second touchdown of Mike Bloomgren’s head coaching career was followed with a completely unexpected 2-point conversion attempt. The try was unsuccessful, ultimately putting the Owls behind the eight ball against Prairie View A&M. They got the two points back on a safety and went on to win the game.
That wasn’t the last time we’d see Bloomgren take a chance, and he’s proven to be more than willing to take risks this season. The Owls went for two on their first touchdown against Southern Miss, catching the Eagles flat-footed and walking into the endzone untouched.
Rice isn’t going to have the talent advantage against many of the teams they’ll face this season. Helmet on helmet and pad on pad, the Owls are going to be overmatched more often than they’d like to be. But you can beat talent with risk, specifically with calculated risk. That’s one of the reasons Rice has attempted six fourth down conversions so far this season, converting three times.
Playing it safe isn’t going to pay off for the Owls. They need to be willing to take push the envelope. Sometimes those risks are going to end poorly, but when things do go the right way this team will find itself in position for big wins.
3. Incremental progress
There are no moral victories in college football, at least not if you’re a head coach. Mike Bloomgren has preached about trusting the process and taking the next step all season. So far, that progress has been evident.
As the season progresses, Rice continues to go further and further into games and push their opponents to the wire. They’re giving up less huge plays and making a few of their own. Those baby steps on Saturday were evident in the Owls’ secondary.
After being beaten up by Houston and Hawaii, Rice took their lumps through the air against Southern Miss, too. Unlike their first two games, Rice wasn’t found flat-footed over the top nearly as often. Southern Miss quarterback Abraham did a good portion of his damage across the middle and in front of the safeties.
When Rice did get beat on the outside, they were beaten on contested passes and bad angles. That will show through in the film and give this unit some confidence as they enter the heart of conference play. It wasn’t an acceptable performance by any means, but the issues on Saturday were correctable.
The box score is ugly; Rice surrendered 428 yards through the air. But there weren’t any 50+ yard touchdowns. That alone is a sign things are moving in the right direction.
4. Incremental regression
It wasn’t all good news for Rice football against Southern Miss. The Owls’ offense demonstrated the potential shortfalls that come with a rushing-based attack when it doesn’t win first down. Rice gained more than three yards on their first play of the drive just once in the first half — a 12 play, 59-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to two points.
The second half was more of the same. Behind the chains and off schedule, quarterback Shawn Stankavage was put into high-leverage situations and too many third and longs. Rice runs the ball to set up the pass. Keeping defenses honest and utilizing play action is important to this offense. When that’s not working things can go downhill, fast.
Rice went three-and-out four times against Southern Miss, not including a pair of drives that ended after three plays with a Stankavage interception.