Rice football dropped their fourth consecutive contest, falling on the road to an explosive Wake Forest squad. Where do the Owls go from here?
Wake Forest scored early and poured it on. Before Rice could catch their breath they were trailing big on the road and the game was out of reach. This wasn’t the prettiest game from either side of the ball. There will be plenty to address in the film room and on the practice field next week before the Owls return to conference play at home against UTSA in Week 5.
Here are a few things that were most evident from the Owls decisive defeat against Wake Forest:
1. This time, the final score almost really does tell the full story
There’s so much more to any one result than can be told be a simple box score. Wins and losses are the statistics that carry the most weight, but how the game was won or loss is just as meaningful when evaluating the result. In this case, it doesn’t require a look much deeper than the 56-24 result to understand the chasm that stood between these two teams on Saturday.
Short of an upset the likes of which Rice fans haven’t seen in quite some time, Wake Forest besting the Owls at home wasn’t an outlandish notion. The Owls’ players knew this would be one of the toughest tests they’d face all season, but the mentality entering the game was centered around the team’s own effort and mindset.
A non-conference win over a Power 5 opponent would have been monumental for the future trajectory of this program, but a loss didn’t need to be another heavy blow to a program that had shown so much progress early in the season. Rice had three losses entering this game, but their defeat at the hands of the Demon Deacons stung as much if not more than the other three losses. You didn’t need to watch this one to feel the magnitude of the defeat.
2. The secondary
The back end of the Rice defense has struggled early on this season. Even though they gave up a sizable chunk of yardage against Southern Miss, they tightened up their defense against big plays. After allowing five combined touchdowns of 30+ yards in their games against Houston and Hawaii, Rice didn’t allow any scores against Southern Miss.
Greg Dortch and Wake Forest erased that four-quarter streak, quickly. Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman connected with Dortch on a 57-yard bomb to kick off the scoring. Dortch already had four steps on several members of the Rice secondary by the time he had hauled in the pass and proceeded to turn on the afterburners and race the remainder of the distance to the endzone.
The ACC’s leading receiver entering the game, Dortch padded his stats against Rice. He scored three touchdowns in the first half, finishing with 163 yards on 11 catches and four touchdowns. Part of what made him so effective was Wake Forest’s effectiveness on the ground. Cade Carney kept the offense on schedule, opening up holes in the secondary as they tried to key in on the offensive backfield.
Dortch is a burner. As much as the Owls tried to keep pace, they weren’t able to stay with him step for step in the open field. That’s not a new concern for this defense. They won’t face many more pass catchers as talented as Dortch this season, but that doesn’t make the problem go away.
3. The offense
Rice tallied three three-and-outs, three offensive yards and three punts in their first three possessions. The offense was rather dismal before Austin Walter jump-started the first touchdown drive of the game early in the third quarter. Thanks to two big plays from the versatile running back, Rice went 72 yards in three plays before Walter took into the endzone on a shovel pass from Shawn Stankavage.
Before that the drive chart was bleak: punt, punt, punt, interception, field goal, fumble, missed field goal, punt. The offensive line wasn’t opening up holes, Stankavage was pressing and the receivers weren’t finding much separation. When one unit did their job, the other pieces let them down. The inability to play fundamentally sound football with any level of synchronization was frustrating, and it showed.
The silver lining was do-it-all ball carrier Austin Walter. When the offense gets stuck in the mud he’s proven he can be the guy that flips the field with one big play. His decisive running style and ability to make a quick cut and explode down the field turned a stalled offense into one that was able to move the ball down the field. He finished the afternoon with 256 all-purpose yards.
For the Owls, Walter’s heroics were too-little, too-late. They were playing catch up all day and had let the deficit grow too large to overcome.
4. Where do the Owls go from here?
This result was ugly. In what felt like the blink of an eye the Owls found themselves in a four-touchdown deficit with no momentum and issues on both sides of the ball. Rice trailed by as many as 25 points to Southern Miss. They fell behind further against Wake Forest, with the 28-0 hole representing their largest deficit of the season so far. Then the gap grew to 35-3 then 42-3 before topping out at 56-10.
When head coach Mike Bloomgren stands in front of the media next he’s going to say a few things that he has to say. He’ll lament the effort against Wake Forest, which he should. He’ll talk about the process, which he should. And then he’ll get back to work on Monday and get to work.
In no way is this rough outing a reason for anyone to jump ship. In fact, it might be the perfect time to buy stock in the Bloomgren era of Rice football. After the 1-0 start, they’ve suffered four straight defeats of increasing levels of frustration.
They’re not going to pack it in. Instead, there will be changes on both sides of scrimmage. Starters will be challenged for their roles and every player is going to have to solidify their claim to being on the field. The fallout from this defeat is where the culture of the program will be tested. If the team can push through, and I expect they will, brighter days are ahead for Rice football.