Rice football entered their Week 8 game against FIU as heavy underdogs, but the Owls gave the Panthers all they could handle before ultimately falling 36-17.
Rice led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter against FIU. The scoreboard at the quarter mark was a huge boost of confidence for a team that had struggled on both sides of the ball and was looking for reasons to keep the faith. The results Saturday gave this team confidence that they can hang with anyone, including an FIU team that entered the weekend as the top team in CUSA East.
It was the Owls’ seventh consecutive loss. There are no moral victories, but the Owls did take meaningful steps forward in several key areas. Here are a few immediate thoughts from the loss to FIU.
1. Fast start
The phrase “start fast” has been heard around the Patterson Center for several weeks now. This team has put themselves behind the gun in each of the past two games, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday.
Rice football’s opening drive against FIU was a thing of beauty. The running game was working, the passing game was perfect and the Owls marched down the field 75 yards to score their first touchdown since the Wake Forest game on Sept. 29. Evan Marshman, in his first career start, was 4-for-4 for 38 yards through the air. He added three carries for 23 yards on the ground and a touchdown, which came on a carefully scripted fourth-and-inches attempt from seven yards out.
That scoring drive didn’t magically erase several weeks of struggling, but the emotional impact it had on this team cannot be understated. The talk had finally become reality. Rice had an offense, and they were ready from the first snap.
The defense answered the challenge, too. FIU managed just six yards on four plays on their first drive of the game. The Owls forced a punt which set the offense up in good field position for their next drive. Rice led 7-0 after the first quarter thanks to strong starts from the offense, defense and special teams.
2. Offense incorporates just the right amount of change
The edict to go back to the drawing board and start from square one has paid off. Bloomgren said his team was going to figure out what they could do on offense to move the ball most effectively. The result was an offense that looked similar to their previous iterations but included a calculated dose of new wrinkles.
The insertion of the new quarterback included an emphasis on more shotgun and pistol formations. Marshman took plenty of snaps under center, but he was clearly more comfortable with the extra space to operate. When he had that extra space he made the most of it. For the first time this year designed quarterback runs became an integral part of the offense. Marshman had 11 carries for 68 yards and two touchdowns. For reference, Shawn Stankavage, who started the first seven games of the year, has 32 carries for 58 yards and no touchdowns on the ground.
Marshman’s touchdown was perfectly scripted. On fourth-and-inches the Owls brought in their jumbo package. Rather than throw the fade or run up the middle, two looks they’ve shown already this season, Marshman kept the ball on a rollout. FIU was caught completely off guard and he walked into the endzone completely untouched.
3. A few bad moments spoil an otherwise strong defensive day
Good defenses find a way to get off the field without allowing points. Being successful on the vast majority of your plays doesn’t matter if the five plays you miss result in big plays for the other team. That’s what was so frustrating about the halftime score. Rice put together some strong drives on both sides of the ball, but two bad plays turned a halftime lead into a deficit.
The Owls missed a tackle on a jet sweep which allowed FIU speedster Maurice Alexander to race to the endzone untouched for a 51-yard touchdown. On the next drive, James Morgan got behind the secondary and hauled in a 33-yard touchdown pass on third and long. Those two plays count, but if the Owls hold there the game is much closer than the scoreboard indicated.
The second half saw the same miscues. FIU’s third quarter touchdown drive was capped off by a 33-yard run and a 29-yard touchdown pass, both of which featured missteps by Rice defenders.
4. This team needs the explosive pop from Austin Walter
A few weeks ago Austin Walter let the nation in all-purpose yards. The versatile running back has a knack for the big play, something Rice has missed over the last few weeks. This offense is still a work in progress, making 10 play drives that stretch the length of the field a challenge. That challenge could be easier if Walter erases half that yardage on his own.
Walter hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still getting plenty of carries and a few receptions each game. The difference has been the Owls’ opponents understanding of how this team wants to use him. They’ve stacked the box and made running more challenging for all the Owls’ back. For the most part, he’s being given respect through the air as well.
Rice made the first move, utilize Walter as their go-to offensive weapon. Opposing defenses have countered. The onus is now back on the Owls to find a way to get Walter the ball with room to run. If they can do that the big plays will come and the profile of the entire offense will rise tremendously. Walter had 50 all-purpose yards against FIU. He’s capable of so much more.
5. Final thoughts
For the first time in several weeks, Rice was in position to win this game in the fourth quarter. Even with their miscues, they found themselves down by nine points and had the ball coming back their way via an FIU punt. The Panthers faked the punt, converted the first down (with three flags for a blatant targeting penalty picked up) and scored later on the drive to extend the lead to 33-17
That big fourth down conversion, three Rice interceptions and a few deep plays for FIU were all huge plays in this game. Rice isn’t a good enough football team right now to make that many mistakes and still hope to win on the road in conference play. For the most part, FIU played well on both sides of the ball and didn’t turn the ball over. The -2 turnover margin equaled the two scores that separated Rice from FIU at the end of this game.
This was a tough loss, but it was tough because Rice could have won this game. It’s time to regroup and get ready for another challenging road test next weekend against North Texas.