Rice football gave North Texas a scare coming close to an upset before stumbling in the fourth quarter. The Owls are getting closer, but couldn’t finish.
When the fourth quarter started Rice trailed North Texas 20-17. The coaches and the team don’t make much mention of being underdogs or favorites, but the oddsmakers tabbed the Owls as 30-point underdogs again the Mean Green.
This team wasn’t intimidated. They started fast and stayed in the ring for three full quarters until a rough fourth quarter turned this into a blowout. There were some missteps on both sides of the ball, but there wasn’t an extended stretch of time when it felt like this team was lost until a series of penalties and a sack-fumble put the game out of reach late in the fourth.
Rice could have won this game, but their record falls to 1-8. Here are a few immediate reactions:
1. Credit to where credit is due, the offense is improving
Rice was kept out of the endzone in successive games against UTSA and UAB. The poor offensive performances plus the injury to quarterback Shawn Stankavage‘s made the future of this unit seem bleak.
Rather than stick to “what had always worked” and clearly wasn’t working anymore, offensive coordinator Jerry Mack and head coach Mike Bloomgren went back to the drawing board. The results were impressive and impactful. Rice scored touchdowns on their opening drive against FIU and their opening drive against North Texas, each coming with a different quarterback at the helm of the offense.
A vastly different offense took the field in Denton, Tx on Saturday. Juma Otoviano was heavily involved as a wildcat quarterback. Wiley Green honed in on Austin Walter and Aaron Cephus in the passing game and the Owls moved up and down the field.
It looked like a different offense. The unit that put up a zero against UAB is long gone. The next step for this group is converting third downs and staying on the field. Rice was 3-for-14 on third down, making the amount of production they were able to achieve even more encouraging.
2. Fine under fire
Rice entered the game against North Texas dead last in the conference in sacks. The Owls have struggled to get any sort of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, leaving the secondary exposed. The defensive line knew they need to step up, and the results began to show up on Saturday.
Anthony Ekpe and Houston Robert both sacked Fine in the first quarter, but Robert’s was negated by an illegal substitution penalty. Ekpe picked up what should have been a drive-ending sack in the third quarter, but an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Owls kept the defense on the field. He emerged again in the same drive, sacking Fine and forcing a long field goal which North Texas missed.
Even when the Owls didn’t get there in time they made their presence felt in the offensive backfield. Fine was on the ground a lot and was well aware of the pressure coming from all sides. The Rice pass rush completely changed this game, something that hasn’t been said over the last several weeks.
3. Tackling and making plays in space is still an issue
There are several aspects of the defense that have shown tremendous improvement throughout the season. Unfortunately, the bottom line doesn’t reflect that progress largely because the Owls are still plagued by the big play.
North Texas’ first touchdown came from 68-yards out. Fine hit Rico Bussey Jr. in space and the receiver outsprinted the defense into the endzone. This team has been prone to surrendering the long ball, but Bussey’s catch and run wasn’t a home run. Rice had defenders behind the receiver, but multiple bad angles left them without a play on the football. He should have been knocked out in the redzone, instead, he scored.
The Owls have been susceptible to the big play on the ground too. Against North Texas, this came in the form of a 44-yard DeAndre Torrey scamper down the sideline. He was surrounded by a trio of Rice defenders, but nobody forced him out until he had rushed for a huge gain.
If those two big plays are taken off the board Rice could have been tied entering halftime, or perhaps even with a narrow lead. This defense cannot take any more meaningful strides if they don’t eliminate these kinds of plays.
4. New faces continue to make big impacts
Where to begin? The freshman were the difference makers on both sides of the ball against North Texas. On offense, Wiley Green threw for 204 yards, one touchdowns and didn’t throw any interceptions. He fumbled once, but also picked up a score with his legs. Juma Otoviano was critical early on, jump-starting the offense with 64 yards on 17 carries, many out of the wildcat formation.
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On defense, Prudy Calderon and Trewshawn Chamberlain both forced fumbles. Calderon came up with a huge pass breakup in the endzone and was active all over the field. His insertion into the starting lineup has boosted the play of the entire defense and helped take away the over the top plays that burned the secondary often through the first month of the season.
5. Don’t beat yourself
Rice committed four penalties for 30 yard against FIU. They committed eight penalties for 99 yards against North Texas. Five of those penalties gave North Texas first downs, many coming on third downs when Rice had done enough to get off the field.
This team has made significant strides on the defensive side of the ball. Even though that’s the case, they’re not at the point where they can be handing out extra possessions and expecting the results to stay positive.