Rice football missed a golden opportunity for their first Conference USA win, falling to UTEP on Homecoming at Rice Stadium.
This one stung a bit. Neither the Rice offense nor the defense woke up before halftime, putting the team into a 24-point hole that was too deep to overcome. After two promising outings against FIU and North Texas, the Owls’ slow start against previously winless UTEP ruthlessly cut down all goodwill built over the previous weeks only to build it up way too late.
Rice football now sits at 1-9, still winless in conference play with three games remaining on the year. It’s safe to say that’s nowhere close to how many hoped the Mike Bloomgren era would begin at South Main. Here’s a bit more on the good and the bad from Saturday’s performance.
1. The secondary is caught between a rock and a hard place
UTEP came out guns blazing. The Miners went over the top, completing a 42-yard deep shot on the first play of the game. That was the first of several deep passes attempted and completed by the Owls’ opponent on Saturday. The need for help on the back end has been well documented and UTEP did well to expose a known deficiency.
What they did even better though, was balance their deep shots with easy completions. For every long shot quarterback Kai Locksley threw the Miners had two or three dink and dunk passes. It felt like every time the defense had kept the ball in front of them the Miners would go right back over the top. This rhythm kept the Rice defense off balance from the opening whistle.
Justin Bickham and Brandon Douglas-Dotson both struggled to keep pace with receivers on the outside. One on one coverage, even with safety help, remains a problem for this unit. By the time the game ended it was Collin Whitaker and Tyrae Thornton playing most of the snaps. The Miners were trying to bleed the clock and the pass rush had picked up significantly at that point, but its worth noting both played well.
2. If you can’t tackle, you can’t win
The secondary has had their issues, but the biggest bone to pick with the defensive performance on Saturday was the tackling. You can’t boil down a game to one play, but take a look at this UTEP touchdown run midway through the second quarter.
— SWC Round-Up (@swcroundup) November 3, 2018
Roe Wilkins has his arms wrapped around Quardraiz Wadley’s waist. A few other Rice defenders get hands on him as well. The initial push from the defensive line could have been enough to force UTEP to kick the field goal on fourth down. Instead, the Miners get the score. Wadley is a talented athlete and he made several big plays on Saturday, but the poor tackling did the Owls no favors.
It’s not a one man problem. If the defensive staff could pinpoint the breakdowns to one man he’d long since have been relegated the bench. It’s a collective issue that has plagued the Owls all season and continued against UTEP. Poor tackling makes even the least talented players look like superstars. The UTEP offense looked to be a well-oiled machine throughout the entirety of the first half.
3. Starting a true freshman quarterback is going to have highs and lows
In a perfect world, Wiley Green probably isn’t the starting quarterback for the Rice Owls, yet. There’s a lot of things to like about Green and the talent and arm strength make him should get Rice fans excited for the future. If the coaching staff is able to develop him and he can add some muscle in the offseason he stands a good chance to be the frontrunner for the starting job in 2019.
In the meantime, he’s still a true freshman playing meaningful D1 football for the first time in his life. The greenness of Green showed Saturday. He wasn’t asked to do too much through the air, but he overthrew way too many receivers. Austin Walter and Austin Trammell were safety nets, ready for short completions to help their young passer. He just couldn’t get them the ball, particularly when faced with pressure.
The upside of Green couldn’t be any clearer than the Owls final drive before halftime. With 19 seconds on the clock Green hit two long passes, each to Austin Walter, driving the offense 50-yards in 16 seconds to set up a field goal as the clock expired.
Green was masterful on his fourth quarter touchdown, delivering a perfect pass over the top of the coverage and into the outstretched arms of Trammell (below). He doubled down, hitting Trammell on a 53-yard bomb for a touchdown on a fourth down scramble.
— SWC Round-Up (@swcroundup) November 3, 2018
It took him a while to knock off the dust and get going. He finished 17-of-32 for 313 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. There’s no doubt he has a long way to go, but Green is going to be a very good quarterback. Give him time.
4. Optics matter, to an extent
There were several recruits on campus for this game who were looking to see signs of progress from Rice on Saturday. Letting the clock expire as big losers on your home field would have been a bad look, to say the least. The fact that this ended up being a close game doesn’t impact the box score but does go a long way for those watching.
Simply put, perception is important. The administration that hired Bloomgren and helped put this team together understands and believes in the process. The decision makers are not going to make hasty decisions and bail on this team, nor should they.
But recruiting isn’t a battle for the well-reasoned administrators, it’s a fight for 17-year-old and 18-year-old kids. Thankfully in Rice’s case, the Owls are targetting those who, hopefully, can look past an immediate result and understand the bigger picture. That bigger picture includes an offense which, when the second half rolled around, proved it has the pieces to move the ball effectively.
Several of the priority targets on the Owls’ 2019 and 2020 wish lists could contribute to this team right now. There are depth concerns at a variety of positions and the allure of early playing time and a unified culture are going to get some important signatures on National Signing Day. A loss to UTEP on your home field stings, and it should. Nevertheless, if Rice can make progress on the recruiting front despite the noise, things will get better.