Rice football was within one score in the fourth quarter but couldn’t keep pace with Louisiana Tech, falling on the road in Week 11.
Rice traded punches with Louisiana Tech, alternate scores for most of the night right up until the fourth quarter. Hayden Tobola knocked through a pair of field goals and Austin Walter delivered the Owls’ longest touchdown of the season.
Too many turnovers (three) and another poor outing on third down (3-for-15) marred a hard-fought effort that came up short on the road. Here are a few immediate thoughts:
1. Stay in the ring
Head coach Mike Bloomgren said his team was “mentally highjacked” through the first two quarters against UTEP. The Owls’ opponent hit a big play and instantly sucked the energy out of the team. They got it back after halftime, but by then it was too late, the deficit had grown too wide.
The challenge entering the Louisiana Tech game was simple: stay in the ring. Louisiana Tech was going to land some punches, the question was how would Rice respond?
This week assistant head coach Pete Lembo said his team needs to find 11 guys on each side of the field that don’t blink, guys that are able to go onto the next play and put the past behind him. They might not have two sets of 11 yet, but they have one: Prudy Calderon
Calderon saw a pass sneak through his grasp for a 34-yard gain that put Louisiana Tech into Rice territory. On the very next play, Calderon squared up another deep pass, intercepting it and returning it 30 yards.
The two plays were a microcosm of what Intellectual Brutality is supposed to be. Their opponent threw a haymaker. Rice punched back.
2. Quarterback play
Rice has been dealt a rough hand when it comes to the health of their quarterbacks this season. Shawn Stankavage, Evan Marshman and Wiley Green have all seen meaningful snaps. Marshman is out for the season with a hand injury leaving Stankavage, Green and Jackson Tyner the remaining options at quarterback.
Stankavage overcame what was initially diagnosed as a season-ending injury to return to the field against Louisiana Tech. Some rust from the month away from the field was expected, what wasn’t expected was a steady dose of Parker Towns. The scout team quarterback for much of the year, Towns was involved on several apparent read-option plays, completing one pass for 10 yards.
He was mixed in throughout the game, partly because of the up and down play of Stankavage. As Stankavage settled in the Owls offense picked up. His best pass of the night came on the first drive of the second half, a 68-yard bomb to Austin Walter which gave the Owls a 10-7 lead.
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) November 11, 2018
Stankavage finished 18-of-32 passing for 216 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He had his moments, but his tendency to force passes and turn the ball over is an issue that needs to be addressed.
3. What happened to the rushing attack?
Rice began the season committed to the run game and while they haven’t gone away from the ground the effectiveness has declined. They averaged 201.6 yards per game on the ground through their first five games and 77.4 yards per game in their next five. They’ve had eight fewer carries per game in the second half, but the production has dropped precipitously.
Things didn’t improve on the ground against Louisiana Tech. Rice carried the ball 29 times for 100 yards with Aston Walter leading the way with a career-high with 17 carries. Austin Walter, Emmanuel Esukpa, Nashon Ellerbee, and Juma Otoviano had all been featured at different points this season, but all rushers outside of Walter combined for 28 yards on the ground.
The offensive line has been hit or miss, and not even the elusiveness of the Walter brothers has been enough to spark the running game. Wildcat packages have been scattered in. For the most part, they haven’t been born significant fruit either. This is meant to be a run-first offense and the inability to make headway on the ground is frustrating.
4. There’s still too much bend in the Rice defense
Rice was strong up the middle for the majority of this game. The defensive line limited the yards Louisiana Tech was able to get on the ground, with the exception of three drive-ending touchdown runs by Louisiana Tech running back Jaqwis Dancy.
In all three instances, Louisiana Tech picked up a first down in the redzone and the Rice defense was scrambling back to get set. Dancy capitalized, bursting through the line and getting into the endzone from 11-yards, 1-yard and 18-yards out.
The same give and take way visible through the air. The Rice corners played a strong game but were victims of a few big plays down the field. There have been games where opposing wide receivers ran free and torched this defense with ease. There were defensive lapses against Louisiana Tech too, but there were also some incredible catches made by Louisiana Tech receivers.
The biggest play was a 49-yard snag by Adrian Hardy. The coverage wasn’t perfect and Hardy made the challenging catch. Dancy scored on the next play.
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) November 11, 2018
This defense is getting close to playing at a high level, but they’ve still got a ways to go.
5. All four quarters
Rice trailed Louisiana Tech by eight points midway through the fourth quarter. The offense hadn’t played perfect, neither had the defense. But this was a one-score game until the final minutes when Louisiana Tech put a late score on the board to put this game out of reach.
Playing four quarters has been the focal point of this team all season. After being outscored 70-3 in the first quarter in their last three road games against Louisiana Tech the Owls kept the score deadlocked at zero after one. Rice got the offense going in the second, missing a field goal, but going into the locker room down 7-3.
Rice got points in the third and fourth quarters, too. The defense struggled to hold, but they fought until the very end. Calderon had his second interception in the final two minutes and Rice responded with one more score. There is work to be done, but Rice played all four quarters. Finally.