Rice football ended the 2018 season with an exclamation point, taking down Old Dominion on Senior Day for Mike Bloomgren’s first Conference USA win.
Rice scored two touchdowns in the first half. Old Dominion didn’t crack the endzone until the third quarter. Another stout defensive performance by the Owls parlayed with a few big-time plays from surprise starter Wiley Green sent the Owls into halftime with a 13-6 lead. They never looked back.
After falling behind 3-0 in the first quarter Rice rallied to outscore Old Dominion 20-7 over the remainder of the contest. On Senior Day with the weight of a potential second consecutive 1-win season overhead, Rice responded with their most complete performance of 2018.
1. Winner, winner
Rice started and ended the season with wins, the first time the Owls have bookended a year with victories since 2015. It was the Owls’ first conference win since they defeated UTEP on Sep. 9, 2017, their first home conference win since beating UTEP in 2016 and their first win over a CUSA East opponent since defeating Charlotte in 2016.
For Mike Bloomgren, the victory represents his second as a head coach and his first conference win with the Rice Owls. It was a long time coming, but the Owls can hold their heads high entering the offseason.
2. Let’s get big
There were more than a few naysayers when newly named head coach Mike Bloomgren advocated for Intellectual Brutality on South Main. The Owls were going to bring back the old days of power football in a sport dominated by the spread passing attack.
Early returns were frustrating. The offensive line took several games to gel, and it wasn’t until freshman Clay Servin and Cole Garcia won starting jobs that things began to slow down for the front five. It took a full season to work out the kinks, but the end result has been exactly what Bloomgren wanted in the trenches.
Rice lined up in the jumbo package in critical short yardage situations three times against LSU, converting all three attempts. They pulled out the stacked box again twice against Old Dominion and picked up two fourth down conversions on two tries. The Owls also scored their first touchdown of the day without a single receiver split out wide.
— SWC Round-Up (@swcroundup) November 24, 2018
They’ve done it with power runs, play action and a variety of creative playcalling. But most importantly, they’ve stacked the box and made one yard an automatic conversion. If this offense can do that consistently, they’re going to burn the clock and start to take over football games.
3. Rice is going to miss Austin Walter, but they have weapons to fill the void
Saturday marked the final time do-it-all playmaker Austin Walter will wear a Rice uniform. The Owls’ leading rusher and 400+ yard receiver capped off his career with a tremendous senior season, ending it with an exclamation point against Old Dominion. Walter finished the game with three receptions for 24 yards and two carries for seven yards.
The hole left by Walter in this offense is massive and will have to be filled by a handful of different players next season. Through the air, the Owls will need someone to step up. Freshman receivers Brendan Harmon and August Pitre were kept off the field for the bulk of the 2018 season with injuries. Both of those players, and a new face or two are going to be asked to play a meaningful role on the offense next season.
On the ground, Austin’s brother Aston Walter plans to return for one more season, pending a petition to the NCAA. The man to watch, though, is freshman running back Juma Otoviano. The Owls’ wildcat quarterback this year, will undoubtedly be given a more prominent role.
Otoviano was given his first career start against Old Dominion. Entering the game with 140 yards rushing in his collegiate career, Otoviano exploded for a career-best 224 yards. His day was highlighted by two breakaway touchdowns — the longest an 80-yard scamper — the longest score for Rice this season. His second touchdown was “only” 62 yards.
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) November 24, 2018
4. Wiley Green is the future at the quarterback position
During practice this week Bloomgren hinted we might see a heavy dosage of freshman quarterback Wiley Green. In three appearances this season Green threw for 525 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions and a touchdown on the ground.
The rationale for Green’s return to the bench was two-fold. First, Bloomgren refused to let his starting quarterback be Wally Pipped. He reinserted Shawn Stankavage back into the lineup as soon as he was healthy enough to play. Stankavage started twice, throwing for 216 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions against Louisiana Tech and 101 yards against LSU.
Second, the newly instituted redshirt rule allows players to play four games and still retain four years of eligibility. After sitting in the Owls’ past two contests Green will keep his redshirt.
All the maneuvering aside, Green doesn’t look to be relinquishing the starting job anytime soon. He threw for 96 yards with a rushing touchdown against Old Dominion before leaving the game with an injury midway through the third quarter. Green gives this offense a downfield threat with surprising mobility, opening up lanes for the Owls’ talented running backs. Green should be the presumptive favorite to be the starter heading into 2019.
5. The team that played ODU on Saturday should have won a few more games
Work in progress has been the tagline for the Rice football team through the 2018 season. Changing a culture and rebuilding from the ground up takes time, something not commonly afforded in today’s sports landscape. This team took several steps forward, a few more steps backward before finally arriving at the end of the road at 2-11.
To some extent there is truth in Bill Parcell’s most infamous one-liner: “You are what your record says you are.” The final line on the 2018 season says Rice is a 2-win football team. That’s a far cry from where this staff wants it to be, but it’s already twice as far as last year’s 1-win squad.
The truth buried in the wins and losses hides a lot of the growing pains it took for this squad to arrive where they’re at today. The team that beat Old Dominion on Saturday had the benefit of a full season of seasoning, experience and growth.
If Rice had the chance to replay this campaign with the knowledge and practice they’ve picked up along the way they probably pick up a few more wins, but that’s not how this game works. You get one shot, then it’s on to the next. Rice is better than their 2-win record and the building blocks are in place for significant improvement in their record going forward — something the Owls hope to bear out on the field in 2019 and beyond.