Rice Football tussled with the Army Black Knights on Friday night at Michie Stadium, narrowly falling in a one-score game decided in the final minutes.
Rice football entered Friday’s tilt with Army as underdogs. The Knights were coming off an 11-win season and came close to being ranked in the first edition of the AP Poll. Rice had won twice in their past 13 games and was playing far away from home. From the first snap, neither of those converging storylines seemed to matter.
Not once did Rice look out of place or overwhelmed. The Owls went toe to toe with the Black Knights, sparring with their service academy foes and looking every bit their equals. Army sustained one lengthy scoring drive, never finding a rhythm on offense thanks to the swarming white-clad Owls defense.
Here are a few takeaways from the Owls’ season opener.
1. The new-look defense is ready to play
— Rice Football (@RiceFootball) August 30, 2019
Like Carter and I discussed on The Roost Podcast, Army likes to roll the dice and go for it on fourth down more often than most teams. Coach Jeff Monken put that to the test early, opting to go for it on fourth and one inside their own 10-yard line on the Knights’ first drive. Myles Adams blew up the play in the backfield and Treshawn Chamberlain finished the stop.
The theme of bigger, stronger and faster was talked about throughout the offseason. Still, it was hard to know how much of a difference that would make on the field until Rice hit someone wearing a different colored jersey. Rice opened the Army game with a statement and continued to out-muscle their foes for the duration of the contest.
2. He’s back!
Rice knew their time with the football was going to be disjointed because of the nature of the Army offense. The Knights had limited success with the ball early. The Rice offense missed a golden opportunity to set the tone and force their opponents into an uncomfortable position and were forced to play from behind, just not for long.
Nahshon Ellerbe, who led Rice in rushing in 2017 before injuries kept him on the bench for almost the entirety of the 2018 season, provided the equalizer.
— Rice Football (@RiceFootball) August 30, 2019
Ellerbe is one of the most physically imposing players on the team. His potential was brought up in a conversation with Bloomgren during fall camp. Bloomgren mentioned he’d seen all the highlight videos of what he could do in the open field but had never watched him run on the field with his own eyes.
Well, Bloomgren has seen Ellerbe now. And so has a packed Michie stadium. Ellerbe’s touchdown run woke the offense up out of their slow start and gave the Rice sideline a much-appreciated confidence boost. He went on to finish the game with nine carries for 103 yards and the aforementioned touchdown run.
3. A mixed bag on special teams
Continuity was the buzzword for the Rice special teams throughout the offseason. The Owls were replacing Ray Guy semifinalist Jack Fox and veteran placekicker Haden Tobola. They hoped to keep things rolling by transitioning former running backs coach Drew Svoboda to special teams coordinator.
Under Svoboda’s direction, the special teams were a mixed bag. Punter Adam Nunez, who transferred to Rice after starting at TCU for three seasons, was phenomenal. His first punt went 61 yards and his second went 51. Both balls pinned Army inside their own 10-yard line, giving Rice a huge edge in field position.
Chris Barnes got a turn to start the third quarter before Nunez came back in, downing two more punts inside the 10-yard line. He was as perfect as you could ask a punter to be.
The placekicking was a different story. Will Harrison missed a 26-yard chip shot and a 44-yard attempt in the first half. Had he converted either of those, Rice could have walked into halftime with the lead. Freshman kicker Zack Hoban was expected to challenge Harrison for the starting job but had a brace on his non-kicking foot during practice this week. Once Hoban is healthy the competition should resume.
4. Offense remains a work in progress
On a night in which the defense dominated, the offense led by quarterback Wiley Green struggled to consistently move the ball. The Owls did not show a noticeable improvement from their third down struggles from a year ago, converting three times in 11 opportunities.
Green completed seven of 15 passes for 62 yards. He had some pretty balls downfield, connecting on a big play to Austin Trammell in the first half but for the most part seemed to leave a lot on the field.
His passes had plenty of zip but lacked accuracy. He was off on two screen passes which effectively halted separate drives. The run-focused game plan seemed to inhibit his ability to get into a groove.
The running game was more or less efficient, but there were definitely plays where the offensive line got a better push up front than others. When all the parts were working in concert, big holes appeared, setting up the backs for easy first downs. In addition to Ellerbe’s scamper, Aston Walter had a 24-yard run which was called back by a holding penalty.
5. This is a different team
Rice showed flashes of ability on both sides of the ball last season. In the end, that’s all it was though, flashes. The biggest question mark facing this team this year was always going to be their ability to play for four quarters and finish. One week into the 2019 season and the Owls have mustered some sort of answer.
Every phase isn’t running smoothly, but as a team, the 2019 Rice Owls are better than they were a season ago.
The heavy underdogs played mostly penalty-free football and had a quality opponent on the ropes on the road. Rice isn’t going to play the triple option every weekend, but the kind of defense they displayed on Friday night will travel.
It’s disappointing to leave West Point without a win, particularly with how close the game was from start to finish. Rice played well enough that they should feel scorned by the narrow defeat. That in itself is proof of a marked improvement.