Another hard-fought nonconference game ended in defeat for Rice football who couldn’t rally from an early deficit against the Baylor Bears.
Rice football concluded their nonconference slate with their second straight bout with an in-state opponent. Baylor struck first but the Owls mounted a comeback which fell just short. Here are a few immediate takeaways from the game:
1. Shortening the game worked
When the first quarter ended Rice and Baylor were locked in a one-score game and the sun was still hanging in the sky. Despite the 6:00 p.m. kick, the Owls were able to fit an entire quarter in, and then some, before the stadium lights were needed. This is a theme we’ll see throughout this season.
The offense picked up three first downs in the first quarter and possessed the ball for a little more than five minutes. The defense bent, but only allowed the one touchdown. The formula in the second quarter was the same, with the Owls finding more success on offense — including their first successful field goal of the season.
Recruiting update | Owls gaining ground on priority targets
A week removed from giving up four consecutive touchdown drives against Texas with zero offensive points, Rice put a much more competitive product on the field and kept the score close, so close in fact that the Owls found themselves in a one-score game in the fourth quarter against a team most expected to run away from them.
2. Ground game goes quietly, again
Rice averaged 6.0 yards per carry in their season opener against Army. That included a long touchdown run by Nahshon Ellerbe, but even without the big gain, the Owls had success moving the ball on the ground. Since that Friday night, it’s been more than tough sledding.
The Owls tallied 67 rushing yards against Wake Forest, 87 against Texas and 64 against Baylor. For an offense that professes to live and die on pounding the rock, they were considerably less productive with the ground game controlled.
The opponents who were able to quiet the Owls’ rushing attack are all more talented and athletic than Army. They’re also more capable in the trenches than the remaining opponents on the schedule. Prior to Saturday, Rice hasn’t had an answer when the ground game isn’t working. The Owls needed the passing game to rise up, and it did.
3. This defense is going to win something
It might not be a championship (this year) but the Rice defense has proven themselves good enough to win games. Aside from a 50-yard touchdown against busted coverage — something which hasn’t happened as often this year as it did last year — the Rice defense played extremely well. In their previous two first halves, Baylor had scored 35 points against UTSA and 35 against SFA. Rice allowed 21.
Denzel Mims and RJ Sneed tallied 20 receptions for 244 yards and five touchdowns in their first two games. Rice held that duo to 126 yards and no scores on nine receptions.
Rice stopped Baylor on fourth down in this game, forcing a fumble in the process. They picked up another fumble on a botched exchange in the second quarter and should have gotten points off that turnover as well, but Chris Barnes missed the field goal.
Baylor hit a long pass down the sideline on their first possession of the third quarter. The defense responded by shutting down a wide receiver pass and stripping Brewer of the ball for their third forced fumble of the game.
3. Sustained drives make a difference
Getting to third and short has been a challenge for Rice. The Owls faced 18 third downs and converted eight of them. Five of those third downs were four yards or shorter. They converted four of those five. A good portion of that was the lack of effectiveness in the running game, but the passing game wasn’t consistent enough to set the Owls up in third and short often either.
Third down was a problem for this offense last year and a major factor in their inability to control games. Against Baylor, Rice converted three consecutive third downs on two separate occasions. Both possession ended with redzone field goals.
Better still, Rice found ways to move the ball before they found themselves in third down. Tom Stewart’s touchdown run came on the heels of a third and one conversion by Austin Walter.
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4. The special teams dilemma
Bloomgren declined to make any public decisions regarding the placekicking entering Saturday’s contest. We saw incumbent Will Harrison come on and convert from 28 yards and 24 yards. Punter and team captain Chris Barnes missed late in the game from 44 yards.
Last year we saw Rice deploy a similar platoon situation. Jack Fox handled long field goals and Hayden Tobola kicked from roughly inside 40 yards.
Zach Hoban handled kickoffs against Baylor. He could be in the mix here as well once he’s fully recovered from an injury which kept him out of the first three games. Bottom line, this situation is still pretty hazy and we might not get clairt for a while.
5. The quarterback dilemma
Here are the final lines for both quarterbacks
Wiley Green | 13-of-23 passing for 128 yards
Tom Stewart | 5-of-8 passing for 50 yards with a 21-yard rushing touchdown
Green didn’t do much with his first two possessions of the game, ceding to Stewart as planned for the third series. Stewart made the most of his opportunity, connecting on two big third down throws, positioning Rice for two field goal attempts. Understandably, Bloomgren rode the hotter hand and kept Stewart in for the remainder of the first half.
Green started out the second half and was noticeably galvanized by the competition. He picked up a first down with his legs and drove the Owls the length of the field into the redzone ore the offense stalled. Stewart didn’t take a snap in the third quarter thanks to Green’s early success. Then Stewart reentered the game after Green got hit and promptly ripped off the 21-yard touchdown run.
Now Bloomgren is in a pickle. Both quarterbacks had their moments. At halftime I would have said Stewart was the better option. Then Green rallied in the second half. Conference play starts next week and it doesn’t look like Rice will have one definitive answer at the quarterback position.
5. No more mulligans. Conference play is here.
Slow starts have maligned the Rice offense through nonconference play. The defense has looked sharp, if not excellent. Next week those early themes will be put to the test in the first conference game of the season. An 0-4 start can fade quickly if Rice can find a way to reinvigorate the offense and keep the defense humming.