Rice Football hits an open week in need of an introspective look. The Owls must make their extra week of preparation as productive as possible.
There’s hardly even been an off week that didn’t come at the right time. If the team is winning, the rest offers time for injured players to return and the team to rest up for another string of games. If the team isn’t, it’s a respite from the toil and time to reassess. Rice football finds itself in the latter rather position than the former.
Owners of an 0-6 record, what the team does with this week will reverberate for months to come.
“I think this bye is going to be a defining moment for us,” linebacker Blaze Alldredge said following the UAB loss. “Hopefully we can use it as a turning point in our season. I know the coaches are going to do their best to help us do that and it’s going to be on us players to keep the right mindset and treat this bye week like professionals and come the week after ready to play.”
Coming back ready to play starts with an honest assessment of where the team has left off.
Where the Owls stand
Among their Conference USA peers, Rice has the tenth-most efficient offense, ninth-most efficient defense and the fifth most efficient special teams. SP+, an opponent-adjusted metric meant to evaluate the entire team as a whole, pegs the Owls as the 12th best team in C-USA.
Those numbers highlight what most have been able to digest from watching the team play this year. There are facets of all three phases that have been undeniably great — but hitting those highpoints consistently has been a challenge.
As they search for their first win, the team knows they’re capable of so much more. Bloomgren knows it too.
“I’m so glad we’re going into an open week so we can get better at some real fundamental things that we’ve just got to continue to work through,” he said, “I still think there’s a lot in the future of this football team. I certainly don’t think this any kind of death sentence or anything like that. What I do think is if we work, we’re going to win some games. And I don’t know how many. But if we position ourselves and work our butts off for the next two weeks, it should start then.”
It gets easier from here
That first win might not be far off. The difficulty of the nonconference schedule has been well documented, but the quality of the opponents that remain on the Rice football schedule has taken a noticeable dip too. Here are the first six opponents:
Army | 3-2
No. 11 Texas | 4-1
No. 19 Wake Forest | 5-0
No. 22 Baylor | 5-0
LA Tech | 4-1
UAB | 4-1
Three of them are ranked in the most recent AP Poll. Two of them are undefeated. Altogether, the Owls’ first six opponents are 25-5 with losses to LSU, Texas, Michigan, current C-USA leader WKU and current AAC leader Tulane. That’s a sterling resume.
Contrast that to the road ahead:
UTSA | 2-3
Southern Miss | 3-2
Marshall | 2-3
MTSU | 2-3
North Texas | 2-3
UTEP | 1-4
The next six opponents on the schedule have six combined victories over FBS teams with wins over UTEP (twice), Troy, Ohio, Marshall and UTSA. One of those teams has a record of .500 or better (Southern Miss) and that includes wins over Alcorn State and UTEP. That’s a stark difference from what the Owls have faced so far in which no opponent has yet to lose multiple times in regulation.
The next two weeks will be a gut check for the Owls on both sides of the football. Senior Aston Walter says “It starts with looking in the mirror,” adding that he’ll “never put a defined ceiling on what this team can be.” If the team can take to heart that message, the next coming weeks of Rice football should offer more promising results than the first portion of the season.
Tweaks, not overhauls
Rice isn’t going to fully reboot on either side of the ball, rather they’ll work to perfect what has already paid early rewards.
On the offensive side of the ball, identifying ways to ensure open running lanes in the second half of games will be paramount. Aston Walter has broken off two long touchdown runs in the past two games, but both came early in the game. What does Rice need to change, if anything, schematically to ensure those runs can pop later in the game too?
The passing game has been better, but protecting the quarterback should be a priority. Keeping Wiley Green upright will enable the offense to be more efficient as a whole.
A more decisive pass rush would go a long way for the defense. The Owls have gotten pressure, but haven’t gotten home consistently. That’s led to added strain on the secondary.
Defensively, Rice has probably had two of their better performances under Bloomgren in the last three weeks (LA Tech, Baylor). The offense has been their best in the first halves of the games against LA Tech and UAB. If the team can find a way to sustain those good things and iron out the inefficiencies, this team could get a lot better, quickly.
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