Rice football has yet to win this season. Favorites for the first time, the Owls know Saturday’s game at UTSA is as close to a must-win game as it could get.
Two weeks removed from what was “supposed to be [the Owls’] breakout game” against Louisiana Tech, the level of focus around South Main has only intensified.
Rice lost that game to the Bulldogs despite never trailing in regulation. Another loss the following week to UAB dropped the team’s record to 0-6. On the brink of an early elimination from bowl eligibility, no one in the program has any illusions about the importance of their upcoming game with UTSA.
Team captain Austin Trammell, who declared the LA Tech loss the missed breakout opportunity, didn’t mince his words: “It’s now or nothing,” he said. “There’s no more waiting around. We gotta win this game.”
Starting quarterback Wiley Green says the mindset of the team is exactly that. “We’re tired of the moral victories. We’re past that,” he said, “We gotta win. We gotta find a way to win.”
For Rice football, an off week prior to what has become a crucial “gotta win” game was incredibly important. The team has done a lot of things well, but this week was about fixing the stumbling blocks on both sides of the ball which have prevented them from taking three games that were within one score in fourth quarter and turning them into wins.
On offense, the team has looked at formations, playcalling and third downs. They diagnosed what they need to do to limit turnovers and generate explosive plays. On defense, they’ve focused on eliminating vertical plays, staying fundamentally sound in the running game and getting off the field on third down.
They’re doing the right things. Rice football is a better team right now than they were last year, and last week, for that matter. But like coach Mike Bloomgren consistently refrains, wins are the currency that determines that success.
“We are getting better,” Bloomgren said of his team this week. “It is time, in my mind, for it to show.”
When pressed on what better looked like this week, Bloomgren was crystal clear. “To say we’re making progress in this game is probably to win it, quite frankly.” he declared. “I want our process from Monday to the game to be as good as we can make it for the kids and preparing them. And then I want them to go out and play. That’s it. I want to play really well and I want them to have a heck of a party in the locker room. Because they’ve earned it.”
For this first time this season, oddsmakers favor the winless Rice football to beat its opponent. Rice hasn’t been favored on the road since they were 4.5-point favorites over UTEP on Nov. 6, 2015. They haven’t won a true road game since they beat that same UTEP team in El Paso on Sep 9, 2017.
When the betting markets opened, Rice was a three-point favorite. The line has ballooned to as high as 5.5 points in some books in the hour prior to kickoff. UTSA is without their starting quarterback. The Roadrunners haven’t beaten an FBS team other than UTEP since they beat Rice in Houston last season. And that game wasn’t particularly close.
“This is the week. It’s gotta be” said Rice linebacker coach Scott Vestal who oversees what has arguably become the best unit on the team this season. If Rice is going to win, it’s going to need big days from star linebackers Blaze Alldredge, Antonio Montero and hybrid linebacker/safety Treshawn Chamberlain. They’ll need points, quite possibly more than 15.7 points they’ve averaged per game this season.
Rice needs a complete game. Each phase — offense, defense and special teams — need to come together and play at a level they’ve proven themselves capable of playing. And they need to do it for four quarters.
And even if none of those things happen to the degree they’d like, they need to find a way. They must. They gotta win.