Rice football played a back-and-forth game with UTSA that came down to the wire. For the seventh time this season, the Owls couldn’t find a way to win.
The Owls knew winning on the road wasn’t going to be easy. UTSA fought from start to finish, taking the lead with a little more than four minutes to play. With Tom Stewart at the controls, the Owls drove the length of the field and came up just short. Here are a few immediate takeaways from another heartbreaking result for Rice football.
1. Making the off week count
Bloomgren said one of the main focuses of the off week was converting third and medium, specifically third and four-to-six yards. Last year the Owls were stuck in too many third and long situations. This year the team had improved their down and distance metrics, but their conversion rate was still lacking.
Rice had their first opportunity to prove their mettle in that scenario on the first drive of the game. Quarterback Wiley Green hit trustworthy slot receiver Austin Trammell on a quick slant and moved the chains. That drive finished in three points. After failing to score on the opening drive in their first four games, Rice has now scored on their first possession in three consecutive games.
Rice converted a season-best 64% (9-of-14) third downs against UTSA, going 3-for-4 on third downs of four-to-six yards. Outside of self-inflicted wounds, Rice controlled the clock and moved the ball on offense as well as they have all season.
2. Big play Brad
You won’t find many junior college players suiting up for Rice football. The academic rigors separating South Main from those institutions represent a sizable gulf which few will successfully traverse. Making it to campus doesn’t guarantee success either. Checkered is the track record of JUCO transfers across the nation. Some pan out, some don’t.
It’s safe to say Brad Rozner has been well worth the investment.
The nation’s leading touchdown man at the JUCO level in 2018 has been a yardage machine for Rice football this season. Concerns over his slender build and questions of his ability to play physical have been put aside. All he does is make plays.
Rozner drew six pass interference flags against UAB. Rather than play the ball, the Blazers elected to tackle the playmaker before he had the chance to make a play. UTSA was less fortunate. Green targeted Rozner downfield throughout Saturday’s game. The first big gain was wiped out by a penalty flag, but the next went for 55-yards, the longest completion for the Owls this season. Green would find Pitre in the endzone later on that drive, putting Rice up 10-7 at the halftime whistle.
Who else, but Rozner again to open up the second half scoring for the Owls? He muscled the ball away from a defender in the endzone for a 19-yard grab which put him past the century mark for the game. He finished with nine catches for 138 yards, leading the team in both statistics.
3. Plenty of things to clean up
Neither UTSA or Rice had scored more than three touchdowns in any game this season. There was a high likelihood that a score in the high 20’s or low 3o’s would be enough to win this game. Rice had their opportunity to carve off a big chunk of that total on their first drive, but had to settle for a field goal after August Pitre was unable to haul in an endzone target from Green. The ball bounced off his fingertips and Rice settled for three instead of seven.
The next offensive drive didn’t go quite as smoothly. Rice burned a timeout at the start of the second quarter before the Owls had run any offensive plays. Two plays later Jovoni Johnson, who had been inserted at quarterback, failed to get the snap off in time and Rice was flagged for delay of game.
But the most painful error came following that challenging drive. After punting the ball back to UTSA, fortune smiled on the Owls for a brief moment. Naeem Smith snagged a deflected Lowell Narcisse pass and gave the Rice offense the ball at the UTSA goal line. A bad exchange between center Brian Chaffin and Green turned the ball right back over to UTSA two plays later. That was the first of two fumbled snap turnovers for Rice in the second quarter.
Green committed his third turnover on the first play of the second half, throwing right into the arms of a UTSA defender who returned it for a UTSA touchdown.
4. Boom goes the offense and the special teams
Explosive plays weren’t something the Rice offense had proven particularly adept at generated this season. In their first six games, Rice tallied 14 plays of 20 or more yards, an average of 2.3 per game. Rice had five 20-yard plays against UTSA — and that’s excluding a 40-yard bomb to Rozner called back by penalty, Rozner’s 19-yard touchdown reception and another 19 yard catch by Rozner in the third quarter.
When Rice was able to sustain drives, the big plays were a regular occurrence. So much so that two of the offenses near the bottom of the conference ended up having a shootout in San Antonio.
Chris Barnes was a weapon in the punting game, downing two punts inside the five-yard line including a 66-yard missile.
The biggest play of all is credited to reserve linebacker Garrett Grammer. Behind Blaze Alldredge and Antonio Montero on a crowded depth chart, Grammer sees most of his playing time on special teams. Late in the third quarter with UTSA backed up on their own 25-yard line, the Roadrunners attempted a fake punt. The ball carrier never gained a yard thanks to Grammer, who snuffed out the fake and brought him down for a nine-yard loss. The offense scored two plays later.
5. Regression stings
Patience can only be preached for so long without results. Saturday night’s road contest against UTSA — a game in which Rice football was favored by 5.5 points at kickoff — marks the lowest point of the 2019 season. One could argue this 0-7 start is the most disappointing moment of the Mike Bloomgren era. This team has looked better than their 0-7 record but at some point, you are what your record says you are. And the Owls’ record says this program isn’t where it expected to be.
No man will take this disappointing result harder than Bloomgren. It was he who declared a loss in this game a sign that things the Owls were not making the progress he expected. He will be the one that has to look in the mirror and decipher why this team hasn’t found a way to finish.
Bloomgren has never made excuses; he’s never pointed fingers. He won’t start now. But he will show up to work on Monday ready to play Southern Miss. The inefficiencies and problems put on display against UTSA will lead to discussions and adjustments in the weeks to come. This coaching staff and this team won’t quit.
One game isn’t reason to dismiss weeks of positive signs, but it’s undeniable this team hasn’t lived up to expectations in 2019. And they’re running out of games to prove they can. Every game from this point onward just became that much more important.
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