Rice football is hurting after a seventh consecutive loss put hopes of a second-year resurgence for Mike Bloomgren’s squad on life support.
No confetti fell from the rafters following a victory formation kneel down by UTSA quarterback Lowell Narcisse. Instead, muted applause rose from a sparse crowd, one of the worst in program history. Hours after fans had posted videos of themselves burning tickets, UTSA won. A team in a rough spot had dealt a crushing blow to a team that finds itself in increasingly dire straights.
That’s what made Saturday’s loss feel like such a gut punch. Rice needed to win. Instead, their deficiencies proved too much to overcome and players and staff were left stunned.
“No idea. I don’t know.”
“We just invent ways to lose.”
“We did things to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Rice football players and staff were despondent in a locker room head coach Mike Bloomgren called “a morbid place right now” following an inexcusable loss to UTSA. Morbid sums up the outlook on a 2019 season which looked anything but a few short weeks ago.
The Owls exhibited failures against the Roadrunners that cannot be ignored. From snapping the football to managing timeouts, this team did too many things wrong — and still had a fourth quarter lead and one final drive to secure their first win. They came up short.
It’s hard to boil down the loss to a single item. As Bloomgren himself said after the game, “we all own this.” Still, three things stood out. Three things that have plagued the Owls all season and the duration of Bloomgren’s tenure at South Main. If Rice football wants to turn things around, these issues need to be addressed.
1. Quarterback play
Last year the Owls oscillated between grad transfer Shawn Stankavage, Evan Marshman, Jackson Tyner (very briefly) and eventual 2019 starter Wiley Green. That collective threw 16 interceptions and 13 touchdown passes.
Another grad transfer, Harvard’s Tom Stewart, was added to the fold this year. Stewart has proven himself to be a hard-nosed runner, but his decision making in high leverage situations has been woeful. An endzone interception against Louisiana Tech and back-to-back sacks to end any hopes of a Rice comeback on the Owls’ final drive against UTSA
Stewart was only in the game because starter Wiley Green had been benched. The redshirt freshmen did not see the field again after committing his third turnover of the day, a backbreaking pick-six on the first play of the second half.
True freshmen Jovoni Johnson saw his first action of the season against UTSA. He was one of three quarterbacks that took a snap on the Owls’ opening drive. Even if done with the best intentions, a tri-headed quarterback attack is far from the level of consistency desired from the most important position on the offense.
2. Inexplicable Turnovers
Sometimes defenses make plays. The Owls have had their moments on that side of the ball, too. But each of the turnovers Rice committed against UTSA were self-inflicted wounds.
Green had been consistent with the football through the air, but he had multiple hair raising moments in the first half including a pass thrown into the waiting hands of a UTSA defender which was dropped. The pick-six, his first turnover through the air this year, might have been forgivable had it not been for two of the most costly turnovers of the 2019 season to that point — both fumbled snaps by Green.
A game removed from a fumbled snap in the rain against UAB, Green’s snap struggles continued. Safety Naeem Smith had just made a heads up playing, snaring a tipped UTSA pass for an interception at the goal line. Rice took over in need of three feet for a touchdown. Green fumbled the snap, returning the ball to the Roadrunners. After a three and out, Green turned it over on a fumble snap again on the subsequent drive.
Rice was +1 in turnover margin in nonconference play, giving the ball away twice in four games. They’ve turned the ball over nine times in three conference games and have fallen to a -5 margin on the season.
3. Passive pass rush
UTSA quarterback Lowell Narcisse took over after starter Frank Harris was lost for the season in their fourth game. In three games of meaningful action, Narcisse completed less than 45 percent of his passes, threw for an average of 88 yards and had more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one).
Against Rice, Narcisse completed 65.5 percent of his passes, throwing for 212 yards and two touchdowns with one interception (which was more so the fault of his receiver than himself). Narcisse’s success came thanks in large part to a clean pocket and plenty of time to throw the football.
Rice registered a Conference USA worst 1.3 sacks per game last season, tallying 17 in 13 games. Through seven games in 2019, the Owls have maintained that dismal pace with eight sacks in seven games, a rate of 1.1 sacks per game.
The secondary hasn’t been lights out, but they’ve kept opposing pass catchers in front of them. No longer are the Owls’ opponents scoring 60+ yard touchdowns in bunches, but they are finding space in the defense, understandable when they can take all the time they need to scan the field.
Improvement was promised following a 2-11 “Year Zero” in 2018. If Rice football is to fulfill those expectations, they need to win three of their remaining five games. After what feels like an incalculable number of close calls, that task seems more daunting now than ever before.
The good news, if there is any, is many of the Owls’ shortcomings have been their own doing. If Rice can clean up their mistakes, they’ll have a chance to win down the stretch. No Conference USA opponent is an insurmountable juggernaut.
Bloomgren sounded heartbroken during a gloomy postgame press conference, but the characteristic fire that is ever apparent in his eyes was still there. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “My battery will wake up tomorrow and we’ll go.”
Where the Owls go from here could be the most pivotal moment of Bloomgren’s young head coaching career. As he sees it, “We’ve made progress; we want to make the progress that matters. We want to get one in the left column. And we’re going to keep working towards that.”
“I want to work now. I want to get better, as much improved as we can between now and next Saturday when we play Southern Miss.”
It’s going to be an uphill battle. Bloomgren won’t quit. And if he can keep his team with him in this low, low point, Rice football should have nowhere to go but up from here.