One of the most valiant efforts from the Rice football defense this season went for naught as the Owls fell at home to Southern Miss.
Rice football has found ways to be in games well into the fourth quarter. The means to take the next step, to close games out and celebrate with a win, continue to stay just out of reach. The Owls found themselves in a familiar place on Saturday. They left with a familiar result: a loss in a game the Owls probably could have won.
1. Offense sleepwalks through the first half
Rice broke its scoring ceiling midway through the third quarter against UTSA, reaching 24 points for the first time this season. From that point on, the Rice offense was held to one field goal and 121 yards over the next three quarters.
Scoring droughts are nothing new for this offense, but the Owls had been limited to three points in three quarters only one other time this season, the first three quarters in a blowout loss to Texas on Sept. 14.
A touchdown on the second drive on the third quarter turned a lackluster offensive showing into a one-score game. For all their warts, the Owls had managed to do just enough to hang around in the fourth quarter. The Owls couldn’t finish.
2. Quarterback play disappoints
A later injury during the week to Tom Stewart caught everyone off guard, forcing Wiley Green back into the starting role days after he’d been told he’d be the team’s backup going forward. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of rust, with Green doing all he could to avoid pressure and give his receivers opportunities down the field.
Green handled every snap with no fumbles. When he threw downfield, it was to spots where only his guys could make plays on the ball. He had a few big plays go for naught thanks to penalties (or the lack thereof on a first quarter deep shot to Brad Rozner). If the charge was to play smart and not turn the ball over, Green certainly achieved those expectations — right up til the biggest moment of the game.
On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Green dropped back and was intercepted. That’s the third time this season a Rice quarterback has turned the ball over inside the 10-yard line. A touchdown in that situation would have tied the game, instead, the Owls walked away with no points in another crucial situation.
Green was benched immediately following the interception. Evan Marshman took over. That sets up a messy quarterback situation going forward. Who starts next week against Marshall? Stewart? Marshman? Green? Johnson? The lack of clarity 10 weeks into the season is agonizing.
3. Regaining some defensive swagger
A relatively positive defensive showing throughout nonconference play gave way to a somewhat inconsistent unit through the first three Conference USA games. The Owls played well on that side of the ball, but faltered in key moments, most notably in the final possessions against Louisiana Tech and UTSA.
Keeping Southern Miss out of the endzone was supposed to be a daunting task. The Eagles had scored 38, 47, 31, 45 and 30 points in games against non-SEC teams, scoring at least three touchdowns in each of those contests.
The defense started out strong, joining Alabama and Mississippi State as the only teams to hold Southern Miss to zero points in the first quarter this season. Southern Miss only managed 10 points at half and 20 at the end of regulation, 18.2 points fewer than their non-SEC season average (38.2).
Southern Miss had four redzone possessions, but only one touchdown. That came on a 2-yard carry by Kevin Perkins in the second quarter. The Rice defense is the reason this game remained winnable down the stretch.
4. Pass protection is still a problem
The infusion of graduation transfers into the Rice offensive line has rendered clear improvements from where the unit was at this point last season. The play up front has been better over the last few weeks, but their showing against Southern Miss was far from their best.
Rice quarterbacks were sacked eight times and forced to pay way too much attention to the pass rush. Scrambling became a necessity. The lack of clean pockets forced the quarterbacks to make most of their high-pressure throws on the move rather than with two feet on the ground.
The lack of impact plays in the running game put the Rice offense, once again, between a rock and a hard place. Rice struggled to run the ball and didn’t have the protection to make it through more than one or two reads in the passing game.
5. Another step backward
If Mike Bloomgren and company new before they game their defense would hold Southern Miss to 13 points through 59 minutes and stay even in the turnover battle they would have liked their chances. Sure enough, Rice was in this game to the very end. Again, the final score came up in favor of the Owls’ opponents.
Rice has done good things on both sides of the ball this season — we saw that again in this game — but they remain plagued by an inconsistent offense. Good teams will take all the lucky bounces they can get to push them over the edge. It sure feels like Rice needs those favorable bounces to have a chance at their first C-USA win this season.
The road ahead isn’t any easier. Marshall comes to town next weekend before Rice has their second off weekend of the year. If the Owls are going to turn things around and eclipse their C-USA win total from last season, they’re going to have to find a way to generate their own luck. Because right now, the sum total of the parts hasn’t found a way to get over the hump.
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