Rice football found a way to keep it close, but the offense’s spark came too late to overcome a late deficit as the Owls fell to Marshall on Homecoming.
A win on Homecoming against Marshall was something Rice football desperately needed to snap a grueling streak of losses. Like seemingly every other game this season, the game was close into the second half. When both teams looked up at the scoreboard at the start of the fourth quarter they saw a two-score game with plenty of time remaining.
This one ended the same way the others had to this point in the season, with Rice falling short on the scoreboard. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
1. Hello, Jovoni Johnson
Things were pretty clear during the week that Wiley Green was not going to start this game, regardless of the health of quarterback Tom Stewart. After Stewart’s limited availability in practice, his status entering Saturday was very much so up in the air. As reported on Friday, that left JoVoni Johnson as the most likely alternative should Stewart be unable to go.
Stewart warmed up but it was Johnson who started the game and played all but one snap, leaving briefly for one play after getting the wind knocked out of him on a hit. The coaching staff raved about his athletic ability throughout fall camp and liked how he’d progress in recent weeks.
In his first outing as the Rice football starting quarterback, Johnson played well. As long as he was on the field, the offense had life. When Tom Stewart took over, the offense fizzled. He completed one of his nine passes, ending promising drives with nothing to show for it.
Limited possessions didn’t do anything to help the young quarterback find his rhythm, but the simplified scheme and some plus running lanes provide by the offensive line aided him in his first career start. After starting 8-of-9 passing for 77 yards, No. 3 went on to complete 10/17 passes for 97 yards and one touchdown. He added 65 yards rushing with his legs. Perhaps even more importantly, he committed no turnovers.
2. Redzone warriors
The Rice defense almost singlehandedly kept the team in the game last weekend against Southern Miss. The Eagles reached the redzone four times but only found the endzone once in those possessions. The same sort of pattern emerged early against Marshall. The Herd got into the redzone twice in the first quarter alone but left with just three points. For the game, they managed two touchdowns on four redzone possessions.
Linebacker Adrian Bickham was the star of the first Marshall redzone drive. One of three true freshmen to play in every game this season, Bickham reached up and knocked down the Justin Rohrwasser’s first field goal of the day.
A strategy of keeping the offense in front of them, which they’ve achieved more often than not this season, has lent itself to this sort of bend-but-don’t-break style of defense. At the very least, they’ve softened the blow of some of C-USA’s most powerful offenses, giving the Owls’ own offense a chance.
3. Not the best day for the Rice secondary
The mandate given to this team by the coaching staff has been constant all season: don’t turn the ball over on offense and don’t let the ball go over your head on defense.
The former has been the sticking point for the Owls this season. Several quarterbacks have been cycled through to fix the problem. The latest, Johnson, did not turn the ball over on Saturday. With that half of the mandate delivered finally delivered, the secondary struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
Green was masterful through the air against the Owls. He completed 17-of-22 passes for 269 yards and one touchdown. He hit several long plays, including a 63-yard strike to Xavier Gaines who was tackled at the one-yard line, setting up a touchdown run from Brenden Knox. On the next possession, Green hit Talik Keaton over the top for a 19-yard score.
The secondary was able to clamp down in the second half, limiting Green’s effectiveness. But the points scored in the first half proved to be too many for the Owls’ own offense to overcome.
4. In search of playmakers
Marshall tight end Armani Levias and running back Brenden Knox were difference makers in this game. When the Herd needed a big play, one of those delivered time and time again. In fact, six different Marshall players had a play from scrimmage of 18-yards or more.
Reliable slot man Austin Trammell was the only non-quarterback to gain 18 yards on a single play for the Owls. Bradley Rozner came close, hauling in a 17-yard reception. But those are the two names we’ve come to expect to make plays from on offense this season.
Rice needs somebody else to step up. Johnson helped fill the void, picking up several first downs with his legs. Juma Otoviano had his best day running on the season but was held to 66 yards on the ground. With Johnson at the controls, the offense was better today, but its upside could rise dramatically if someone else can generate a few more chunk plays of their own.
5. Is it too much to ask for both?
Against Southern Miss, the Rice defense pitched a near-shutout through 59 minutes against one of the best offenses in Conference USA. On Saturday against Marshall, that same defense looked a step slow and far less consistent than they’d been to this point in the season. The offense looked promising, hindered by Johnson leaving the game twice in big moments.
That’s been the story of the 2019 Rice Football season in miniature. The defense wows while the offense goes quietly. Then when the offense has their moments, the defense is good, but not quite as proficient as we’ve come to expect. Special teams has ebbed and flowed, too.
If Rice puts its best product on the field, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have at least one, if not multiple conference wins. To this point, the Owls’ worst enemy has been themselves. They know that but have thus far been unable to find the right combination of all three phases to win.
The law of averages would suggest that Rice will find that combination. With three games left, they’re running out of time.
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