Rice football enters the offseason riding high, knocking off UTEP on the road to win their third consecutive game for the first time since 2014.
The Rice football team who took the field on a blustery Saturday afternoon against UTEP never looked flustered, even when UTEP took a momentary lead. This team had become accustomed with adversity and put their learnings from the school of hard knocks to use, winning their third straight game. The last Rice team to win three and a row won six straight in 2014. The last Rice squad to win their final three came in 2013, a year which included a conference championship.
Here are a few immediate takeaways from another encouraging outing:
1. It’s not perfect, but the Owls have fixed their offense
For the first time since their road trip to Birmingham to face UAB, Rice football ended their first offensive possession in the endzone. Set up by an opportune special teams play and a short punt, the offense needed just three plays to traverse the 28 yards between them and a touchdown. Taking the 7-0 lead kept their first-half momentum going. It also quickly ended the Miners’ hopes of a reprisal of last year’s 27-0 onslaught that put the Owls in a massive hole before their offense woke up.
UTEP would answer with a defensive touchdown, putting the onus back on Rice to keep their foot on the gas. Not only did Rice respond with a score, they marched 67 yards in a little less than three minutes, capping things off with a 30-yard touchdown run by sixth-year senior Aston Walter.
Going to miss watching the Walter brothers work. Another big run by Aston!pic.twitter.com/9WuEYxCpCR
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 30, 2019
Whether they’re at home or on the road, the past three games have given ample reason to believe the early-season woes of the Rice offense are a thing of the past. They’ve scored on the ground and through the air. They’ve mixed in some razzle-dazzle and some no-nonsense, run-you-over physicality.
Zane Knipe hauled in a 42-yard bomb for his first career reception. JoVoni Johnson looked electric in select packages, including his first career touchdown and a second score to ice the game in the fourth quarter.
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 30, 2019
All told, the Owls finished with 30 points (16 of which came after halftime) and 371 total yards. That’s a long way from a seven-point, 243-yard outing this same team had in their season opener against Army.
2. There are no “gimmes” in Conference USA
Rice football won their prior two games in upset fashion, ending any bowl aspirations for both Middle Tennessee and North Texas. They took Louisiana Tech to overtime. In their only other game as a favorite this season, they squandered a fourth-quarter lead, falling to UTSA on the road. Notice any rhyme or reason to those results? Not really.
The Owls have been playing well in all phases, but there are no “gimmes” in Conference USA. The talent level gap between the upper tier and lower tier teams is nowhere near the chasm that exists in some other conferences around the country. Nobody can throw the ball out on the field and win games with willpower alone. It takes focus, execution and good coaching. Every Saturday.
The tone in the locker room matched this mindset all week. Leading receiver Brad Rozner was direct with his viewpoint of the game at hand: “We haven’t really done much. All we’ve done really is win two games.” Rice wasn’t overlooking UTEP, but even well-prepared, winning this game on the road against a team desperate to find any way to finish on top was always going to be hard. Credit Rice with this: for the third time in three weeks, they found a way to win.
3. The jury is still out on the Owls’ third down defense
From the box score alone, the defensive performance seemed presentable. The Rice defense allowed 10 points (none after halftime) with only one touchdown drive to a UTEP offense that put up five touchdowns last weekend. But after turning UTEP away on their first third down of the game, Rice allowed their opponents to convert five of their next seven third downs.
It was the defense’s inability to get off the field that proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the Rice offense. Rice had two offensive possessions in the second quarter while UTEP controlled the ball for 11:29 of the 15 minutes of play.
To some degree, an injury to Kai Locksley helped Rice solve their third down problems. The Miners’ starters left the game on the final drive before halftime with a wrist injury. UTEP looked lost without their dual-threat quarterback at the helm, going three and out twice and picking up just two third down conversions after halftime.
Rice can’t control injuries, but they can control their own defensive effort. The second half performance was a fantastic response, enabling Rice not only to take the lead but to extend it.
4. The no-quit attitude is paying off
Someone asked an interesting question during a mailbag segment on The Roost Podcast earlier this season: how many plays is Rice football from a winning record? The Owls were 0-6 at the time but had played well in their losses. After pondering things for a moment, Carter and I concluded they were probably only seven or eight plays from three wins, which could have potentially included Army and Baylor, currently ranked ninth in the nation.
Plenty was questioned during the 0-9 start. The effort wasn’t. The team was ready in the fourth quarter, physically prepared to do battle for a full 60 minutes. In theory, those close games would begin to balance out. The Owls had lost a disproportionate amount of nail-biters. They were “due”.
The Owls’ effort never waned. The results have been as good as they could have imagined and should give plenty of optimism for what this team will be able to accomplish in 2020 and beyond.
5. Don’t miss the trees for the forest
An old adage would warn us not to miss the forest for the trees. Although undoubtedly sage advice, the inverse is also true, particularly for the current Rice football team.
The talk of “big picture” plans and building for the future have been ubiquitous as the team endured an onslaught of near misses and close losses. Patience was preached. There will be plenty of time to break down the wide-angled view of where this program is and where it’s going. Today, focus on the most immediate results.
Rice has won three games in a row against Conference USA opponents. Two of those victories came on the road. Three wins is short of where this program wants to be, but let’s not lose sight of the accomplishments the Owls have achieved in the past month. After winning twice in their first 22 games (.091 winning percentage), Rice is a perfect 3-3 after their bye week.
All those hopes and dreams of the program Mike Bloomgren and his staff are working to build? It’s become a reality over the past several weeks. We don’t have to theorize how they’ll win in 2020. They’ve already proven it can be done. In the midst of a particularly dark stretch, Rex Ryan challenged an 0-9 team to win three-straight. They did. Rice football has finally taken flight.
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