Rice football almost rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat Middle Tennessee before an infamous bad bounce soured the Owl’ opener.
Things started off well for Rice football in their season opener against Middle Tennessee. The Owls received the opening kick off, marched down the field and took the lead. The Owls defense was able to hold Asher O’Hara at bay early, but the inexperienced secondary was soon under fire as Rice went into halftime trailing 14-13 courtesy of two long O’Hara touchdown passes.
Middle Tennessee hit some deep passes in the second half, but the Rice defense was able to hold their own and keep the team in the game. The Owls were able to claw back from a two-score deficit and get one more crack at the win in the final minutes. Rice took over trailing 31-26 with 2:24 to play.
The Owls went forwards, then they went backward. Then Mike Collins found Austin Trammell up the middle for 48 yards and again for the go-ahead touchdown. Pushed to the brink, Rice rallied to take the lead. MTSU would force overtime where Rice had the chance to win… then this happened:
I hate this.pic.twitter.com/gKukv2GwiZ
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 24, 2020
This stunk. Here’s what we learned.
Mike Collins is a baller
There was a lot of good things said about Rice quarterback Mike Collins as he progressed through the spring and into fall camp. He’s taken command of the offense well and understands the protection schemes and the system. The biggest question mark going into the year was his accuracy, a problem in the spring which had looked better in fall camp.
Collins completed just two of his first 10 passes against Middle Tennessee. A career 56.6 percent passer across 10 games at TCU, Collins ended his Rice debut completing 51.4 percent of his throws. After the woeful start, he completed 16-of-25, ending the day with 242 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The protection was okay, but Collins did take a few big hits. One of them resulted in a strip-sack and a fumble, shifting all the momentum to the visiting team midway through the third quarter. There will be better days ahead for Collins and this passing attack. Today, they looked a bit rusty, but he came through in key situations down the stretch.
Middle Tennessee didn’t test the young Rice corners very much in the first quarter, but once they did, they didn’t stop. Starters Miles McCord and Sean Fresch were both making their first D1 starts of their career, and for all the encouraging moments, that lack of experience showed.
O’Hara is not a superb deep-ball passer. There’s a reason that most of his balls stay closer to the line of scrimmage. But even he was unafraid to take his shots.
Both of the Blue Raiders’ first half touchdowns were shots from O’Hara to the endzone daring the Owls’ secondary to make a play. Although there were Rice shirts in the vicinity on both plays, neither reception was contested. That can’t happen in the redzone.
Allowing O’Hara to drive the length of the field in 30 seconds to set up a tying field goal was a sore spot as well.
The depth chart is thin and there doesn’t appear to be an immediate answer on the horizon. The corner play simply has to get better. It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Brian Smith adjusts the defense to help minimize the risks on the outside when the Owls take on a much better downfield thrower next week in Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham.
Injuries and exciting moments in fall camp put several younger players on the top of mind entering the season.
Khalan Griffin didn’t see much involvement until the fourth quarter, but it’s hard to fault the coaching staff for relying heavily on Juma Otoviano. Healthy and running well, Otoviano carried the ball 20 times for 84 yards with a long of 16. He was elusive in the open field and made big plays for this offense.
Griffin’s role will grow and his underutilization on Saturday shouldn’t be viewed as a knock on his ability. One needs look no further than his drive to start the fourth quarter. He got on the field and promptly ripped off two big runs, the first for 10-yard and the second a 20-yard scamper up the middle. He’s going to be a key piece of this offense in 2020 and beyond.
Sean Fresch got introduced to the speed of the college game quickly. As a whole, the corners did not hold up well. He was exposed underneath a few times, but that’s going to happen when the secondary is preoccupied with giving up the long ball. From my memory, and I’ll have to look back at the tape on this one, he wasn’t burned as often down the field as some of the Owls’ other options.
Jake Bailey was perhaps the most impactful youngster. He’s not a freshman, but his role is going to be significantly different in his second season on South Main. Bailey was a favorite target of Collins on Saturday but caught only two passes for 26 yards on five targets. He was also active in the return game, leading the team with 76 kick return yards. His 97 all-purpose yards were second most on the most on the team.
Rice football made history when they kicked off against Middle Tennessee on Saturday. Never before had a team opened its season against a team that was playing their seventh game. Getting to this point, in spite of all the challenges presented by COVID-19 was huge for the program. Remember, it was only a month ago that we were wondering whether or not there would be a season at all.
No season might sound palatable after that gut-punch. But Rice football fans should take away two things from this game. First, after all the ups and down, Rice could have, and probably should have won. Be upset. For as far as the Owls have gone, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Second, the fight to rally in the fourth quarter and get to this point was infectious. It’s hard to imagine not paying dividends down the road. Less self-inflicted wounds would have enabled Rice to finish things off. That said, the road will get tougher. The Owls won’t be playing a 1-5 Middle Tennessee team every week.
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