On a chilly Saturday morning, Rice Football stunned the college football world, knocking off an undefeated, ranked Marshall squad on the road.
For the first time since 1995, Rice football pitched a shutout. On that day 25 years ago, Rice blanked UNLV 38-0. Fast-forward to 2020 where the Owls have now held No. 15 Marshall off the scoreboard in the biggest win of the Mike Bloomgren era. Marshall had never been shut out at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Now they have.
The last time Rice shutout a ranked opponent? October 22, 1960, when they beat No. 16 Texas, 7-0.
In some ways, the 2020 Owls’ 20-0 win over a ranked Marshall team came out of nowhere. But for those watching the program quietly add talent and take the right steps, it served as validation for three years of hard work. There will be plenty more to unpack from this win in the days to come, for now, a few immediate reactions from the Owls’ big win.
Playing against the odds
Rice had lost its last 32 games against ranked opponents entering their game against Marshall. If that wasn’t enough to qualify as adversity, the absences of quarterback Mike Collins, wide receiver Austin Trammell and linebacker Antonio Montero upped the challenge by a significant margin.
Depending on where you looked, Rice was somewhere between a 21 and a 25 point underdog on Saturday. They weren’t expected to keep it close, let alone contend. Surprise.
When the deck is stacked against you to that degree, you need two things: execution and luck. Rice got both on Saturday. They kept Marshall quarterback Grant Wells off balance from the start, forcing five interceptions.
On the luck front, they were extremely fortunate to receive the latest flag I’ve ever seen throw on a fake punt attempt. Charlie Mendes caught the snap and threw a deep shot down the left sideline. The ball fell to the turf, primarily because the Marshall defender was mugging the would-be Rice receiver. Initially, no flag was thrown, but after a brief conference, the officials changed their minds. Rice got three points off the reversal, extending their lead to two scores, 10-0.
A questionable fumble call against Jake Bailey in the second half and a missed field goal were two of the unluckier moments for the Owls, but for the most part, Rice took advantage of their opportunities and left themselves enough breathing room to overcome those obstacles.
Dominant defense sets the tone
Despite the odds, Rice was not intimidated. They did just about everything right to engineer the upset.
The Owls held on fourth down on Marshall’s opening possession. The forced turnover on downs marked the 13th consecutive game in which Rice had kept their opponent scoreless on their opening drive. Check.
They extended the defensive success by controlling the clock on offense and shutting out Marshall in the first quarter. Rice has yet to allow a point in the first quarter this season. Check.
You could tell the physicality and the effort was different. The defense featured a few creative blitz combinations, but for the most part, it was a strong game from the Rice defensive line against a vaunted Marshall offensive line.
Bloomgren said Marshall’s biggest strength was their ability to line up and “whip the dude in front of them”. Rice just didn’t let that happen. Quite the opposite, in fact. In every phase of the game, Rice football whipped Marshall.
If the play-to-play grind wasn’t enough, safety Naeem Smith delivered the knockout blow in his first action of the season, putting Rice ahead 20-0 on this pick-six.
PICK-SIX, NAEEM SMITH.pic.twitter.com/D2rNtLNHsw
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) December 5, 2020
Rice had six interceptions in 12 games last season. Blaze Alldredge, Josh Pearcy, Andrew Bird, Treshawn Chamberlain and Smith each had a pick on Saturday against a quarterback that had only thrown four in seven games this season.
Special, special teams
Rice muffed three punts in their first three games and suffered the infamous quadruple-doink against Middle Tennessee. That phase of the game had thwarted the Owls’ chances this season. Against Marshall, they were crucial to the Owls’ success.
Collin Riccitelli converted two of three field goals. Mendes’ execution of the fake punt pass set Rice up for a score. Mendes pinned Marshall deep on one of his few punts of the day. Then, with Marshall backed up in their own endzone, Bailey returned a punt to the Marshall to the Marshall 27 to set up another score.
The coverage units were lights out. When they did punt, Mendes was masterful. Apart from a missed field goal, this unit played some of their best football of the entire season.
Months ago when we thought Rice football would be playing a full 12 game season, a bowl game was set as the expectation for this team. If the Owls could achieve that it would be proof the team was making progress and heading in the right direction.
When that schedule was scrapped, the means of evaluating progress became much more challenging. For one, we didn’t know how many games Rice would play this year. We didn’t know who those games would be against. And we didn’t know which players Rice would have. Losing Brad Rozner to an injury before the Owls first game compounded things even more.
But this win—knocking off a ranked opponent on the road without your starting quarterback and best wide receiver—proves “the process” as Bloomgren likes to call it, is working. Rice just beat the best team in Conference USA. They’ve proved they can do it. Now they need to show that effort and poise consistently.
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