On Saturday Rice football knocked off previously unbeaten Marshall in what could become a defining moment for head coach Mike Bloomgren and the Owls.
Not long after the team had finished celebrating on the field, Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren tucked away into a side room for the now conventional zoom postgame session with the media. Even with his face cloaked by a mask, it was easy to see his cheekbones raise in a triumphant smile.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been more proud of a team,” he said, his first words following the Owls’ first win over a ranked team on the road in almost 30 years.
His face glowed when he mentioned impressive showings by individual performers. There was JoVoni Johnson’s poise under adversity, Naeem Smith’s pick-six in his first game back from injury, former walk-on Ari Broussard’s game-sealing fourth quarter runs. And so much more.
That moment brought back memories of another cramped road game press conference. One in a much different context in San Antonio, Tx last November. Following a loss to UTSA that left his team 0-7, Bloomgren’s ever even-keeled speech was crystal clear.
“We’ve made progress,” he said on that painful night. “We want to make the progress that matters. We want to get one in the left column. And we’re going to keep working towards that.”
14 months later, not only has Bloomgren “got one in the left column”, he’s built something resembling the program he’s been seeking since he arrived at South Main.
Including the Owls’ blown lead and subsequent seventh consecutive loss against UTSA last fall, Rice football has gotten off to a shaky 2-18 start. Two more losses in the two games that followed sent the Owls’ record to 2-20. But when the switch flipped. On the road against Middle Tennessee, things started to change.
After winning 10 percent of his first 22 games, Bloomgren and Co. have won five of their last seven, and that includes a loss that saw a rogue football bounces off four uprights. Even with the bad bounces, that’s a 71.4 percent clip that includes the Owls’ landmark win over Marshall.
Which brings us back to Saturday.
“We were exactly who we wanted to be,” Bloomgren said. “It was intellectual brutality all over the field.”
Intellectual Brutality. The exertion of one’s mind and willpower over the man in front of you. The drum beat of this program from the moment Bloomgren first arrived on campus. At long last, coming into focus. It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But today, even if for just a few hours, “who we should be”, as linebacker Blaze Alldredge described it, was on full display.
“Belief and trust have been our mantra for a few weeks now, even though we haven’t got the play,” he acknowledged with a grin. Even if it were only himself and his players that kept that faith, the results speak volumes. And more importantly, it gives this team a foundation to build on for the future. A future beyond pandemics causing last-minute cancelations and of seasons with fewer injuries and fewer bad bounces.
Rice football took a big step on Saturday. A step that was a long time coming.