Rice Football fought to the end but couldn’t overcome an explosive UAB offense, falling in their regular season finale to the divisional champs.
Fresh off a momentous road win, Rice football ran out of gas in front of their home fans. The Owls took UAB to the wire, but couldn’t finish things off in their regular season finale, falling by a final score of 21-16.
Like they’ve become accustomed to, Rice started strong, shutting out UAB in the first quarter and taking a 6-0 lead of their own. UAB founds it’s footing and exploded for to take the lead, forcing Rice into comeback mode in the second half. Down to their third-string quarterback, the Owls could not muster the comeback they needed. Here are a few immediate takeaways from the game:
Pound the rock, control the clock and play great defense… early
It’s fitting that the final home game in Year 3 of the Mike Bloomgren era started out how it did. After a quick three-and-out by the Rice defense, the offense took the ball and delivered on its’ Intellectual Brutality mantra.
Rice marched down the field on 20 plays, going 62 yards, converting multiple third down and fourth down attempts en route to a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. In the process, the Owls burned more than 12 minutes off the clock.
UAB got the ball, went three-and-out again, and the same sequence transpired. Rice crept down the field, this time aided by a few penalties from UAB, and tacked on another field goal. This one followed an eight-play, 35-yard drive that took 4:35 off the clock.
Secondary shows leaks
The strong start turned sour when UAB started to connect on some deep shots. UAB Quarterback Tyler Johnston was able to do what Marshall quarterback Grant Wells was not and the results were jarring to a defense that had just pitched a shutout seven days ago.
Rice was physical along the line of scrimmage, but they were surprised downfield too many times. Those three big plays, one for 54-yards, another for 63-yards and one more for 42-yards, were directly responsible for all of the Blazers’ points.
In many ways, the game showed eerie similarities to the matchup between these teams in Birmingham last season. In that game Johnson threw touchdown passes of 46-yards, 36-yards and 57-yards. All positive momentum the Owls’ had gained early faded with each successive bomb.
The passing game lacks consistency
Jovoni Johnson threw for 86 yards against Marshall. He threw for 161 yards on Saturday against UAB before leaving in the fourth quarter with an injury. In comparison, Mike Collines threw for 242, 233 and 327 yards in his three outings as the starter.
To be fair, Johnson never had the benefit of playing alongside team captain and leading receiver Austin Trammell, but the lack of any downfield presence completely siphoned the big play potential from this offense.
Rice can run the ball effectively and control the game, but without the ability to threaten a defense over the top, you wind up where they did midway through the second quarter: trailing 7-6 despite outgaining their opponents and racking up more than 16 minutes of possession to the Blazers six minutes.
Committing to your identity as a smashmouth, run-the-ball football team is one thing. Not being able to consistently pick up yards through the air when you need to is another. Collins showed this team can do it. Now they need to find a way to get it done no matter who is taking snaps.
A win on Saturday would have secured Rice football a winning record in conference play. Instead, the Owls’ strange five-game slate officially came to an end on Saturday with a loss to divisional winner UAB.
This season won’t (and shouldn’t) be remembered for its tough finale. But the lack of a bowl berth that was one win away will serve as a reminder that although this team has come a long way, they have some work to do before they get to where they want to be.
Were it not for an unbelievably bad bounce against Middle Tennessee, Rice would have that opportunity to play in a bowl game this year. This team was good enough to be postseason bound. And they came pretty close to doing so. The ball (literally) didn’t bounce their way.
There will be plenty of time to dig through the strange happenings of this year. Along the way, the Owls bludgeoned Southern Miss and blanked Marshall, two notable road wins. Now, Rice football will turn its attention to the Early Signing Period, which begins Wednesday. Rice currently has a Top 5 class in Conference USA.
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