Rice Football put Arkansas on the ropes in Fayettville, but couldn’t muster enough on offense to finish the job as the Owls fall in their season opener.
Those inside the hedges believed 2021 could be a special season for Rice football. The Owls’ schedule wasn’t going to allow them to ease into the season, opening on the road against Arkansas. Rice hadn’t won a game against an SEC opponent since 1980, but the defense came out throwing haymakers and made it clear from the start this was going to be a competitive game.
Arkansas would score first, but Rice would chip away, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime courtesy of a touchdown run from Jordan Myers. Then Wiley Green turned up the volume on the Rice football offense on this connection from Green to August Pitre:
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That touchdown pass put Arkansas on notice. From that point, the game was officially on. Rice withstood Arkansas’ initial second-half surge, but the momentum turned when Wiley Green made a crucial mistake. Green was intercepted on a pass in which his arm was hit while he threw. Perhaps excusable, even if costly, Green doubled-down with an interception on his very next pass: a third down attempt in relief of McCaffrey whose helmet had come off on the prior play.
When the dust settled, Arkansas would score 24 unanswered points. The defense which had held up for so long was unable to support a Rice offense that was shut out for the final 25 minutes of regulation after the touchdown from Green to Pitre to start the second half.
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Green was given the vast majority of the snaps and finished 12-for-25 with one touchdown, three interceptions and a fumble. McCaffrey attempted seven passes, completing four of them for 60 yards and carrying the ball four times for eight yards. Head coach Mike Bloomgren will have a lot to think through when it comes to how he handles the quarterback position moving forward. Green finished extremely poorly and even still, McCaffrey never really got much of a chance.
Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Surviving early missed opportunities
Whether it was early game jitters or just bad luck, there were a few significant moments early in this game that did not favor the Owls.
The first was a third-down snap for Arkansas. Quarterback KJ Jefferson was greeted in the backfield almost immediately by a charging Treshawn Chamberlain but was able to bounce free. His 245-pound frame was too much to bring down with the glancing blow. Then he rumbled for a the first down. Rather than punt or attempt a long field goal, Arkansas would score late on the drive.
On the ensuing Rice possession, Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan was ejected for targeting, setting the Owls up near midfield. They were unable to score. The Owls’ next two drives would begin at the Arkansas 35-yard line and the Arkansas 21-yard line. They walked away with three points.
Rice football kept this game at arms-length early, but it’s not unreasonable to think they should have been leading Arkansas at the start of the second quarter, quite possibly by two scores.
Bloomgren announced before the game that Wiley Green would start and Luke McCaffrey would enter the game for the third series. He was true to his word, with one exception: McCaffrey did enter the game for one play following Grant Morgan’s ejection, presumably so Green could regroup after the hit. Green was back in on the next play.
McCaffrey led the offense from the Arkansas 35-yard line to the 18-yard line, but wasn’t able to hit Cedric Patterson in the corner of the endzone on third down. That would be his final full drive of the first half, but not his final snaps.
McCaffrey would return to the game for two third down plays later in the first half. On both occasions, he handed the ball off, creating a rather odd sequence. Green would operate the offense on first and second down before McCaffrey entered for a running play to someone other than himself. The lack of cohesion was evident.
The offense did not move the ball well under Green, but the flip-flopping mid-drive didn’t seem to do either quarterback any favors. McCaffrey would get a series in the third quarter. When he was allowed to operate he moved Rice down the field with a big completion to August Pitre.
Field position and time of possession
Neither field position, nor time of possession, are particularly “sexy” stats. Most people, understandably, turn their eyes to touchdowns, yards and points in the boxscore at first blush. But those two less-than-glamorous stats proved pivotal for Rice in this game, and they’ll like be staples in how the Owls hope to play this season.
Rice football controlled the time of possession battle. The defense forced five three-and-outs in the first half, stopping the Razorbacks’ up-tempo offense from gaining much momentum. Then the Owls took over and grinding out the clock.
Rice dominated the field position as well. There were a couple of touchbacks they’d like back on Charlie Mendes punts, but the special teams and the defense more than made up for those with a white-hot start. Rice’s average field position in the first half was the 50-yard line. Night and day different from Arkansas’ average start of their own 17.
In the first half alone, Rice began drives at the Arkansas 49, Arkansas 24, Arkansas 7, Rice 48 and Arkansas 49.
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