The Houston Cougars threw the first punch, battering Rice Football early and keeping the Owls out of sync from the start.
The pressure was on from the start when Rice football took on Houston in the battle for the Bayou Bucket on Saturday. The usually stalwart Rice defense took their licks early before settling into a groove. The offense did them no favors, staying away from the scoreboard until the final minute of the first half.
Clearly flustered early, Rice didn’t truly get their bearings set until the start of the second quarter. At that point, the butterflies had subsided, but the Houston offense had made its mark. Trailing 17-0 in the early minutes of the game, the Owls had dug a hole too deep.
Rice football falls to 0-2 on the season with a trip to Austin to play Texas looming. There’s been a lot of good mixed in, but the sour taste that turned up late in the Arkansas game remains in the mouths of the Rice faithful.
Although it was hard to envision at halftime in Week 1, the start to the 2021 season has been rather disappointing with Houston delivering a final gut punch with a walk-off pick-six on the final play.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week
Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Owls stutter out of the gate
The beginnings of this rivalry game felt very one-sided, and that was true before the Rice deficit reached three scores. Houston pressed the ball down the field, finding holes in the Rice secondary and moving the ball well.
The Rice defense, usually chomping at the bit to make their presence felt swiftly, played rather loose. The typical early aggression was missing, and Houston capitalized. Rice entered the game having held 15 consecutive opponents scoreless on their first possession. Houston snapped that streak before anyone on either side broke a sweat.
Consecutive three-and-outs, followed by a Luke McCaffrey interception did nothing to help the slow defensive start. Perhaps it was nerves, or simply misfires, but McCaffrey put two balls on the hands of his receivers, one on each of the first two drives, but neither Zane Knipe or Jack Bradley was able to hang on. The entire unit just wasn’t in sync.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week
In a big moment, neither side of the ball was ready. Rice left the first quarter trailing 17-0. After running nine plays, they’d gained just 30 yards. Against Arkansas, Rice caught a lot of bad breaks, but they never looked unprepared. That wasn’t the case against Houston. By the time the second quarter rolled around, the defense looked fully engaged, but the early deficit would prove problematic.
Not winning in the trenches
Much was made of how Rice played for the majority of the game against Arkansas last week. Head coach Mike Bloomgren himself acknowledge that for three quarters, it didn’t look like a Conference USA team squaring off with an SEC foe. That was before the heat, injuries and several self-inflicted wounds turned the fourth quarter into a rout.
One week later, Rice looked like the fourth-quarter-against-Arkansas team in the trenches. The offensive line was bullied around from the beginning, constantly putting McCaffrey under duress. The line did open up holes for the Rice running backs from time to time, but the totality of the performance was decisively underwhelming.
On Saturday against Houston, it looked like Rice was fighting an SEC (or perhaps a Big XII) versus Conference USA fight. For a team that prides itself on toughness, on intellectual brutality, it was not an inspiring performance up front.
McCaffrey was sacked four times. Rice averaged 2.2 yards per carry before garbage time, and that number bumped up to 3.5 per attempt by the final whistle. Rice was hardly able to get anything going through the air or on the ground all night long, and the offensive line was carry a large portion of that responsibility.
McCaffrey isn’t the silver bullet, but he can be a difference-maker
When the news that McCaffrey was transferring to Rice football broke this summer, the anticipation was palpable. After churning through quarterbacks, from the transfer portal and the back ends of the roster, Rice was finally going to have a bonafide quarterback and one with more raw talent than perhaps any that had set foot on campus in a decade or more.
With one game as a starter under his belt, it’s abundantly clear that while McCaffrey might grow to become the Owls’ ace in the hole, he’s not going to be able to do it all on his own. Like 99 percent of other collegiate passers, he’s going to need some help.
McCaffrey’s second interception of the day looked like a clear misread. He went short and his receiver did not break off his route. Who made the mistake is unclear, but it’s something that should be ironed out over time. That’s exactly the kind of play the coaching staff had their concerns about when they opted to start Wiley Green against Arkansas rather than someone of McCaffrey’s skillset. Granted, knowing the scheme and executing it are different things, but it’s a factor nonetheless.
McCaffrey and the offense did settle down in the second quarter. He led Rice on an 11-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to close out the half, showcasing what made him special on multiple occasions, keeping this play alive:
— Rice Football (@RiceFootball) September 12, 2021
Before finishing with a beautiful roll out touchdown to Jordan Myers:
McCaffrey made this look too easy. pic.twitter.com/vDO5i6xxq4
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) September 12, 2021
The flashes of what could be are evident. As he matures and better understands the scheme, the Owls’ offense should continue to rise with him. Hopefully, that comes before conference play, just three weeks from now.
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