Rice football got four interceptions from its defense, weathering a late Southern Miss rally to clinch the Owls’ first conference victory of the season.
For the second time in as many weeks, Rice football threw the first punch. Jake Constantine hit Jake Bailey on a third down slant and he did the rest, torching the Southern Miss defense for the 39-yard score. The Golden Eagles would level the game at seven, but were never able to take the lead as Rice opened conference play 1-0. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Not so special teams
Rice allowed a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and watched Southern Miss recover an onside kick in the same game. Charlie Mendes put one out of bounds in the fourth quarter, netting just 29 yards on a potential field-flipping opportunity. They did convert on a field goal, Christian VanSickle’s first as a Rice Owl, but were largely a liability on the day.
This comes not too far removed from a fumble on a kick return of their own and a series of misses in the kicking game. It’s just been a tough season for this unit, one that Rice has gotten used to being an asset.
Rice was extremely fortunate to have its defense step up in key moments and neutralize several of those mistakes.
Third downs crucial for Owls’ offensive success
Third down has been a boogeyman for Rice football in recent weeks. Coming into the game, Rice had converted just 32.7 percent of their third down tries, the 12th best mark in Conference USA. The defense was equally ineffective, allowing opponents to convert on 42.9 percent of their tries, ninth-best in the conference.
Things started off on the right foot for the Rice offense. They converted on both of their third down attempts on their first possession of the game, setting up a 39-yard touchdown grab by Jake Bailey (on third down).
Then things took a turn. Not only did Rice fail to convert their next three third down opportunities, they went three-and-out on their next three drives. It might have been four, had Cedric Patterson not made a soaring grab on third and long on the following possession.
Constantine guided the offense on a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the first drive of the second half. At that point, Rice had converted 4-of-4 third downs on their two touchdown drives and 1-of-5 third downs on all other drives to that point. Sometimes it’s that simple. When Rice converts on third down, this offense works, and works well.
Rice football finds its quarterback
The third down efficiency was sporadic, but for the second consecutive game, Jake Constantine looked composed and accurate in the pocket. He bookended the three listless first half drives with a pair of lengthy scoring drives, giving his team the lead going into halftime. The running game did him no favors early, but he was able to do enough through the air to get the offense moving down the field.
Constantine completed 18-of-23 (78.3 percent) of his passes against Texas Southern. He completed 16-of-22 (72.7 percent) against Southern Miss. In the two games he did not play this season, Rice quarterbacks posted a combined completion percentage 48.1 percent. It’s hard to view what amounts to a 30 percentage point increase in efficiency as anything other than a massive improvement.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week
It’s going to be interesting to see what the split looks like between him and Luke McCaffrey following the Owls’ bye week. McCaffrey saw limited action against Southern Miss, possibly because of the limited redzone opportunities Rice saw. When he was in the game, he proved a spark, rushing for 16 yards on two carries and completing his lone pass attempt. He picked up two first downs.
If the plan is to bring McCaffrey along at his own pace, there was no reason to rush that process after this week’s positive outing from both players.
Rice Stadium took a collective deep breath midway through the third quarter after Constantine was leveled on a scary blow. Targeting was called and Constatine was taking directly to the medical tent. He reentered the game shortly after.
The Rice defense made colossal strides from downright abysmal in 2018 to the unit that shut out an undefeated Marshall squad on the road last fall. The talent profile increased, and that undoubtedly played a major role in the improvement, but their sound fundamental play was perhaps equally as important.
Last fall, balls didn’t fly over the heads of Rice defenders. The Owls made stops on third down. They tackled well. The defense’s performances weren’t always perfect, but they looked like a unit that knew where they were supposed to be and did what they were asked to do the vast majority of the time.
Then this happens:
— Southern Miss Football (@SouthernMissFB) October 2, 2021
The corner bites, but allows the receiver to pass right by, assuming he has help with the safety behind him. He doesn’t. That allows the receiver to waltz into the endzone for a 31-yard score. The quarterback, Jake Lange, was third on the depth chart for Southern Miss when the season began, forced into action by multiple injuries. Making third-string quarterbacks look good is a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, the Rice defense bounced back down the stretch. Each of their four interceptions and five sacks was crucial when it came to pulling out the win.
Back on track
If the 0-3 start was the worst-case scenario for Rice football, the 2-0 rebound has to be weighted equally as the best-case follow-up. Through five games, Rice is exactly where most would have projected them to be — and perhaps slightly better — given the uncertainty surrounding the matchup with Southern Miss entering the season.
With their backs up against the wall, Rice responded well. It wasn’t perfect, but a winning streak is a winning streak. And its ramifications on this team’s own outlook on themselves and this schedule cannot be overstated.
Rice hasn’t found the answers to all of their most pressing questions just yet, but they’ll have some time to ponder entering the bye week. Sitting at two wins with the bulk of their conference schedule still ahead, the Owls are positioned reasonably well to make a run at their goals.
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