Despite having two weeks to prepare, Rice football was bludgeoned off their bye week by a scoring hot UTSA squad that never let up.
UTSA threw the first punch against Rice football at the Alamodome on Saturday night. Then they threw the second. And the third. In a highly anticipated Lonestar showdown, Rice football was outclassed in every aspect of the game, dropping their first conference road game of the season in a ghastly fashion.
Rice had two weeks to get ready for their return to San Antonio, the site of what was one of their most heartbreaking losses of the 2019 season. Both teams had changed dramatically since then. But UTSA looked like their new-and-improved selves this time around. Rice did not. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
It’s how you start
There’s no golden rule that insists your first fifteen minutes of a football game has to be your best fifteen minutes, but that’s certainly been a prerequisite for Rice football so far this season. The opening quarter of the UTSA game made that abundantly clear.
The Rice defense kept UTSA in front of them on their first possession, but two third down conversions and a fumble forced that landed in the hands of a UTSA receiver saw the Owls fall behind 7-0. The offense went three-and-0ut, then the defense sagged before holding UTSA to a field goal.
Rice needed a spark on their second drive and got into a favorable position — third and short — before Jake Constantine was sacked. Another three-and-out. Following a booming punt by Charlie Mendes, the Rice defense then allowed an 81-yard run to stud Roadrunner tailback Sincere McCormick and a touchdown two plays later.
This start proved eerily similar to the Houston game. Two three-and-outs on offense and a defense unable to get off the field on third down, leading to a three-score deficit in the first quarter. Altogether, this was about as disastrous of a starting sequence as Rice has seen in recent memory.
Overwhelmed in the trenches
Part of what led to the awful beginning for the offense was severe protection issues up front. On the Owls second third down, Constantine dropped back to pass and was almost immediately met in the backfield by not one, but two UTSA rushers.
As if that wasn’t problematic enough, it happened again on the very next possession. Facing a fourth down near midfield, Constantine again dropped back to pass and again saw two defenders in his face immediately. He did his best to throw over the free rushers, but the ball was tipped, caught and returned for a pick-six.
Whether it was the running back, the quarterback or the line, someone didn’t make the right lead. Bad protection leads to bad plays, plain and simple. This play looked doomed from the start, and it might have put any hopes of making this game competitive to bed immediately.
Harmanson with an interception and a TD! pic.twitter.com/XMcvoGGSJ6
— UTSA Football 🏈 (@UTSAFTBL) October 16, 2021
Oftentimes, sacks are as much a quarterback stat as a protection stat. It takes both positions operating together to avoid those negative plays. Constantine wasn’t perfect either, but he was set up to fail from the start and the ramifications were disastrous.
Insult and injury
Rice did themselves no favors in any of the three phases on Saturday. But once again, injuries at a key position proceeded to stack the deck further against the Owls. Following an incomplete pass on third down on the second drive of the second quarter, starting quarterback hobbled to the sideline. Luke McCaffrey, who was “1B” on the quarterback depth chart, was suddenly the last man standing at the position for Rice football.
For Rice, the injury luck at this essential position has been unfathomably awful. Rice has started three quarterbacks in six games this year. Three different passers appeared in games in 2020, and Rice churned through signal callers in each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons as well.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week
Saturday’s performance was incriminating enough on its own aside from Constantine’s injury. But the sheer fact that we have to have this conversation — discussing yet another Rice quarterback knocked out of a game with an injury — is downright maddening.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Rice has been the unluckiest program in the country when it comes to quarterback health. And it’s not even close.
From winning streak to gut punch, yet again
A back-and-forth season pivoted back away from the Owls on Saturday night at the Alamodome. Rice has won six of their last 10 conference games, beaten previously undefeated No. 15 Marshall yet never seemed to be in the same zip code of a UTSA team that looked as good as advertised and remains the lone remaining unbeaten team in Conference USA.
A perfect conference record was improbable at best. That’s out the window. Reaching bowl eligibility and perhaps even getting a shot to contend for a conference title? Both of those objectives are in mathematically in play. But this time Rice won’t have the luxury of two weeks to prepare. And they’ll be playing an opponent (UAB) that is at least as good, if not better, than the UTSA squad that blew them out on Saturday.
It would be nice to see this team get another signature win to prove their trajectory remains as high as it felt entering the year. They’ve proven they can. It gets lost in the shuffle, but the Marshall upset came on the heels of a disastrous showing against North Texas (on the road) where the Owls’ starting quarterback was injured and unable to go against the Herd. That’s not to say the situations are synonymous, but there’s something about this team that doesn’t follow a linear pattern whatsoever.
If the two-game winning streak lessened the pressure, it’s back on, with interest. Rice needs to put a completely different team on the field next week. Another no-show performance would cannot take place.
Every week we’ll have a stat, storyline or key learning from the game reserved for our subscribers.
Headed in the wrong direction
- Rice Football 2021: NFL Owls Week 11 Stats Update
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- Conference USA Football 2021: Week 12 C-USA Roundup