From the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, Rice football believed they could right the ship quickly and made that hope reality in an upset win over UAB.
Should we have seen it coming? Maybe. Would any outside the hedges have believed it if they were forewarned? Maybe not. Regardless, for the second time in as many seasons, Rice football has recovered from a road loss to knock off one of Conference USA’s best teams on the road behind the arm of a backup quarterback as 23+ point underdogs. UAB had not lost a conference game at home since the program was restarted in 2017. Until Saturday.
One week removed from being stunned under the lights on the roof of the Alamodome, Rice deployed what head coach Mike Bloomgren dubbed a “green light mentality” and rode it to yet another major victory for the Owls’ program.
“Instead of seeing yellow, instead of being hesitant – because of how much you care about this game and each other – play, and play for each other,” a Gatorade-soaked Bloomgren reiterated following the win. Then he listened on as team leaders like Wiley Green, who dazzled everyone with a 205-yard, three-touchdown outing, and Naeem Smith, who came up with a crucial interception, reiterated that same “green light” mantra.
Whether too timid or too mistake-riddled in previous games, something clicked in the Owls’ psyche on Saturday night at Protective Stadium. “I really think it came down to them freeing themselves to make plays and to play like they’re capable of,” Bloomgren said.
Takeaways: Rice football upsets UAB on the road
That focused, game-ready effectiveness was personified on the Owls’ first drive of the second half. Trailing at the break because of a missed extra point, Rice was facing what looked to be a three-and-out on their opening possession in the third quarter. Then Jaeger Bull snagged the snap on a fake punt and raced 30 yards into UAB territory. Rice would score on that drive to go up by six points, the final margin in the game.
“That’s something Coach Monfiletto drew up, gosh, maybe a month and a half ago, maybe prior to the Arkansas game,” Bloomgren remarked of the fake. He said it wasn’t even the first time Rice had called the play during this game, admitting to checking out of the call previously when they didn’t get the right look.
Not only did they get the right look on that particular snap. They executed. And that’s essentially the story of how Rice football went from a 45-point drubbing to one of the top two victories of the Mike Bloomgren era. A team that was out of sync finally got on the same page.
They didn’t play like a team facing a yellow, cautionary beacon. They had the green light and took full advantage of it. Much like things finally aligned and Rice was ready to attempt the gutsy fake punt, all phases played inspired football at the same time. Right up until the final whistle.
Bloomgren said the defense broke the huddle to “Green Light” prior to the stop that won them the game in the final seconds.
Safety Naeem Smith, who tallied his second interception of the season in the third quarter, fittingly put words to what was a strenuous game. “Nothing has ever been perfect this season. Guys have been injured, other guys have had to step up, but I just loved the resilience of our team. It was not a perfect game at all today, and at the end of the day this was a big-time win for our program and this is something that we need to continue to snowball, going forward. This is not it.”
Perhaps Bloomgren needs to tell his team they’re multi-touchdown underdogs every week. Maybe Wiley Green was right after the game when he looked back at the journey he and this team have been on. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” he said of this moment, which he credited to God and the effort of his team. “I think it shows that a lot can come of a rough four years, a lot of ups and downs, but if you keep your faith and you keep hammering, great things are going to come.”
Rice football walks out of Birmingham 2-1 in conference play with a 3-4 overall record. The Owls remain alive, albeit behind UTSA, in their hunt for a division title. They’re three wins away from the bowl trip they’ve had inked on their list of goals since before the season began.
Bloomgren diagnosed his team’s crucial flaw as a “crisis of confidence”, going on to say “They had every reason to quit, when you get beat like we did last week.” But they didn’t quit. They leaned into that green light belief and Bloomgren now leads a team that has very much so regained its swagger. Is this the breakthrough? Maybe. This team certainly hopes so. More importantly, they’re starting to believe it.
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