Jake Constantine fell just short of leading Rice football to a comeback win. With Wiley Green injured, the task of getting the team back on track falls to him.
For everything that went right when Rice football upset UAB the weekend prior, there was something that seemed to go wrong in the Owls’ overtime loss to North Texas.
The contest immediately following Wiley Green’s career game saw him leave the field on a cart. The defense, which stopped the Blazers on downs twice and forced two turnovers gave up touchdowns following all but one Rice scoring drive, excluding the final kneel down before overtime.
Head coach Mike Bloomgren ran through all of what went wrong for his team on Saturday, but summed it up with a crushing reality of what sunk Rice against North Texas: “Our inability to effectively run the ball and to stop the run — two things that we think are trademarks of our program – When we can’t do those two things it’s going to be hard for the Rice Owls to win.”
Rice football averaged 2.1 yards per carry against North Texas, the seventh time since the beginning of the 2020 season in which the Owls have averaged fewer than 3.0 yards per carry, a span on 13 games. Conversely, Rice has averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry on three occasions over the time, one of which was a blowout loss to Texas earlier this season.
Rice has won games with poor showings on the ground in the very recent past. Their 2.94 yards per carry clip against UAB was underwhelming, but they got just enough when they needed it. Nevertheless, in general, it’s been tough sledding on the ground for a team that wants to run the ball.
On the other side of the ball, Rice has held its opponents below 3.0 yards per carry three times in the last 13 games and allowed 5.0 yards per carry on five separate occasions. Injuries up front have hampered the Owls’ on the defensive line this season, but even without De’Braylon Carroll off the field, they’re still trotting out good defensive linemen, a few of which have drawn attention from NFL scouts.
Despite those shortcomings, and particularly the Owls’ struggles on this particular Saturday, Rice fought back and tied the game in the final seconds. “I thought the defense finding a way to get a stop at the end and the offense finding a way to take the ball down and send the game in overtime, that’s winning football,” Bloomgren said. “Now what we did in overtime is not.”
Unfortunately for Constantine and the Owls, the proverbial clock struck midnight before the comeback could be truly completed. But it was his arm and his legs that gave Rice the only real chance they had to win this game. On the eve of Halloween, the veteran gunslinger put on his best Houdini impression, escaping would-be tackles to create off schedule. On two separate fourth down conversions, he broke free, kept the play alive, and delivered a strike at the moment his team needed it the most.
“I’ve been messing around, making those plays since I was a little kid,” Constantine said afterward, shrugging off his own heroics.
His coach was more effusive in his praise. “The plays he made to Jake Bailey and plays he made with his feet, he gave us a chance,” Bloomgren said. “That’s who that kid’s been since he’s been here. You know, he’s been a wild horse rider and finding a way to make plays.”
If the running game isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to hand the ball over to the one man who was able to find production in an otherwise disappointing fall afternoon. Protection was up and down, but Constantine repeatedly picked himself up off the mat and made play after play after play. Had he put a touch less on a third-down pass in overtime, the result could have been different. But by and large, if Constantine wasn’t clicking, not much else was.
From week to week, the running game has been hot and cold. The defense has been good and bad. The special teams have shared in those highs and lows. Constantine, while not perfect has thrown five touchdowns to just two interceptions and been at the controls of the offense in two of their three wins.
Given the expected severity of Green’s injury, it will more than likely fall to Constantine to lead Rice the rest of the way. “We’re definitely not out of the fight into making a bowl game,” he said. “I think we’re a great team and we can easily win three more games.” It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. And much of it will fall on his shoulders to carry Rice football to where they want to go.