Rice Football had a two-score lead in the second half, but couldn’t hang on, dropping another overtime heartbreaker against a conference foe.
The road has been kind to Rice football in recent years. Some of the Owls’ biggest wins — their upset of Marshall last season and their victory over UAB earlier this year — have come away from Rice Stadium. That road rally did not hold true on Saturday. After falling behind in the first half, the Owls took control in the second stanza before watching Charlotte punch back to force overtime and eventually win.
Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Owls overcome a shaky start
The opening sequence went almost as well as could have been expected for Rice football against Charlotte. The Owls’ defense forced a punt, giving the offense possession just beyond the midfield stripe. A couple of crisp passes from Jake Constantine and powerful runs from Ari Broussard and Jordan Myers pushed them inside the Charlotte 20 yard line.
Rice had already converted on fourth-and-one in the drive, extending their fourth-down conversion streak to 10 in a row. But on fourth-and-one from the 17-yard line, Rice trotted out the field goal unit and missed, again. The miss was the third consecutive kick that did not go through the uprights for the Rice special teams unit, with blame attributable to everyone from the snapper, to the holder to the kicker himself.
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Second-guessing decisions that didn’t work out is the purest form of armchair quarterback that exists. And while it’s easy to say Rice should have done something else, it’s the decision-making process that’s puzzling.
If Rice had already shown themselves to be extremely adept at converting on fourth-and-short on that drive and they knew their special teams unit was struggling, was the 10-yard difference between the spot of that kick and the spot of their previous fourth-down conversion? Charlotte took over, drove the length of the field and took the lead.
If the short-yardage offense works and the kicking game doesn’t, perhaps that should impact how the Owls attack their opponents going forward. It noticeably did from that point onward.
What is the plan on special teams?
After that miss, Rice seemed more cognizant of their fourth-down decisions moving forward. The Owls would trust their offense rather than their kicking game on the next three similar decisions.
On fourth-and-six from the Charlotte 32, Jake Constantine found Jake Bailey for a 10-yard gain and a first down rather than lining up to try a 49-yard field goal.
The next drive, on fourth-and-three from the Charlotte 26, Constantine couldn’t hit Cedric Patterson on a fourth-down pass and Rice turned it over on doubts. The alternative would have been a 43-yard field goal.
Then, with 22-seconds before the halftime whistle, Constantine dropped a ball into the waiting arms of August Pitre who couldn’t hang on in the endzone as he hit the turf. Rice turned it over on downs rather than settle for a 47-yard field goal from the Charlotte 30.
It wouldn’t be fair to question the lack of fourth down aggression at the beginning of the game and then bemoan unsuccessful attempts from that point onward. Constantine’s pass to Pitre should have been held on to for what would have been the game-tying score. The process was fine. But that does beg one more question. How close does Rice need to be to trust their kicker?
Can Rice convert a 40-yard field goal if they have to? Right now, it’s hard to know for sure.
Rice has its running back
Ari Broussard has gotten more and more involved as the season has progressed, and for good reason. Broussard entered the game leading all Rice running backs with a healthy 4.3 yards per carry. He set a career-high on the ground two weeks ago when he rumbled for 65 yards on 16 carries. He almost outdid that mark on one drive against Charlotte, gaining 57 yards on one second-quarter drive.
Good blocking helps. Exhibit A: Broussard’s first career touchdown run.
Here's Ari Broussard touchdown run from the first half. pic.twitter.com/BAmoVHfVk8
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But even though the line did seem to have a better day than they did last week against North Texas, Broussard kept finding a way to get the extra yard and fall forward. After carrying the Owls the bulk of the way, Rice turned to him with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. He delivered a 17-yard run. When he left the field, Rice was quickly forced to punt.
Broussard had 97 yards before halftime. He finished with 186 yards on 20 carries and two touchdown runs. Handing him the ball 30 times a game probably isn’t a viable long term solution, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else out-carrying him down the stretch. He’s been that good.
Running out of time
The transitive property does not apply to college football. Yet after seeing Charlotte get dusted in each of their two previous games, there was nothing leading into their game with Rice that made this challenge seem insurmountable. And coming on the heels of an overtime loss to North Texas, Rice needed this.
Sitting at 3-5 with four games to play, a bowl game berth was in reach. And although this wasn’t mathematically a make-or-break contest to get Rice to six wins, it sure felt like one.
Consistency has been the elephant in the room for Rice football this season. Resiliency has been their calling card. With their backs against the wall in need of a bounce-back once again, this team responded, but they couldn’t hang on. Now they have to win their final three games (vs WKU, at UTEP, vs Louisiana Tech) to reach the postseason. That’s a tall task, and now they’ve lost their margin of error.
Special teams needs a lot of work. The defense bent and eventually broke. The offense has to improve in the redzone, but has the horses (Constantine, Bailey, Broussard) to get the ball down the field with regularity. There’s a lot to do and Rice football is running out of time.
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