An important game got away from Rice Football quickly as Western Kentucky poured on the points to officially eliminate Rice from bowl eligibility.
Just about any Rice football fan would have happily accepted a one-score game against Western Kentucky after the first quarter. That’s exactly where the Owls found themselves in this one, even possessing the ball at midfield as the clock started to run on the second period. Then the bottom seemingly fell out.
Mistakes, turnovers and errant passes saw a close game turn into a blowout with remarkable speed. By the time the clock hit zeroes and both teams headed back to their locker rooms for halftime, the deficit had reached 28 points, with the Hilltoppers blanking the home team. The second half seemed like a formality at that point, with Western Kentucky coasting to the win. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Making (and losing) their own luck
At the risk of oversimplifying what has been a very sporadic season, the first 12 minutes of the Owls’ game against Western Kentucky felt like a decent synopsis. Western Kentucky moved down the field almost effortlessly, gliding into the redzone for what looked might be the opening score.
Then a bad snap and questionable decision by Bailey Zappe opened the door for Naeem Smith to step in front of a low pass and for a turnover. Given an opportunity to take the lead, the Rice offense marched down the field into the redzone on a long drive that burned more than six minutes off the clock.
The August Pitre fumbled what would have been a first down reception inside the five-yard line and WKU took over. The Hilltoppers drove 97-yards for their first touchdown on the subsequent possession.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice football vs WKU
Rice made a big play. They had a golden opportunity to tilt the game into their favor and executed extremely well for a meaningful duration. Then, when it looked like Rice football might have set themselves up for success, disaster struck.
From “oh no!” to “yes!” to “oh no!” all in the span of three relatively short drives. A potential 7-0 Rice lead flipped to a 7-0 Rice deficit in a matter of minutes. And Rice made good plays on both sides of the ball to get them close. To start the second quarter the Rice defense forced a three-and-out. Not long after Rice punter Charlie Mendes misfired for a net of 14 yards. One step forward, another step back.
Unforced errors are stacking up
The special teams woes have been just as surprising as the defensive regression. Every week there’s an unflattering moment (or two, or three) to write home about for a unit that was among the most efficient in the country in the early years of Bloomgren’s tenure. The Rice special teams unit ranked 124th out of 130 teams in terms of efficiency entering the WKU contest.
Against the Hilltoppers, the Owls kicked the aforementioned 14-yard punt. They delivered a low snap on another punt attempt that resulted in a hurried, 32-yard punt. The first punt of the third quarter netted just 25 yards.
Rice also had a punt returned muffed, but were fortunate to recover that one with the return man quickly falling on the loose ball.
Add in four fumbles (one lost), four interceptions and eight penalties for 80 yards and you get a recipe for losing football games. Even when your defense is able to force four turnovers to help lighten the load.
Imperfect offensive evolution
Although it might have been missed in the series of close games Rice has played in recent weeks and the blowout at the hands of Western Kentucky, the Rice offense has taken a meaningful step forward. Against Charlotte, Rice recorded the highest yardage total (468 yards) they’d managed against an FBS opponent under Bloomgren. The play was sloppy against WKU, but the Owls did move the ball.
During this recent stretch, Rice had mixed running and passing and has proven effective on both fronts. Ari Broussard has been a revelation on the ground, but for every long, bruising run he delivers, the offense has also spread out in a five-wide formation and trusted quarterback Jake Constantine to find the open man.
It’s entirely possible Rice has run more plays with empty backfields in the past three weeks than they ran in the previous three seasons combined.
With no Bradley Rozner or Jordan Myers (a late scratch) on the field, Rice got down the field. Costly turnovers and errant throws from Constantine were the limiting factors for Rice against WKU, but the scheme itself was productive.
Broussard ran for 60 yards on 15 carries. Constantine passed for 380 yards and one touchdown. This offense has an identity — they finished with 504 total yards against Western Kentucky — but they’re not playing clean. And they’re running out of time.
Officially missed the mark
Reaching the postseason was the unquestioned expectation for Rice football this year. They will not get there. The Owls’ seventh loss of the season on Saturday ensured they will be staying home for the holidays once more. On that front, this season is a disappointment.
Bloomgren will undoubtedly have to answer for the shortcomings, and he has largely owned the missteps to this point. His team did not reach the expectations they set out to achieve and he, the coaching staff, and these players were noticeably frustrated by the overtime losses and missed opportunities along the way, as they should be.
Now what? Rice football has two games remaining on its 2021 slate: at UTEP and home vs Louisiana Tech. Should the Owls win both games, they’d finish with a 5-7 record and a .417 winning percentage, still the highest any Rice team has reached since 2014. Even winning one of the final pair would represent the most victories in a single season since the 2015 squad went 5-7. To that end, there is something to play for.
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