Rice football rallied from an early deficit to take a halftime lead, but could not hold on, running out of time as they fell to UTEP on the road.
Saturday’s Rice football game in El Paso was anything but boring. The game had lead changes, turnovers, big plays, scoring runs and fourth-down theatrics. A desirable result for the Owls was all it lacked when the time came for the final whistle. The loss drops the Owls’ record to 3-8 before their regular-season finale against Louisiana Tech next weekend. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Weathering the storm
Starting fast has been an important talking point for Rice football all season long. No matter how you slice it, when they took the field at the Sun Bowl on Saturday, Rice was slow.
UTEP drove down the field with ease, cutting through the Rice defense on a 75-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the game. Safety Kirk Lockhart was ejected for targeting during the drive, cutting an already thin secondary down even further for the remainder of the game.
The Rice offense took over after that sequence and proceeded to go three-and-out, gaining zero yards. The second drive wasn’t much better, a three-and-out netting three total yards.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice football vs UTEP
Yet when the dust settled, Rice trailed UTEP by just seven points at the end of the first quarter. The defense rebound with two straight four-play drives, including a huge play by Desmyn Baker to cut through a well-blocked screen and neutralize the play for no gain. That got the ball back to the Rice offense.
Jake Constantine and company then manufactured a 15-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game, with two fourth-down conversions along the way. After the slow start, Rice found themselves in the middle of the second quarter in a tied game. Not fast, but gritty. Rice weather the storm and made sure this would be a four-quarter game,
Early on in the season, Rice football would fold when their opponent threw the first punch. That’s how non-conference games against Houston and Texas ended in one-sided routs, and how Rice was blanked in conference play by UTSA. Even though the Owls haven’t found the win column of late, they have shown the ability to fight for four quarters.
After falling behind against UTEP, Rice fought back, scoring 21 points in the second quarter. Rice had managed 21 points in a half just twice entering this game. To put up 21 points in a 15-minute span, including two touchdowns scored less than a minute from each other, was arguably the most explosive outing from the offense this year.
It was the highest-scoring quarter since Rice scored 28 in a quarter against UTEP in 2016.
But it wasn’t just the offense that deserves credit for the quick answer. The defense held UTEP to 81 yards in the second quarter, zero third down conversions and two rushing yards on four attempts. The big play came following the Owls’ second touchdown when Gabe Taylor lept in front of a Gavin Hardison pass to prevent a quick answer by UTEP before the second quarter came to a close. Instead, Rice found paydirt:
Rice with the quick strike! Constantine ➡️ Patterson for 6️⃣pic.twitter.com/M1TciaDzgR
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 20, 2021
Cedric Patterson’s big play put Rice ahead at halftime for the first time since they played UAB which was, not coincidentally, their last win. Unfortunately for Rice, they seemed to spend all their points at once.
Out of gas and overwhelmed by injury
Jake Bailey was supposed to be “the guy” for Rice football this year. One of the highest-rated recruits in Rice history, the heir apparent to Austin Trammell had understandably high expectations entering the 2021 season. He was productive early on, hauling in his first touchdown of the year against Texas Southern and racking up a career-best 83 receiving yards against Southern Miss.
But it was really when Jake Constantine became the guy at quarterback that Bailey took his game to the next level. Bailey put up 143 yards against North Texas, 143 yards against Charlotte and 80 yards against Western Kentucky. He tallied 58 yards against UTEP before leaving the game midway through the third quarter after a hard hit.
With Bailey already sidelined, Jake Constantine scrambled on third down and was tripped up two yards short and injured on the tackle. Luke McCaffrey came in cold and could not hit Patterson on a deep shot. Rice turned the ball over on downs.
Jordan Myers did not play in this game. Ari Broussard was limited solely to two short-yardage carries, scoring once. Cam Montgomery had a career-long 43-yard carry. Kobie Campbell came in for Bailey and had a pair of important receptions. The next-man-up played well, but in the end, Rice ran out of steam.
Amidst the turmoil, UTEP scored 24 unanswered points. Rice’s first score in the second half would come with 5:42 to play in the fourth quarter, a two-yard fourth-down touchdown run by McCaffrey. Unfortunately for Rice, it was too little, too late.
Searching to snap a streak
The difference between a four-win season and a five-win season might not matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, but finishing the season 2-0 felt much more important for this after coming painstakingly close in a couplet of overtime finishes in weeks prior.
Not only will the Owls not finish within striking distance of six wins, they’ll have started and ended the season on low notes, the bright spots coming in the middle of the year. Fair or not, how teams start and how they finish tend to linger in memories with more staying power than what happened in say, Week 7.
It also sets the stage for a dangerously crucial finale against Louisiana Tech. Rice football is currently riding a four-game losing streak. If they are unable to beat Louisiana Tech at home next weekend, they’ll bump that trend to five consecutive defeats. Selling an upward trajectory gets tougher when the team goes winless in the final month of the season.
The totality of the year will be evaluated once the dust settles, and that goes beyond any singular result. Nevertheless, going 1-0 this week just became even more important.
Every week we’ll have a stat, storyline or key learning from the game reserved for our subscribers.
Fourth down frenzy
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- Conference USA Football 2021: Week 12 C-USA Roundup