A thrilling comeback has Rice football and head coach Mike Bloomgren feeling good, but what’s next for Bloomgren and for the Owls?
Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren coached his first game at South Main on August 25, 2018. On that day, his team trailed Prairie View A&M 28-19 entering the fourth quarter before winning on a walk-off field goal by Jack Fox.
The Owls would face many fourth-quarter deficits from that point onward. Up until Saturday, they hadn’t overcome a margin of as much as a single point since that opening game. In fact, Rice entered their final game of the 2021 season 1-31 when trailing at any point in the fourth quarter.
So when Rice quarterback TJ McMahon, who opened the season as the fourth-stringer on the depth chart, tossed an interception with the home team already trailing by 10 points with just under 10 minutes to play, things looked bleak.
Then the Rice defense forced a punt and McMahon and Co. unleashed a stunning five-play, 92-yard touchdown drive. The defense picked Louisiana Tech off once again, forced another three-and-out and a long punt return from Sean Fresch set McMahon up for his second fourth-quarter touchdown pass and a remarkable come-from-behind victory.
The victory was the Owl’s fourth of the season and, as Bloomgren was apt to mention postgame, the most wins Rice football has had since 2015. What does that mean for this program moving forward?
“It’s happening. It’s not happening at the pace that we want it to. It’s not happening at the pace I want it to, but it’s happening,” Bloomgren said with an assured, yet measured enthusiasm.
Bloomgren then steered the conversation back to the senior class. “It was so important for them to leave the program better than they found it and I think they can tangibly say they did,” he contended. “Their freshman year they had one win. Their next year they had two and now we’re building. Again not at the pace any of us want, but we’re building and I think their impact is going to be felt and remembered in this program for a while to come.”
Four wins are, indeed, tangible progress. Add in two overtime contests and somehow account for the loss of several defensive starters who missed the bulk of the season and Rice football could be as close to that next step as many between the hedges believe themselves to be.
Rice doesn’t play Texas or Arkansas next season, but they do play USC. The rest of the non-conference slate includes Houston, McNeese State and a Louisiana team that might have a new head coach in the coming weeks. Other C-USA programs on their schedule like UTSA and WKU both project to have massive amounts of turnover given how many seniors fill their rosters. There is opportunity.
Even if his moment in the spotlight is brief, McMahon seemed fully in touch with its significance. “I think it just shows that we can hang with anybody we play with,” he said, before going on to address a looming question the Rice fanbase desperately wants to know, adding, “I think in the next year we’ll be where we want to be, at the least.”
That promised land includes a bowl trip. It speaks of a season that in which, in Bloomgren’s own words could see this program get to “six, seven, eight, nine, 10 wins, whatever that looks like next year,” provided they find a way to turn those near misses into wins, no matter what it takes.
The ascent has been slow, but it’s there. Bloomgren has championed process since he arrived at Rice. The next step is to take a hard look in the mirror and to modify the process to squeeze out every win this program is truly capable of achieving. Even if that means some uncomfortable conversations.
“Somehow, we gotta find a way to do it,” Bloomgren said. Indeed they do. It started with winning one more on Saturday, reminding all this program is certainly capable of rediscovering winning ways. Where next? Only time will tell.
Photo credit Maria Lysaker
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