Rice football was run out of Los Angeles in blowout fashion by the USC Trojans, suffering both insult and injury on their way out of town.
On Saturday evening at the Coliseum, USC and new head coach Lincoln Riley won the toss, marched down the field and scored the game’s opening touchdown. Rice football responded with a 16-play, 74-yard touchdown drive of their own, burning nearly eight minutes of clock time as they methodically marched down the field.
Then all hell broke loose. The Owls would fall in blowout fashion to the Trojans courtesy of three defensive scores allowed and another improbable, yet somehow inevitable, injury to a starting quarterback. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Owls’ offense both explosive and balanced
Before things went sideways, it only took a quick look at the Owls’ first two plays to see things were going to be different on that side of the ball this year. On their first snap of the game, Rice football lined up with two tight ends on the field, including Trey Phillippi, who had only just converted to the position last week. They ran the ball up the middle for four yards.
The next snap came from an empty formation with nobody in the backfield and no tight ends in line. Quarterback Wiley Green hit tight end Jack Bradley for nine yards and the first down. Up and down the field the Owls went, mixing spread concepts with heavy personnel until Ari Broussard delivered the exclamation point: a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down.
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Despite being down to one proven option at tight end and a backup quarterback, Rice moved the ball down the field on a Trojan defense that, while unproven, was certainly talented. This was one of the most balanced offensive displays we’ve seen from Rice football in quite some time. The Owls finished with 134 yards passing and 146 yards rushing.
They averaged 6.4 yards per play in the first half while the game was in reach, finishing with 4.5 yards per play overall.
Picked off, again and again and again and again
It’s impossible to complement the offense without decrying an embarrassing historical feat — the first game time since 1982 in which the Trojans’ defense registered three pick-sixes. The first occurrence seemed like bad luck. Green hit Luke McCaffrey in the hands but the ball ricocheted into the air and was hauled in by a defender with 93 yards of empty field.
The second came on a dropped pass from TJ McMahon to Bradley Rozner on the first series of the second half. Rozner would drop another pass which turned into another interception midway through the third quarter.
The third pick-six of the game (and fourth interception) came on a scrambling throw from McMahon, who was hit from behind while he threw, forcing the ball downward and into the hands of the waiting defender.
But even McMahon’s second turnover wasn’t truly a quarterback error. Right tackle Ethan Onianwa, making his first collegiate start, was beat off the edge, forcing McMahon to run right into pressure. While the offensive line had a largely positive day, it’s impossible to ignore the growing pains that come with starting such a green player in a pressure-packed environment like the Coliseum.
The scheme and game planning were solid. The execution, both on the pass-catching front and the blocking on the edge, was severely lacking.
No good, very bad luck
Although USC led 21-7 midway through the second quarter, Rice was very much still in the game following a 55-yard run up the middle by Cam Montgomery. Unfortunately, he was caught from behind before reaching paydirt and Rice found themselves facing a fourth down in the redzone. Head coach Mike Bloomgren made the right call — electing to go for it rather than settle for three — then disaster struck.
Green’s pass to Luke McCaffrey was bobbled in the air, falling into the waiting arms of a USC defender who scampered 93 yards the other way for a USC touchdown. In the process, Green was injured on the play and removed from the game.
In the span of seconds, Rice went from down by 14 with the football in the redzone to down by 21 without their starting quarterback. When one considers the exhaustive injury history the Owls’ have had at the position in recent year, it just doesn’t seem fair. But football is often unfair and sometimes the ball bounces the wrong way and injuries happen. Like two dropped passes turning into pick sixes.
Although it wasn’t enough to win the game, it was encouraging to see the team respond quickly with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Out-athleted, not schemed
Reigning Biletnikoff Trophy winner Jordan Addison beat Sean Fresch on the first play of the game, picking up a 12-yard gain and a first down. When the Trojans reached the redzone, that play was still in the mind of the Owls’ corner. Then Addison did this:
Jordan Addison’s ridiculous routes are back pic.twitter.com/y7p7TIDQsT
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 3, 2022
That score proved to be an omen of things to come on an afternoon in which USC would execute a nearly flawless offensive game plan led by Heisman candidate quarterback Caleb Williams. Unphased regardless of what Rice threw his way, Williams completed 16-of-19 passes in the first half. His three incompletions? A drop, a spike to kill the clock and a sideline laser with one second remaining that was ruled out of bounds.
Could the Owls have executed better on defense? Probably so to at least some degree. But Williams was clinical in his precision on Saturday. As close to perfect as one could ask a quarterback to be. And with weapons like Jordan Addison, Mario Williams and others available, that proved to be too much for Rice to overcome.
By the time the third pick-six was thrown, this game was over. It’s hard to put too much stock into anything that happened from the midpoint of the third quarter on and Rice has shown the ability to put a bad game behind them in the past.
Rice football isn’t going to face a quarterback like Williams or athletes like Addison again for a very, very long time. Even on their bad days, they won’t give their opponents three defensive scores. USC was perfect on offense and got a few breaks along the way. Sometimes the story is that simple.
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