Rice football ran out of time against Houston, but four quarters of the Owls vs Cougars proved this team has made significant strides.
With less than 10 seconds on the clock and the ball 60 yards from the endzone, Rice football quarterback TJ McMahon launched the ball as far as he could down the field. Tick, tick, tick. Wide receiver Bradley Rozner hauled the ball in. Tick, tick, tick. And hit the turf nine yards from the endzone. Tick, tick, tick. Then clock stopped.
Players rushed the field on both sides, but no whistle blew. Soon everyone began to look around in question. Was the game over? Not quite.
Unlike in the NFL, the clock stops with every first down at the collegiate level. McMahon’s 51-yard bomb gave the Owls one play from the nine-yard line, trailing by seven. Although he wouldn’t say so directly, head coach Mike Bloomgren intimated his intentions had the Owls scored, would have been to go for two and the win.
Instead, McMahon’s final-second pass fell to the turf incomplete. Game over.
One year removed from being bludgeoned at home 44-7, Rice came one play and nine yards short of redemption. It’s a hard pill to swallow for a team that’s come this far.
“Because of how bad this game went last year. I don’t think any of us are going to feel great about a moral victory tonight,” Bloomgren said in the aftermath. “But there’s improvement, that’s pretty clear.”
At this point last season Rice had been blown out in the aforementioned game against Houston. They’d been shut out 58-0 at Texas. Sitting at 1-3, their only win came by 14 points against an FCS team that would go on to finish the season 3-8.
So to be 2-2 after two games with a win against Louisiana — which held the nation’s longest winning streak entering the game — is definitive, measurable and meaningful improvement. But it’s how that improvement has manifested itself that is most important.
Depth pays dividends
The 2021 Rice football squad was ravaged by injuries. The Owls have been slightly more fortunate this season, but still took the Cougars to the wire without: their opening day starting quarterback, multiple key wide receivers, multiple starting offensive linemen, their opening day starting edge rusher, their expected preseason No. 2 tight end and without a full complement of snaps from defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll. Rice was short-handed against Houston. The level of play said differently.
“That’s why you recruit. That’s why you try and create as much depth as you can,” Bloomgren said. “The next men up are better. That’s one reason it keeps working. Right now the depth we’ve created is better depth and they’re guys I’m not holding my breath when they go in a game.”
“I would love to be healthy, but in Week 5 of a college football season, it is what it is. I’m glad we have guys that are capable and going in there and preparing the right way and then performing.”
Absences that — while not spoken of as excuses — may have crippled this team in the past don’t seem to be that big of a speedbump. Trey Phillippi had never played guard in his life before taking his first practice snaps with the Owls’ starting unit on Wednesday. He started on Saturday night.
“Probably not ideal to have somebody start their first college football game at a position they’ve never played in their life against a team that’s nicknamed Sack Avenue, right?” Bloomgren asked rhetorically. Then he went on to praise Phillippi and fellow lineman Shea Baker and Clay Servin for making it work. Facing a difficult situation, the players found a way to push through.
The depth is, unquestionably, better. But that doesn’t explain the attitude and the swagger this team has brought into their games this season.
“Usually last year’s team, we would have folded,” McMahon said, in a moment of true transparency.
He’s not wrong. There were several occasions last season where things snowballed on the Owls and games got away from them. They were shut out twice. They squandered a pair of overtime chances and came up empty. Halftime leads and even fourth quarter leads somewhat frequently went up in smoke.
Rice threw three interceptions in the first half against Louisiana. Then they fought back. Rice misplayed the opening kickoff against Houston, allowing it to roll out of bounds at the two-yard line. They saw the Houston offense score a go-ahead touchdown three times. They answered every score. Right up until they ran out of time.
Linebacker Chris Conti, who transferred from Rutgers during the offseason said it best. “I’ll be honest, I love the culture,” he relayed after the game. “Obviously, not the outcome we want today but we’ll get after it on Monday and hopefully get a conference win next Saturday.”
There’s still time
“Our guys obviously fought til the scoreboard said 0:00,” Bloomgren said. “We had the chance to win or to tie I guess at the last snap and that’s what we intended to do.”
Against Houston, the clock has hit triple zeroes. No matter how close the Owls came, the result was loss number two on the season. There are no moral victories. But… the clock hasn’t run out on what continues to look like a very promising season.
“We’re going to find a way to win these kinds of games,” Bloomgren declared.
And with eight weeks worth of football left to play, the Owls’ future continues to look as bright as ever.
“I think we’re pretty close, as far as where we want to be,” McMahon said in closing. “Obviously perfection is the goal… that starts with me.”
McMahon wasn’t perfect on Saturday, but he did throw for 334 yards, outpacing Houston quarterback Clayton Tune. Rice did a lot of things well on Saturday, registering more first downs, fewer penalties and more yards per completion. They just ran out of time.
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