From a blowout to back-to-back wins, the rise of Rice football parallels the Owls’ progression against the UAB Blazers, one of C-USA’s best programs.
Rice football has faced UAB five times since head coach Mike Bloomgren assumed leadership of the program prior to the 2018 season. The Owls are 2-3 against the Blazers in that time, but the progression demonstrated in that quintet of contests speaks volumes as to just how far this program has come in that time.
To fully understand what made Saturday’s upset win so significant, one must look back in time. Bloomgren certainly has. When meeting with the media following a 28-24 victory that lifted the Owls to 3-2 on the season, Bloomgren was quick to mention how this burgeoning rivalry started.
“They beat the life out of us,” Bloomgren said of that 2018 contest, one that UAB won 42-0 in Houston on the same field where Rice had just avenged themselves.
Bloomgren has been quick to compliment the Blazers in his remarks over the years. Even after the win, he referred to UAB as “the standard in our conference.”
Then came the follow-up question: if UAB is the standard, what does it say about a Rice program that has now taken down that giant twice in successive seasons?
“It means that we’ve taken some real steps in this football program, and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Bloomgren said between smiles. “I’m incredibly proud of them, to beat them two years in a row means everything.”
Following the 2018 shellacking, Rice cut the margin significantly the following season, falling to UAB in Birmingham by a final score of 35-20 in a weather-delayed, rain-soaked slugfest. Rice led 7-0 after the first quarter before UAB hit on three long touchdown plays in that contest which proved to be the difference. It was another loss, but Rice had shown a pulse.
In 2020 the teams played their closest game yet. Rice led 13-7 at halftime, another positive step, but the defense could not stop the UAB rushing attack and the offense was held out of the endzone in the second half, losing starting quarterback Jovoni Johnson to injury along the way before falling 21-16.
From a 42-point defeat to a 15-point defeat to a 6-point defeat. The deltas kept dwindling until they flipped for the first time in 2021. To win that game, Rice had to be absolutely perfect. They were.
Gabriel Taylor forced a fumble on the very first play of the game. Juma Otovanio provided a pivotal 50-yard kick return, the Owls’ longest of the season. After completing one of his first four passes, quarterback Wiley Green finished the game by completing 16 of his next 18 attempts for 200 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
Rice was as close to perfect as they could have dreamed to be and UAB still had a Hail Mary attempt at the buzzer to win the game. It fell incomplete. Rice won.
Defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu participated in that thrilling win and it was in his mind on Saturday when the Owls posted another victory over the Blazers.
“I feel like we’ve been able to play with them for at least the past maybe four years honestly and this is just another time like last year where we put all the pieces together,” Enechukwu said. “We were able to fight for four quarters and really dig in deep during the fourth quarter to come up with a victory.”
Far from perfect
While Rice football did technically play four quarters, they’d rather not write home about most of the first half. The Owls’ opening scoring drive accounted for 75 yards. Rice ended the first half with 75 total yards of offense, making absolutely zero progress on that side of the ball while allowing 17 straight points on defense.
“We played about as bad as we could in the first half,” Bloomgren admitted.
That’s part of what made the win so uplifting. Last year Rice football has to be perfect to squeak by a very good UAB team. This year the Blazers were picked to finish second in the conference in the Conference USA preason poll. Rice was tabbed as the No. 10 team in an 11-team field. And by the Owls’ own admission, they did not play their best brand of football on Saturday, and they still won.
“Who the heck picked us tenth?” Bloomgren joked in the aftermath. “I don’t know if you’re a betting man, but the lines have been off the last few weeks too.” Double-digit under dogs in each of their last contests, Rice has covered all three times and won outright twice, also dispatching Louisiana at home.
On Saturday against UAB, though, it wasn’t their underdog status that propelled them to victory. Rice won because Ari Broussard dominated short-yardage situations, scoring his seventh and eighth rushing touchdowns of the season. He’s currently tied for fourth in the nation in rushing scores and all of his touchdowns have come from inside the five-yard line.
Rice won because Treshawn Chamberlain, following a big hit by George Nyakwol that put the ball on the turf, was the only man on the field to hurry to the football, scooping it up for the go-ahead touchdown. The remaining 21 players on the field assumed it was an incomplete pass. Chamberlain recognized it as a fumble and made the play.
Rice won because quarterback TJ McMahon, now 4-0 in games he’s finished at Rice Stadium, has the presence of mind to go down on a play action call rather than force the ball down field. His decision burned 40 more seconds of valuable clock time and made the UAB offense work at a frantic pace.
Rice won because its defense — which allowed UAB to rack up 360 total yards of offense — posted three sacks in the final sixty seconds, including the game-winner by Joshua Pearcy as the clock expired.
Rice won because they took advantage of 12 UAB penalties for 116 yards, ranging from holding to roughing the passer to taunting to everything in between. Flags were flying all night, with penalties to both teams. The Owls endured.
Rice won because they’re a fundamentally different team than the squad that was blasted in Birmingham in 2018. And a different team from the one that couldn’t make the key plays down the stretch in 2020. And from the program which needed perfection to overcome the odds last season.
Not done yet
The 2022 Rice football team had already won with a dominant showing this season. Against UAB, Rice won ugly. And if Rice can beat one of Conference USA’s premier programs without posting a single yard of offense from the second drive until halftime and while allowing 17 consecutive points on defense… watch out.
“The sky’s the limit for this program,” longtime running back Cameron Montgomery said following the game.
And if anyone should have a true sense of the trajectory of this program, it would be Montgomery. One of only a handful of players still on campus that was recruited by former coach David Bailiff, Montgomery remembers every step it took along the way for Rice football to get to this place. He’s not taking his eyes off the prize.
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“We’ll just keep taking it one week at a time. I’d love to take it day by day. I would love for my guys to have a great night tonight, celebrate this win, come back tomorrow, look at the film with a critical eye and wake up on Monday, recovered,” he said.
“And we’ll just keep chopping away at that wood, chopping away at that wood until we knock that tree down.”
If the past few seasons were spent sharpening the ax, Rice football has come out of the gates this season swinging it freely. UAB might not be the last giant (tree) to be felled.
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