Rice Football took a fourth quarter lead, but was unable to secure their sixth win, falling to 5-7 on a dreary day in Denton against North Texas.
On the arm of a scout team quarterback, Rice football stood toe to toe with the Conference USA Title Game-bound North Texas Mean Green for nearly four quarters. But in the end, the home team was able to punch in the final score in the fourth quarter, sending Rice home with a crushing defeat. The Owls will await their bowl fate as results start to come in. For now, here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Show up ready to play: Check
Rice football knew their season was potentially on the line when they arrived at Apogee Stadium on Saturday morning. This was it. And to their credit, the team that took the field a few hours later looked much more poise than they had in either of their prior two games.
Special teams blocked a field goal on the opening drive. The defense got a stop on the second drive. And while the offense had one short-yardage fumble and a punt in their first two possessions, both were extended drives in which freshman quarterback AJ Padgett, making his first career start, acquitted himself well. The moment was clearly not too big for him.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice Football vs North Texas
North Texas was able to move the ball, but the Owls did a good job limiting the conference’s most explosive offense from doing much damage through the first 15 minutes. The only blemish was a costly one, though, a busted-coverage touchdown to spot North Texas with an early 7-0 lead. The defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession to prove that was a mistake and not the norm.
This team has seen plenty of bad games go down downhill quickly. On Saturday, when it was do or die, they fought. At the halftime whistle, the two-touchdown underdogs were tied. This team had to get off the mat if they were going to have any chance to win this one. They came out swinging.
Young talent shows up
Starting a scout team quarterback in a must-win game is never Plan A. But those are the cards Rice football was dealt and they played them extremely well, exploiting Padgett’s running ability while simultaneously taking advantage of a North Texas defense that left plenty of receivers in open space for the young signal caller.
In addition to the quarterback conundrum, Rice football was also without starting slot receiver Luke McCaffery and his backup Kobie Campbell on Saturday. That forced true freshman Braylen Walker into a more prominent role and he did more than grab his cup of coffee on his way back to the bench.
His first grab went for 17 yards and a first down. His second reception, also on third down, went for 15 yards and move the chains. Somehow career reception number three was even more impactful:
Freshman to Freshman magicpic.twitter.com/g5ETdWQRVN
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 26, 2022
Walker hadn’t played a single down of college football before Saturday. Beyond that, he missed the entirety of his senior season of high school. His last touchdown came on November 14, 2020, more than two years ago. And in his first true action on anything more than scout team, he torched the North Texas defense when his team needed him most.
In his first career start, Padgett completed 13-of-22 passes for 229 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for 40 yards, excluding sacks. If players like this are the future of Rice football, the Owls look to be in good hands.
Coming up short
A painful theme of the season reverberated around Apogee stadium in the final minutes. With the ball at the 34 yard-line, Padgett took a sack on a well covered first down play. Cam Montgomery was stopped for a short gain on second down. Then came a pivotal, and diasterous, third down play. Padgett mishandled the snap and bent down to pick up the ball. Officials ruled him down, a loss of eight yards.
As the play was explained to the Rice sideline, Padgett was ruled to have used the ball to pick himself up and called down. That set up a fourth and a mile from which Rice football would be unable to recover. Despite leading in the fourth quarter, Rice was unable to finish, falling to 5-7 on the season as they drop their third game in a row.
Emotions were raw in the aftermath, and head coach Mike Bloomgren answered the questions. “My message to the team was there’s nothing I can do to take the pain away. There’s a lot of people that poured a lot into this program over the years and this is not the result any of us wanted, this is not the goal we set,” he said.
And now, we wait
Taking care of business on Saturday was the easiest way to secure a trip to a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Rice football was unable to do that, but their postseason hopes aren’t dead just yet. As mentioned in our Q&A post this past week, there is a variable path to a bowl game for a five-win Rice squad.
Missouri upset Arkansas on Black Friday to secure a spot. That left six bowl berths outstanding at the time Rice football kicked off against North Texas on Saturday afternoon. Should the pool of six-win teams not be sufficient to meet the demand for bowl teams, Rice would be next on the list.
How things go this afternoon and into the evening will certainly be something we’ll be following at The Roost as the day progresses. Stay tuned here for updates.
When asked for his thoughts on the future, Bloomgren stood tall. “Those things are for people above my pay grade. Those are always questions when you coach. Progress is clear. It’s defined, but is it enough? Those are for other people to make those decisions. I know what we’re done. I know what this coaching staff is done and I would challenge anybody to do better then what this group has done, and that’s on the field and off,” he said.
“We’re winning more games every year. And maybe the wins are not as fast as anybody wants including me and the staff, but progress, what these guys are building, and the recruits? Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think anybody could do better than this staff.”
As erratic as the journey has been from week to week, Rice football closes the 2022 regular season with a distinct near-term history under head coach Mike Bloomgren. Excluding the COVID year, in which Rice played five games (and finished 2-3), the Owls have increased their win total in each season of Bloomgren’s tenure.
Rice won two in 2018, three in 2019, four in 2021 and five this season, with the potential for a sixth win still to come if things work out for the best.
On paper, Rice has been better each season under Bloomgren. The real question for athletic director Joe Karlgaard (and new president Reginald DesRoches) is whether or not that incremental growth has come quickly enough and, more importantly, whether or not the belief remains that those steady building blocks laid in the past five years suggest the elusive breakthrough year will come in the Owls’ first season in the American Athletic Conference.
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