Rice Football delivered the first blow, but it was Texas that had the last laugh as the Longhorns overwhelmed the Owls in the trenches to hand them a season-opening loss.
The final score might not have been completely indicative of the intensity of Saturday’s season-opening matchup between Rice football and Texas. The Owls kept things close through the first half until the defense ran out of gas, worked to the max under the sweltering Austin heat as the Owls’ offense struggled to get into gear. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Throw the first punch
You couldn’t have drawn it up much better than this. Texas received the opening kickoff, picked up a couple of yards and found itself facing a fourth-and-two from its own 33-yard line. Rather than play it safe, the Longhorns rolled the dice. The Owls overwhelmed quarterback Quinn Ewers in the backfield and forced a short throw, turning Texas over on downs on their first possession.
“That’s something that doesn’t really surprise us,” linebacker Myron Morrison said postgame. “We consider ourselves one of the best short-yardage defenses in the country.”
Rice would get three points for their efforts, picking up one first down before turning to Tim Horn who booted through a 42-yard field goal to give the underdogs the lead. Head coach Mike Bloomgren had mentioned this week that he didn’t believe the game would be too big for his team this time around and that certainly seemed to be the case from the opening whistle.
Rice entered the second quarter trailing 7-3 and went into halftime down 16-3. In both instances, Rice was very much so in the game and had given Texas reason to be concerned, at least on one side of the ball. This was a matchup that hadn’t been interesting in the second half in the last several meetings. Rice kept the game in reach at the halftime whistle.
Defense makes its mark
How about that defense? This unit lost Ikenna Enechukwu, Trey Schuman, Quint Titre, George Nyakwol and others from last year’s squad and somehow looked even more dangerous. The front seven engineered two fourth-down stops in plus territory in the first half and gave Ewers all he could handle, racking up two sacks and several more near misses that still managed to impact the game. Coleman Coco and De’Braylon Carroll noticeably impacted the game.
Texas was a five-touchdown favorite on Saturday largely because oddsmakers believed the Longhorns would be able to move the ball. Texas did that to some extent — the Longhorns finished with 458 yards gained — but the Rice defense never lost its composure and seemingly always bounced back following a big Texas gain.
Through the air, Sean Fresch and Tre’shon Devones kept the ball in front of them and prevented Ewers and Texas from connecting on home run balls down the field. Instead, Texas was forced to do much of its damage after the catch.
Although the box score won’t be kind to the defense after surrendering 37 points, when field position and the lack of help from the Owls’ offense is taken into account, it’s hard to walk away from this one not feeling largely positive above this side of the ball. There were missed tackles, missed assignments and missteps, but the defense was not the problem on Saturday, far from it.
Oof, Offense, Oof
While the defense rose to the occasion, the offense was largely stuck in quicksand throughout the game. Handed so many opportunities by their counterparts on the other side of the ball, quarterback JT Daniels and company did little to return the favor. His Rice debut was largely underwhelming, he completed 14 of 26 passes for 149 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
In the aftermath, Bloomgren pumped the brakes on putting the all blame on his quarterback, and for good reason. The Texas defensive line had its way with the Rice offensive line from start to finish, flustering Daniels and making him through with hands in his face and arms on his jersey. “You can’t evaluate quarterbacks like that,” Bloomgren said.
The unit had the opportunity to go back to the drawing board at halftime but came out of the gates with a false start on the first snap of the half which proceeded a quick three-and-out. The ensuing drive did move the chains once, but a fourth-and-one stop by the Texas defense turned the ball over on downs.
In many ways, that short yardage stop, an area the Owls have found tremendous success in during recent years, typified the Owls’ largest offensive problem on Saturday: the trenches. Plain and simple, Rice was simply outmanned up front. They had no answer for the sheer power of the Longhorns inside and it completely crippled their offensive attack. “The best quarterback in the world needs something,” Bloomgren said of the protection. “There were a lot of times I didn’t feel he had those opportunities today.”
Rice football won’t face many teams with the combination of size and strength Texas possesses up front this season. Before writing this unit off entirely, let’s see how they fair against a more evenly matched front.
Onto the next
It would have been a remarkable, unforgettable beginning to the season had Rice football done the unthinkable and upset a ranked Texas team on the road to begin the 2023 season. Those dreams have passed, and Rice is on to what the Owls hope to be the more representative portion of their schedule.
Oddsmakers aren’t infallible, but Saturday’s matchup with the Longhorns should be the only time this season Rice will be an underdog but four or five touchdowns — a margin the Owls managed to cover. No, from this point onward, every game is not only winnable, but victory should be achievable without herculean means.
Rice gave Texas a scare, stayed relatively healthy and got a good look at what will likely be the most talented opposition they’ll face this season. Now it’s time to move on. All eyes are now on Houston as Rice readies for a rematch of a game that went down to the wire last season and is anticipated to be extremely competitive once again.
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