Rice Football traded blows with a potent USF offense early, but was unable to sustain the fight for four quarters, falling in their AAC opener on the road.
As if the loss wasn’t painful enough, the added insult of an injury to Rice football quarterback JT Daniels cast a further shadow over what was meant to be a hopeful beginning for the Owls in AAC play. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Set the tone
The opening quarter didn’t quite go according to plan for Rice football on Saturday. They were forced to punt on their opening drive and allowed a 12-play, 62-yard scoring drive by the USF offense, aided by some penalties and missed tackles along the way. Holding their opponents to a field goal was a good start, but the Owls needed to ensure they gave their defense a breather by producing an extended drive the next time out.
Not only did JT Daniels and Co. deliver, they delivered their message emphatically. Dean Connors converted a short third down and moved the sticks on the ground. Then Luke McCaffrey hauled in a 47-yard reception to get Rice inside the redzone.
Rice brought the jumbo package in, but Daelen Alexander was stopped for a minimal gain on third down, setting up a critical fourth and one. For the brand and for the psyche of his team, head coach Mike Bloomgren had no choice to make. He absolutely had to go for it. But how he elected to get that final yard and change, that had some room for creativity.
The big men trotted onto the field once again after a timeout, but this time Bloomgren and offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo threw a curveball that nobody on the USF defense was ready for. Daniels faked to Alexander, then calmly tossed the ball to the freshman tailback for the go-ahead touchdown.
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) September 23, 2023
Rice found themselves in a similar “momentum moment” in the final minute of the second quarter. Trailing for the first time that day, quarterback JT Daniels led a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to put Rice back in front that included a big fourth down conversion.
There have been times in recent seasons when it has felt like everything was breaking the wrong way for this team. There were a few plays on Saturday that served as small counterpoints.
USF goes as Byrum Brown goes. The Bulls quarterback is a lethal threat on the ground, but Rice was able to neutralize that aspect of his game. His arm was the problem, or at least, what his arm was able to do to the Owls’ secondary.
After a sluggish start to the game, Brown and the USF offense got into gear and started their aerial assault. From the middle of the second quarter on, Brown completed passes of 53, 51, 59, 42, 49 and 52 yards. One long bomb is too much. Three is a problem. But six pass plays allowed of 40+ yards? That’s a disaster, regardless of which offense is on the other side of the field.
Getting prepared for the furious tempo USF plays with was a focal point all week. But the defensive backs in coverage had plenty of time and space to make sure the ball wasn’t able to get behind them and it didn’t seem to matter.
The pass rush has been a huge boost to a young secondary so far this season. But when the pass rush doesn’t get home (or doesn’t have time to reach its target) the downside is terrifying. Rice experienced what had to be pretty closer to the worst-case scenario on Saturday and they’ll have plenty of film to watch as they attempt to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Don’t beat yourself
The notion of not beating yourself has saturated the Rice football culture this season. Bloomgren reiterated the concept quite eloquently during his midweek availability.
“I just can’t sell these guys enough that it’s all about us. That’s a very good football team on the other side,” Bloomgren said. “They’re playing with a lot of belief right now. I think Alex [Golesh] is doing a great job instilling his culture there, but right now, this game is not going to be about what South Florida does. It’s going to be about the Rice Owls do.”
Although there were plenty of big Rice moments, what the Rice Owls did on Saturday was littered with sloppy play and self-inflicted wounds. Kicker Tim Horn missed two field goals. Punts were short. The Owls had their fair share of inconvenient penalties. USF’s lone first quarter touchdown run would not have happened had Rice not allowed a deep shot earlier in the drive and then missed several tackles on the run itself.
And that’s all before accounting for the secondary’s terrible day. Most of the time, playing sloppily on the road results in a loss. On Saturday, it did.
Including Rice football’s debut game in the Southwestern Conference in 1915, more than 100 years ago, Rice has yet to win its conference opening game. That includes a loss to start SWC play, WAC play, C-USA play and now AAC play.
On Saturday, Rice had the chance to begin the season 3-1 for the first time since 2001 and squash some uncertainty lingering within the program. They missed that chance. Instead of looking at the standings this weekend and seeing Rice tied with Memphis for first place in the conference, the Owls are tied for last.
The road ahead looks (somewhat surprisingly) more manageable than it might have before the season began. Both East Carolina and UConn entered Saturday winless. Rice gets both teams on their home turf. Making the most out of that pair of games is paramount now after the Owls missed their first opportunity to find their first American Conference win.
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