Rice Football trudged through a slow start and made just enough plays to earn their first-ever AAC win, topping East Carolina at home.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t even pretty most of the time, but Rice football found a way to come out on top. The Owls took the lead for good in the fourth quarter, then got a punishing stop courtesy of Josh Pearcy. Then another from Daveon Hook. Then another from Chike Anigbogu. Before the offense could take some knees and secure their first ever AAC win. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
The formula for the first few weeks of the season was pretty straightforward for Rice football: let quarterback JT Daniels cook. With him playing at his best, he carved up opposing defenses and set the tone for this entire team. There were doubts he would be able to suit up at all against ECU on Saturday. The Owls were happy they did, but even with Daniels’ at the helm, the offense was out of sync.
On the first drive, Daniels missed a wide open Dean Connors for what should have been a walk in touchdown. On the second, a tipped pass resulted in an interception. Next, an injury to backup quarterback Chase Jenkins, who had subbed in to provide a spark with his legs, gummed up the offensive gears again. Through the first 15 minutes, Rice had just 45 total offensive yards.
In prior weeks, that might have been problematic. It wasn’t against ECU thanks in large part to strong starts from the other two phases, defense and special teams. The latter set up the Owls’ first points with a long punt return from Sean Fresch and a crisp 41-yard boot from Tim Horn. Then the defense kept the game deadlocked with an interception by Chris Conti on an ECU screen pass.
This might very well be a team that goes as the offense goes, but getting contributions from the defense and special teams is going to be crucial as the season progresses. Seeing life from both units was a big plus.
Split-reps experiment yields mixed results
Jenkins took almost all of the reps during practice with the first team offense this week and looked exceptional. Head coach Mike Bloomgren told The Roost he’d earned the chance to play and, on the surface, the rationale made a lot of sense. With Daniels operating at less than 100 percent, having a chance-of-pace option as fleet of foot as Daniels seemed prudent.
The first time Jenkins touched the ball, those hopes were fulfilled with an explosive, 28-yard scamper, the longest run for Rice on the day. Unfortunately, Jenkins immediately left the field with the medical staff and quarterback-turned-receiver JoVoni Johnson was dropped for a loss on a direct snap the very next play.
When Jenkins was next able to re-enter the game he was greeted with a long field that quickly got longer. ECU seemed more prepared to see Jenkins than Rice might have been expecting, quickly getting the Owls’ into third and long backed up near their own endzone.
Having Jenkins in for a third and long in such a pressure-packed situation in lieu of a quarterback as experienced as Daniels seemed unnecessarily risky. It didn’t pay off, with Rice punting the ball after a three-and-out.
Jenkins redeemed himself in the second half with his first-career touchdown run, putting the Owls in front.
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 1, 2023
Daniels was clearly not his usual self on Saturday. He missed a deep shot on the first drive and overthrew a pair of open receivers midway through the second. He entered halftime completing just 40 percent of his passes for 64 yards, a far cry from the man who threw for 400 yards in three quarters just a week ago.
Jenkins completed one pass on one attempt and rushed for 29 yards on three attempts with one score. Daniels was 18-of-32 (56 percent) for 232 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
When Daniels is fully healthy, there won’t be a need to throw Jenkins into games as a true freshman, beyond situations like the one above that favor his skillset. Time to develop will do him good, especially with Daniels as a mentor. When will Daniels be feeling his usual self again? That’s the question all Owls’ fans want to know.
Leaning into the bend-but-don’t break
Five weeks in, the defensive showings have congealed into a trend. The sacks and tackles for a loss are there, buoyed by some fourth down stops and turnovers. The consistency between the 20s has been sorely lacking. The age old “bend-but-don’t-break” adage looks to fit this 2023 Rice football defense like a shoe.
In the first half, Rice allowed 205 yards of offense, multiple fourth down conversions and 13 first downs. But, they had one interception, one sack, two tackles for a loss and did not allow a touchdown.
The opening drive of the second half was even more telling. ECU drove down to the one-yard line, but the Owls stonewalled the Pirates and kept them off the scoreboard entirely. After the first 35 minutes of regulation, ECU had 290 total yards, but just nine points.
The defense came close to another impressive stonewall midway through the fourth. ECU drove down the field into the redzone, appearing to falter on a third down interception. Instead, pass interference was ruled. It took ECU three additional plays to punch in their first touchdown of the night.
In the fourth quarter, this unit came alive. Had it not been for three consecutive stops in the final minutes, the Owls might not have won this game.
You play to win the game
In terms of their total team performance, that was far from an A-game from the Rice Owls. It might not have even been a B-worthy performance. Each unit had their struggles. But at the end of the day, as Bloomgren is oft to say, they scored one more point than the other team and they won the game.
Rice has come along way from where they started in the early years under Bloomgren. Winning in any capacity, is good. But more often than not, it’s taken some of the Owls’ better efforts on one side of the ball or another to get it done. This one probably won’t be held up as one of those better showings, but it will go down in the standings as a win, the Owls’ first ever in the AAC.
Pick your favorite euphemism. Winning ugly. Stole one. Got away with one. Did just enough. The end result is the same. Rice was far from their best and found a way to win. Tonight, that’ll do. Tomorrow, they can look a the film and make sure they’re better next week against UConn.
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