Rice Football, now 3-3, played sloppy football and cost themselves a win, falling to previously winless UConn at home.
An auspicious start turned quickly after a series of Rice football miscues turned their final non-conference game of the season into a nightmarish end to the first half of their season. The Owls have plenty of soul-searching to do during the bye week, but first, here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
The running game shows life
Prior to Saturday, Rice football had essentially punted on running the football over the first five games of the season. To be frank, they had that luxury because quarterback JT Daniels had been lights out. Rather than stay stuck to a tired script, head coach Mike Bloomgren and the Owls have adjusted their plans, leaning into a pass-happy offense that has quickly become the norm for the program this year.
But you knew at some point the ground game was going to get its chance to mount a comeback. An offensive line coach at heart, raised up under West Coast philosophies, abandoning the running game entirely was never really going to completely transpire.
In their final non-conference game of the year, the Owls’ rushing attack reached a meager 112 yards, a season-high against FBS opponents. Rice wasn’t able to lean into the pounding the rock given the circumstances, but when they did, it was marginally effective. If you’re looking for a silver lining in today’s messy result, this is probably it.
Shot themselves in both feet, again and again
It looked like Rice football was en route to a runaway win after Otoviano found paydirt for the second time in the first quarter. Then UConn scored twice in the span of 65 seconds. The blame for both touchdowns rests squarely on big mistakes by the Rice offense.
The first oops was committed by quarterback JT Daniels, who lost the football at the two-yard line when he was contacted by some combination of the UConn pass rush and an offensive lineman blocked in his direction. UConn scored two plays later.
Then, following a big return by Quinton Jackson that set Rice up in UConn territory, a swing pass to Braylen Walker was ruled a backward pass. Rice didn’t respond to the ball on the ground. UConn did, picking up the loose pigskin and racing for a 50-yard defensive touchdown. Just like that, a two-score lead turned into a one-point advantage. The lead was preserved by Peyton Stevenson, who blocked a UConn extra point.
At the end of the second quarter, a false start squandered second-and-goal from the three before a missed field goal. A muffed punt spotted UConn favorable field position, which they capitalized on midway through the third. A delay of game took them out of field goal range in the fourth, trailing by 10.
One or two mental mistakes can be overlooked. The mistakes on Saturday were overwhelming and they directly cost Rice a very winnable game.
Special teams remain an adventure
It’s been a mixed bag from the special teams this season, with a stark split in which units are performing well and which ones aren’t. Quinton Jackson and the return game have earned some flowers. They’ve been, by far, the most impactful component of the Owls’ special teams. Jackson had three returns against UConn for 90 yards, including a long of 41 that got Rice into UConn territory.
The Owls also blocked an extra point, helping them preserve an early lead when everything else started to go sideways.
The rest of the special teams has been less encouraging. Tim Horn missed a chip-shot 29-yard field goal, his fourth missed kick in his last five tries. He’s now converting less than 50 percent of his field goals on the season. That’s not good enough.
Punting hasn’t been quite as disastrous, but it hasn’t been great. Conor Hunt entered Saturday ranked ninth in net punting average out of 11 eligible AAC punters. Both of his first two punts went less than 30 yards. He’s talked about trusting his coverage and not overkicking so maybe there’s an adjustment the unit can make to improve results. As it stands right now, the results aren’t good enough.
Add a muffed punt to the mix and a holding penalty that nullified another big return from Jackson and you get one of the most disappointing days from the Rice special teams we’ve seen in quite some time.
Measuring up to expectations
Most of us aren’t scratch golfers, but that’s almost where Rice football found itself as a program through the first half of the 2023 season.
Entering the year, a plausible “best-case scenario” for the Owls looked to be a 4-2 start. Of course, that was likely assuming a Bayou Bucket loss and a win on the road against USF. Those results ended up being flipped. A win against a 0-5 UConn team would have reached that 4-2 mark. It didn’t happen.
A golden opportunity was laid in front of this team and they did not get the job done. That’s going to sting. In a year that felt like one the Owls could prove they were better than just okay, they’ve fallen right back to .500. Rice is the only team in the AAC with a Power 5 win. They’re also the only team in the country to lose to UConn, reiterating something we already more or less knew. This team is capable, but wildly inconsistent.
The coaching staff has a lot of questions to answer during their bye week. If they’re going to reach a bowl game, they need to be at least .500 in AAC play. They still have Tulane, SMU and UTSA on the schedule. That’s a tall ask for a consistent team and quite a mountain to climb for an inconsistent one.
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