Rice Football earned a prime-time win on Thursday night, forcing three turnovers on their way to beating Tulsa on the road to move to 2-1 in AAC play.
The defense started the night strong with three turnovers in the first quarter, buying time before the offense exploded for 35 points. Both sides did enough to secure a much-needed victory over Tulsa on the road on ESPN.
The win was the Owls’ largest conference road win since 2003 and their first double-digit conference win of any kind since 2000. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Rice football lost the turnover battle last time out, giving UConn the ball four times. With no takeaways of their own, that proved to be a recipe for disaster in a game the Owls would go on to lose. Flipping that script was a central talking point during the bye week, but it’s one thing to talk about forcing more turnovers and it’s another thing entirely to do what they did on Thursday night.
Gabe Taylor intercepted Tulsa’s first pass attempt of the evening. Then, following a turnover on downs, Rice ended another drive with a forced fumble with Jojo Jean knocking the ball away from quarterback Braylon Braxton into the arms of teammate De’Braylon Carroll. Josh Pearcy joined the fray on the next series, punching the ball out again, this time for Myron Morrison to recover.
Coming into Thursday night, Rice had forced two turnovers in their past 12 quarters of play, one apiece against South Florida and East Carolina. They surpassed that total in a single quarter against Tulsa, helping propel themselves to a 14-0 lead.
The Owls seem to have leaned all the way into a havoc-centric defensive scheme. They’ll give up chunk plays and set up looser coverage at times to ensure they keep the ball in front of them. If they compliment it with tackles for loss – they had seven against Tulsa — and turnovers, that might just get the job done.
Instant Rice and Ball Control
Alongside the explosive start by the Rice defense, the offense delivered several succinct scoring drives. The first was a two-play, 70-yard drive thanks to this breakaway touchdown run by Dean Connors:
Dean Connors says bye, bye!pic.twitter.com/flrZlh4DdK
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 19, 2023
Then another via a two-play, 53-yard drive concluded by this dart from Daniels to McCaffrey:
This throw from Daniels to McCaffrey is ridiculous. An absolute bullet. Can't defend that. pic.twitter.com/P5jgKxQfft
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 19, 2023
Rice entered this game as the top offense in the AAC in 30+ yard plays per game. That’s a stark difference from the team that had leaned on lengthy, 10+ play, clock-controlling drives in years past. When you have someone as capable as JT Daniels at quarterback, you might as well put his arm to good use. Rice is certainly doing that this year.
In fact, Daniels has completed a 30+ yard pass to 10 different pass catchers so far this season.
It’s also worth noting Daniels was not at his best early on . He finished the game completing 65 percent of his passes, but he started 5-of-13. Several of his throws went long, overshooting open receivers on plays that could have turned into significant gains. But that’s part of what makes the explosive plays so big.
When you’re missing your shots, even a few big gains can generate all the points you need. And when you’re locked in, the touchdowns arrive in bunches. Daniels finished the evening with 342 passing yards, two touchdowns and one, big win.
But it was how the Owls ended the night that was equally impressive. Their first three scoring drives took less than a minute. Their last two were both 13-plus plays and 8:00+ minutes. Dean Connors provided the exclamation point, running in a third touchdown on his nine-carry, 120-yard night.
It was a complete offensive performance, mixing the quick strike with relentless efficiency, by far their best outing of the year.
Special teams up and down
After a horrendous special teams day against UConn, the Rice coaching staff elected not to make any significant changes to personnel for this game. The results weren’t quite as disastrous — no turnovers were committed — but it wasn’t a great outing either. Results were decidedly up and down.
Conor Hunt’s first punt traveled just 37 yards and set Tulsa up with great field position. His next kick was near-perfect though, pinning Tulsa inside their own five-yard line on a perfect hanging kick that gave his coverage team plenty of time to get under the ball.
Punt returner Sean Fresch made a dangerous decision to field a punt in the final seconds in the first half, but made the catch off the bounce cleanly. He then delivered a 20-yard return to start the second half, getting Rice out of the shadow of its own endzone.
Enoch Gota booted the opening kickoff of the second half out of bounds but otherwise didn’t allow any returns. Rice did not attempt any field goals, but Tim Horn connected on all five extra-point tries.
Needed it. Got it.
Before the game, ESPN ran an interesting blub with their pregame commentary. They gave Rice a 37 percent chance to reach six wins as things currently stood. Those odds were set to nearly double should they beat Tulsa. Their win on Thursday elevated their current win total to four with a game left against Charlotte (who was a touchdown underdog to an ECU team Rice beat a few weeks ago).
As we learned against UConn, there are no gimmies with this team, not yet. But, Rice should be set up to have more than a puncher’s chance at a second-straight bowl season with two wins in their final five games. The road ahead is tough — defending AAC champion Tulane comes to Rice Stadium next weekend — but it’s tangible. And it won’t require a Herculean performance to get there.
“It just shows you that when we play the way we’re capable of, we can do some really fun things,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said postgame.
Rice needed this game. They absolutely had to have this game. And they found a way to win. We’ve watched this team mature over the course of the past few seasons and the past seven games. They’re proven they can beat anyone if they don’t beat themselves. Too often that seems a popular football cliche. This team is living it out, this time on national TV.
“I don’t think so,” Bloomgren chuckled when asked if he could have envisioned a better primetime performance. “What a great platform and I felt they used it really well.”
Rice football is its own worst enemy. On Thursday, they were their biggest advocates. A team playing that well can hang with anyone. The Owls just need to find a way to make sure that squad that won on the road shows up again next Saturday and each Saturday from this point onward.
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Getting off the field
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