Rice Football pushed another AAC heavyweight to the brink on Saturday, but came up short with a backup quarterback, falling to SMU at home.
Down to a true freshman backup quarterback for the entirety of the second half, Rice football hung around and had their chance to knock off SMU, one of the AAC’s three remaining teams to be unbeaten in league play. Chase Jenkins led multiple scoring drives but was picked off in the final minutes as the Owls fell on Homecoming night.
“It’s a win business. And the fun is in the winning and we all know that,” Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren said in his comments after the game. “They’ve been trained in that way they understand that, but I told them it doesn’t change the fact that I’m incredibly proud of them and how they fought in the second half of this ballgame through a lot of adversity and gave them a chance to win against an incredibly talented football team. That’s something we never could have done in years past.”
Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Special teams show out
It’s been a bumpy road for the Rice football special teams this season. Following a particularly disastrous day against UConn, which featured a missed field goal and a muffed punt, head coach Mike Bloomgren delivered a rather confident defense of special teams coordinator Pete Alamar, promising better days.
“What I do know, is we have the best special teams coordinator I’ve ever been around in Pete Alamar and I trust him to fix it,” Bloomgren said that night. “I’ll certainly do everything I can to help him.”
The Owls haven’t kicked many field goals since then and the punting hasn’t been noticeably improved, but Saturday’s start was just about the best showing that phase of the football has had all season. In the span of a few minutes, the Rice special teams accomplished the following: snuffed out a fake punt, kicked a 50-yard punt and finally blocked an SMU punt and returned it for a touchdown.
The @RiceFootball special teams have taken a lot of flak in recent weeks. So far in the first quarter: snuffed out a fake punt, kicked a 50-yard punt and blocked this punt and returned it for a touchdown. Wow!pic.twitter.com/aRQp2c1D8h
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 4, 2023
Rice was never going to have a chance in this game if they didn’t find a way to compete on special teams. That unit gave the Owls a chance. Quinton Jackson added a 44-yard kickoff return. Tim Horn made a fourth quarter field goal. In just about every special teams phase, Rice had success.
Manufacturing an offense
In baseball, there’s a concept of manufacturing runs. When the bats aren’t swatting the ball all over the yard, managers resort to stealing bases, bunts, sac flies and everything else they can scheme up to find a way to get a run. The terminology carries with it the idea of stealing points when you’re not having a banner day on the offensive side.
Onlookers at Rice Stadium witnessed the football equivalent on Saturday night. The Rice offense totaled minus one yard in the first quarter. Quarterback JT Daniels was sacked three times before he registered his third completion of the night and the running game wasn’t working. The SMU defense was overwhelming the Rice line and the offense was stuck.
Yet somehow, Rice went into halftime with 21 points, trailing by just a field goal.
In what has to be one of the most impressive offensive performances we’ve seen at South Main this year, offensive coordinator Marques Tuisosopo was — as the kids say — in his bag. There were tight ends in motion, jet sweeps, reverses, lots of orbit motions and more importantly, extended drives that kept the SMU offense off the field.
After not being able to move the ball at all in the first quarter, @RiceFootball caps off a touchdown drive with this creative play call to get McCaffrey the ball.
Players make the plays, but that was a fantastically schemed possession.pic.twitter.com/c4rUIBziur
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 5, 2023
If Rice kept everything vanilla, it felt as if the SMU front would have blown them off the field. They dialed up the creativity and pulled out almost every stop. Credit to all parties involved — coaches and players — for finding a way to make this game extremely competitive, starting quarterback or not.
Nights like tonight expose the quality of your scheme. When everything goes wrong, can you still move the ball? Rice was able to do that in very challenging circumstances against the best defense in the conference with a backup quarterback. There are no moral victories, but the coaching staff absolutely carried their weight on Saturday night.
So many Rice football seasons under Bloomgren have featured a familiar, painful narrative: quarterback injuries. Even after JT Daniels left the USF game with an ankle injury the Owls felt like they’d escaped the curse when their rugged signal caller returned the following week to play against UConn. The undeniable willpower of No. 18 made this season feel different.
And while the Owls’ season is not anywhere close to finished, watching Daniels view yet another game from the sidelines was a punch to the gut Rice fans had thought they’d put well behind them in the rearview mirror.
Chase Jenkins took the first snap of the third quarter while Daniels was nowhere to be found on the Owls’ sideline. He would later emerge from the Brian Patterson Center and walk down to the field with a ball camp on his head and no helmet in sight. That sight — Daniels alone on the sideline as the offense took the field — was absolutely crushing.
Bloomgren revealed he wasn’t aware Daniels was in any danger of missing time when he entered the locker room at halftime. Daniels was then taken away by team doctors and examined where it was then revealed he did not remember his final drive or the score of the game.
The game could have been over at that point, but Jenkins wasn’t going to roll over. Jenkins finished 10-for-16 with 85 yards passing. He ran the ball four times for 21 yards, including a long of 14 yards. He led multiple scoring drives against an elite SMU defense. You couldn’t have asked for much more from a true freshman backup quarterback who started the season working with the scout team.
Playing on fumes
The secondary entered the game without Marcus Williams or Jojo Jean available. Sean Fresch and Gabe Taylor each spent time on the turf during the game, with Taylor unable to finish the game and Fresch willing the defense to hold together. When logic dictated the defense should be out of gas, they delivered their best moments of the entire game.
Following a touchdown drive by the Mustangs to start the second half, the Rice defense limited SMU to just six points for the remainder of the contest, much of which came when SMU starting quarterback Preston Stone was still in the game.
Bloomgren acknowledged the effort. “The way those guys fought, that’s what it comes down to,” he said. Those guys just fought together and for each other. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s really cool.”
Earlier in the season, Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren talked about margin. He talked about this team being talented enough to win games, even when they weren’t having their best day. After Saturday’s result, Rice has itself wrestling with a new kind of margin, the kind that ties directly to bowl eligibility.
Sitting at 4-5, below .500 for the first time this season, Rice now must win two of its final three games to secure six wins and clinch bowl eligibility. They had back-to-back “quality losses” but that doesn’t matter on the final ledger. If they didn’t already, the Owls officially have their backs up against the wall.
When asked whether the team was feeling that pressure, Bloomgren remained resolute. “We talked about UTSA. You know how we’re going to take this,” he said. It’s going to be one [game] at a time. It’s not going to be about margin. It’s not going to be about anything.”
“They all can see big picture. They’re smart kids; they go to Rice, but for us, we’re going to talk about the things that matter and preparing the right way. And what a big win it would be next week in the Alamodome if we can have a great week of practice and find a way to get that thing done.”
Rice has three games left: at UTSA, at Charlotte, vs FAU. They’ve played some really good football in recent weeks, but they’re running out of time to cash in on positive performances that come without a win on the final scoreboard.
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