Rice Football hung around for a half, but couldn’t finish the job against UTSA, falling to the Roadrunners for the eighth consecutive time.
The first 30 minutes of Saturday night’s AAC matchup in the Alamodome felt like a heavyweight fight. Rice football traded blows with UTSA, matching one of the conference’s few remaining teams that was unbeaten in league play. Then things fell apart.
Suddenly the proverbial clock hit midnight and the Owls turned into a pumpkin, withering in the third quarter in what felt like a winnable game to that point. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
The defense brought the heat
Rice football has seen plenty of UTSA quarterback Frank Harris over the past several seasons and they’ve learned a lot of what didn’t work. Harris has gashed Rice through the air and on the ground — and he got his fair share of yardage on Saturday night — but the Owls’ defensive gameplan against him proved effective.
Over and over again, Rice brought pressure in high-leverage situations. On third downs, Harris was met with white-clad Owl jerseys with haste, forcing the veteran passer to make split-second decisions with the football.
The strategy put a heavy burden on the Rice secondary. If the rush didn’t get home, the defensive backs had to make one-on-one plays. For the most part, they did and the Owls’ gameplan gave them a chance. Tack on a few key havoc plays, and Rice was very much so in this game.
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 12, 2023
UTSA entered the redzone five times, they scored three touchdowns. One of those touchdowns came after the Roadrunners were gifted a free first down on a crucial fourth down play. Rice was all over Harris from the snap, forcing him to break toward the sideline. Michael Larbie came in late and was flagged for a roughing the passer. The call was correct. The play was devastating. UTSA scored three plays later.
It wasn’t a perfect day, but holding Frank Harris to 175 yards and one touchdown and making plays in the redzone was more than sufficient enough to give the Rice offense a chance. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith crafted a solid game plan. Against an elite offense, the defense did their part.
Turning to their fourth quarterback to see the field in the past eight days, the Rice football offense took a while to show life in this one. AJ Padgett, who drew his first start since the Lending Tree Bowl against Southern Miss, started the game 1-for-4, stepping into a drive-ending sack and overshooting running back Dean Connors on a screen with blockers ready on another third down opportunity.
On the Owls’ third drive, Padgett threw it into an empty area of turf, vacated by a running back cutting back toward the middle of the field and a tight end breaking out. It was clearly a miscommunication, but regardless of the culpable party, it killed another drive.
Every quarterback that takes a snap for the Owls this season will be compared — fairly or not — to the high bar JT Daniels set with this offense. Daniels has showcased an uncanny ability to make plays happen despite adverse conditions. He’s good for a few “did-you-see-what-he-just-did” plays in each game.
There wasn’t much time between the drive Padgett started to settle down and the UTSA defensive line turned into the Monstars, or at least, something frighteningly close. Padgett led the offense on a 22-second touchdown drive to close the half but the second half began with three consecutive three-and-outs.
Head coach Mike Bloomgren said afterward that, for the most part, the offensive line held its own. And while he did lead with the reminder that the quarterback gets too much credit and too much blame, he noted Padgett’s role in the negative plays was not insignificant.
There were moments when it felt like Rice might have won this game had Daniels been on the field, but the final score seems to suggest otherwise.
Offense out of sync
The result of this game swung on the play of the offenses. The Rice offensive line was under duress for most of the night. When you can’t win one-on-one, it’s hard to mount a formidable protection. Free rushers got past Clay Servin on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. On the next drive, Ethan Onianwa was the victim.
“I really want to hesitate to blame this on the line because we got to remember everybody plays a role in protection,” Bloomgren said, including himself in the following summation: “I’m putting this on everybody.”
UTSA led the AAC in sacks coming into this game. They’re a very, very good front. But Rice played good fronts in their past two games and found a way to protect the quarterback and move the football. It’s confounding to see them struggle so mightily in that respect tonight, but it was impossible to overcome.
The Rice defensive line was largely good. They gave up a few chunk gains on plays that were well-blocked by UTSA, but they always bounced back with a tackle for loss or negligible gain to give themselves a chance.
Do or die*
Rice football falls to 4-6 with the loss, two wins away from six and securing bowl eligibility. Their upcoming opponents, Charlotte and FAU, both lost on Saturday as well. They’re certainly very winnable games against much more manageable opponents than the murder’s row of AAC heavyweights Rice has played in the past three weeks.
First and foremost, if Rice football is as good as they’ve given onlookers reason to believe, then they’re better than 4-6 FAU and 3-7 Charlotte. Winning out would put them at .500 in the conference with potentially each of their four losses coming to a bowl-eligible team that finished .500 or better in league play, assuming USF can find one more win down the stretch.
And don’t shoot the messenger, but Rice could very well be in the mix for a bowl berth if they finish with five wins. The latest Action Network projections would have room for Rice in the field based on how things currently stand.
It has certainly not been the season Rice football fans had hoped for nor the year the team itself spoke of following their marquee upset victory over Houston so many weeks ago. But six wins is still on the table. It sure would be nice for all parties involved if they could reach that plateau for the first time in the Bloomgren era.
“This is November and you’ll always remember what happens in November. We’ve said that quote a lot. With that being said, it’s like we’re in playoff football. You win this week, you get another meaningful game,” Bloomgren said in closing.
“This team wants to win. This team is working their butts off to win. There’s a lot of individual performances on this film that are going to be really good, really fun to watch. Team results’ not good enough.”
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