After a shaky start, a banner day for Luke McCaffrey helped push Rice Football to their first road win of the season, downing Louisiana Tech.
It wasn’t pretty. There were large swathes of the game that each phase — offense, defense and special teams — will want to forget. But when the dust settled, Rice football won on the road as a favorite for the first time under head coach Mike Bloomgren. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Maddening offense finally figures it out
Fixing the offense was priority one this week during practice. Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren was adamant that nothing was “broken” and that the team could get things turned around. They focused their running back snaps, reconfigured the offensive line and put their trust in quarterback TJ McMahon. When it came time to play the game, it felt like things had gotten worse, not better.
A gutsy fake punt on the Owls’ first drive of the game was the only run that went longer than four yards in the first quarter. Excluding that fake, converted by fullback Micah Barnett, Rice averaged 0.6 (yes, zero point six, not a typo) yards per carry on their first three possessions. Early on, the passing game wasn’t much better. Even when accounting for two early third down conversions, McMahon started the game 3-for-8 for 23 yards.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice Football vs LA Tech
Instead of improved, this offense looked broken for two-plus quarters. The running game wasn’t fixed, and one could argue it might even have gotten worse. No matter the combination, the offensive line hasn’t gelled to the degree it needs to for this offense to be effective. On top of that, McMahon is learning on the job and the highs and lows are being experienced in real-time.
It was encouraging to see the team start moving the ball in the second half. But we already knew they could score. We knew they had playmakers that could make plays and we’ve seen McMahon at his best. They’re just maddeningly inconsistent right now and it’s going to be hard to have much confidence in the unit until they string together a few consecutive quarters of quality play.
Fortunately for Rice football, McMahon’s high came at the right time.
How about the grit of TJ McMahon? Rough start? No problem. He goes 64-yards untouched to give Rice the lead.pic.twitter.com/PeB4LwGEhF
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 22, 2022
The silver lining? The second half. Rice football scored 28 points in the second half and accounted for 322 yards, including 204 on the ground. The ability is there. The consistency needs to arrive soon.
When in doubt, Luke McCaffrey
Bradley Rozner caught a touchdown but was otherwise quiet. The running game was non-existent. Turnovers plagued the team all day long. Had it not been for the big play ability of Luke McCaffrey, Rice might have scored at all on Saturday. McCaffrey hasn’t been perfect in his transitional year from quarterback to wide receiver, but it’s abundantly clear that his raw speed and tremendous athleticism give this offense a spark.
McCaffrey scored the first touchdown of the day on a perfect throw from McMahon, one of his best on the day. Then McCaffrey made some magic of his own in the third quarter, breaking off a 66-yard reception after catching a pass in stride. His 77 yards after the catch was more than any other receiver on either team had receiving yards in regulation. He finished with 171 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns and a receiving score.
Outside of McCaffrey, it was McMahon and Otoviano that provided the sparks. It might not be possible to build the entire offense out of McCaffrey, and if McMahon can settle in and the running game can show any semblance of life, Rice football shouldn’t have to. But it’s nice to know that when in doubt, Rice has a guy that can make it happen.
Have a day, Luke McCaffreypic.twitter.com/BZ7hfxm8tN
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) October 22, 2022
Stop. The. Turnovers.
As if things weren’t hard enough for the offense, the unit continued to make its own job more challenging on Saturday. Rice football entered the game tied for eighth-worst in Conference USA with 13 giveaways. McMahon was second nationally with 10 interceptions.
The Owls had given the ball away too many times, but there was some hope that all the tipped passes that fell into defenders’ hands were bad luck, rather than symptoms of a growing problem. Luck or not, the issues persisted. Against Louisiana Tech, Rice fumbled four times, losing two of them. turned the ball over three times. They turned it over on downs once as well.
After a three-and-out in which the offense went backward nine yards, Broussard fumbled on a first down carry. That set the Louisiana Tech offense up on a short field from which it took a goal line pick from Sean Fresch to keep points off the board. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Broussard fumbled on the one-yard line a few drives later and was benched. Sean Fresch added a turnover on a punt return, too.
This offense is not consistent enough as it is. They can’t afford to lose possessions and spot opponents with better field positions. And it’s maddening to watch them turn things on in the second half and score points in bunches as soon as they ceased handing the ball to the other team.
The defense can’t hold on forever
Louisiana Tech entered the game averaging 34.0 points per game in conference play and 29.7 points overall. Rice held them 35 points in regulation, essentially on par with their standards. Had it not been for some opportunistic plays by this unit, Rice football might have been out of the game entirely before halftime.
The defense gave this team a chance on a day in which the offense struggled mightily, but the signs of exhaustion were there. Louisiana Tech broke off a 49-yard carry in the first quarter. The Bulldogs scored a 32-yard touchdown on a screen pass immediately following a sack that pushed them back to second-and-20.
It’s true, the defense is being asked to carry its weight and more, but lapses in concentration of that magnitude are quick to undo the positive gains accrued on the other 95 percent of their snaps. Louisiana Tech’s final fourth quarter drive was another heart-pounding reminder they’re not perfect, yet.
Rice entered Saturday tied for second-best in Conference USA with only 11 plays of 30+ yards allowed on defense, so it’s not time to hit the red-alert button just yet. But after looking dominant at times in recent weeks, there were some signs of tiredness that seeped through on Saturday, particularly on that final drive and subsequent conversion.
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