Rice Football delivers the wining score in the final moments, dashing past UTEP to secure a much-needed win at home.
Thursday’s nationally televised game against all the makings of a bowl-elimination bout between Rice football and the UTEP Miners. The Owls had had the upper hand in the series, particularly at home, winning nine of 12 in Houston. On Thursday night, Rice added one more important victory to the tally. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Withstand the first punch
On the first play from scrimmage, UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison tried to thread a ball through a mass of blue and gray-clad defenders. Gabriel Taylor was nearly there to meet it, but was unable to make the one-handed stab to force a quick turnover. Instead, UTEP recovered and marched quickly down the field, going 78-yards in 3:13, deflating a defense in need of that instant jolt of confidence.
Down 7-0, Rice was forced to settle for a field goal on their first offensive possession as quarterback TJ McMahon was sacked on third and short inside the redzone. When Rice kicked the ball back to UTEP down by four, it felt like the rubber was about to meet the road. Was UTEP’s early touchdown — just their second touchdown in the first quarter this year — a fluke? Or would the defense figure it out?
The defense responded with a quick three-and-out and their second sack of the day. Then they found their groove. They got pressure. They forced three-and-outs (four on the day). Trey Schuman snuffed out a reverse for a loss of yards. The defense responded to a fumbled punt return with a stop and a 51-yard field goal try after the offense fizzled inside their own five-yard line. For the first time in weeks, they looked good. Not great. But good.
To say the Rice defense was “back” would be overly generous, but the unit that took the field on Thursday night looked a heck of a lot more like the one the Owls have gotten used to seeing in recent years. If they can find a way to get off the field on third down, they might just be dangerous.
Return of the big play
On the other side of the ball, the offense responded in kind. Rice had four pass plays of 15+ yards in four quarters against Charlotte last weekend. They reached that total just three minutes into the second quarter against UTEP and continued to gain yards in chunks. Bradley Rozner reached the century mark for the fifth time this season.
The Owls ended the game with 502 total yards and a slew of big plays. There were eight pass plays of 15+ yards and five run plays of 10+ yards. The offense was legitimately explosive.
What made the performance particularly compelling was the sheer quantity of contributors. Rozner, Luke McCaffrey, Isaiah Esdale, Kobie Campbell and Jack Bradley each had critical catches that extended drives or scored points. Cam Montgomery, Juma Otviano, TJ McMahon and McCaffrey each made big plays on the ground. Uriah West had his first touchdown as an Owl. Eveything just seemed to come together.
This entire scoring sequence was perfect. Do it again! pic.twitter.com/cMcz2dxemS
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 4, 2022
And then… the dagger!
McMahon –> Rozner.
A thing of beauty.pic.twitter.com/Pw9x9mYies
— The Roost (@AtTheRoost) November 4, 2022
The steady emergence of TJ McMahon
When McMahon took the field against UTEP for his eighth consecutive start, he reached a place no quarterback had gone before under Bloomgren at Rice. The previous record for consecutive starts (seven) was held by Shawn Stankavage, who led the way in the first seven games of Bloomgren’s tenure at South Main in 2018 before being injured.
McMahon already led all Rice quarterbacks under Bloomgren in passing touchdowns entering this game. He added two more to up his Rice total to 20. He also leads all of Bloomgren’s passers in interceptions, including an inexplicable additional tipped-pass pick against UTEP, a recurring nightmare that Rice fans can’t seem to escape.
After the Charlotte loss, McMahon said his job this week was “to make sure this game doesn’t beat us twice.” He did that tonight, leading his team down the field with regularity with a bit more of a boost from the running game than he’d had in recent weeks.
It’s been clearly established for several weeks now that Rice had its guy. As McMahon continues to progress, the hope for the future builds.
Two weeks ago, Rice football was 4-3. Being a game above .500 and two wins away from securing bowl eligibility was a breath of fresh air for the Owls, who have fought through their fair share of hardships to get to that point.
That was two weeks ago, and it feels like the program has been through a much more circuitous journey than one could have imagined in just a fortnight’s worth of time. Splitting a two-game homestand against Charlotte and UTEP was disappointing, considering the success Rice football has had to this point. But even still, the Owls have earned three chances to clinch a bowl berth.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice Football vs UTEP
It’s not time to start booking tickets to spend Christmas in Hawaii or the holiday season in the Bahamas quite yet. But the situation is objectively more positive than it could have been had Rice not found a way to win this football game, and win it in the manner they did. The Owls have been far from perfect this year, but they have been resilient.
Following a loss, Rice football is 4-0 this season. And now instead of being forced to grapple with the real possibility of their one-time storybook season ending in a nightmare, Rice has hope again. Hope can be a dangerous this at times, but right now, it’s exactly what the Owls need. That, and one more win down the stretch. But they’ll focus on that final W tomorrow.
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When in doubt, be clutch
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