Rice Football took a few punches but weathered the storm, knocking off UAB at home in their conference opener by a final score of 28-24.
It wasn’t pretty for a full four quarters, but when the dust settled, Rice football was 3-2. For the second consecutive season, the Owls took down the Blazers, this time doing the deed at home. The Owls are 1-0 in conference play with plenty of momentum heading into the bye. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Start strong…. check
As good as Rice football has been in recent weeks, their opening quarters have been rather disappointing. Entering this game UAB had outscored their opponents 42-0 in the first quarter until Rice marched down the field and let Ari Broussard punch one in on fourth-and-goal from the one.
The score was the first Rice opening quarter touchdown since the McNeese game and the first opening drive score of any kind since the opening game against USC. It capped off an 11-play, 75-yard drive including a pivotal third down conversion by TJ McMahon’s legs.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice football vs UAB
Not to be outdone by the offense, the Rice defense opened with an equal level of intensity. Gabriel Taylor read the eyes of UAB quarter Dylan Hopkins and jumped a route to the flats for his second interception of the season. Early on, everything was coming up Owls.
Things got bumpy, fast
Unfortunately, Rice football could not sustain that gusto for much longer. Broussard fumbled the ball on the three-yard line, handing UAB an extremely short field that led to an equalizing score. Then Broussard was flagged for a hold on special teams which negated a 56-yard punt and handed the Blazers 28 extra yards of free field position.
After leading 7-0, Rice allowed 17 straight points to the Blazers, not reversing the run until the second half. In the second quarter with UAB backed up in their own endzone, the Rice defense allowed UAB to connect on a 71-yard reception. The usually fundamentally sound Owls drew 10 penalties for 75 yards on the night, bailing on the Blazers on more than one occasion.
Over the past few seasons, Rice football has slowly risen their quality of play from one good quarter a game to two or even three solid quarters. There really hasn’t been a truly elite four-quarter showing from this team yet this season, although they’ve played well enough to win despite their inconsistencies in most of their games.
On Saturday, Rice was great in the first quarter and great in the third. The second was bad. The fourth was excellent. And in the end, that’s all that mattered.
What’s the answer for the offensive line?
Trey Phillippi posted a commendable performance in his first career start against Houston last week. For the most part, the offensive line was able to contend with the UH pressure, but the game-sealing fumble might not have happened had the Owls gotten just a little more protection from their five men up front.
It didn’t really feel like any individual was at fault. UAB was just better in the trenches and it put the entirety of the Owls’ offensive gameplan under duress from their second drive onward.
After the strong opening drive, Rice had trouble in the trenches. The Owls averaged 3.0 yards per carry but unlike in prior games, few booming pass plays were to assuage concerns of the running game was struggling. TJ McMahon was under duress all night long, and while he did make some big plays, he wasn’t able to carry the offense on his own.
With no answers as to when former starting guard Braedon Nutter will return, it’s looking like Rice is going to have figure it out with the guys that they have. Now, it’s entirely possible they’ve already faced the best defensive fronts they’ll play for the rest of their season. Less pressure and more continuity will help whoever Rice lines up on the offensive line. But regardless, there has to be some strides made up front.
Adapt, adapt adapt
One of the biggest criticisms of Rice football in the past few years has been its offensive philosophy. Run, run and throw on third down became an almost predictable cadence at times. Offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo was brought in to address those concerns and collectively, both he, Bloomgren and the offensive staff has done a 180.
It was hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel for the Rice offense going into halftime. Then Rice got creative with the football. Luke McCaffrey got some carries on sweeps. They moved the chains on a unique pattern to him out of the backfield. They sprinkled in Cam Montgomery for a big play. With the game on the line, they dialed up a play action call on third and seven with McMahon wisely electing to keep it.
Faced with a stagnant attack, Rice had to do something … and they did. In fact, the Owls have made some impressive second half adjustments throughout all of their non-USC games so far this season. They’ve figured something out on offense. And if the defense continues to be effective (with some turnovers sprinkled in) this team’s ceiling remains very high.
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