Too many turnovers turned an otherwise promising Rice Football start into another Owls’ loss, this time on the road against Western Kentucky.
Turnovers, injuries and a porous defense produced a gut-punch on the road as Rice football fell in what ended up becoming a lopsided affair, despite the many early opportunities. Western Kentucky clinched a bowl berth. Rice didn’t.
Head coach Mike Bloomgren summed it up in a blunt, but honest postgame comment. “We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” he said. “You just can’t win football games [when you play] like that.”
Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
The offense *almost* goes according to plan
The formula for Rice football to beat Western Kentucky wasn’t complicated. In fact, it was a script the Owls had leaned on before, often to much success. Rice wanted to control the football, keeping Austin Reed and the Hilltoppers’ offense off the field as much as possible.
When it came time to execute, Rice worked the plan nearly to perfection. The Owls’ first offensive drives were almost pristine. On 10 plays, Rice went 55 yards in 5:08. Then on the ensuing possession, Rice went 50 yards on 12 plays, taking 7:34 off the clock. The problem? Both of those drives ended in redzone interceptions by TJ McMahon.
The third possession was a disaster — McMahon was sacked on third down and injured — as WKU scored a defensive touchdown. The fourth possession was perfect. 13 plays, 75 yards and a one-yard touchdown run to finally get Rice on the board.
If Rice simply did not turn the ball over (yes, a feeble dream at this point), the Owls could have entered halftime tied or even leading. Instead, they faced a 24-7 deficit which spiraled further after the break. Rice moved the football really well on Saturday. They just convulsed at the wrong moments, and when they did, disaster ensued.
Houston, you’ve got a turnover problem
If there were still any doubts, Rice football has clearly moved from unlucky to clearly deficient when it comes to turnovers. The Owls did have another tipped pass interception in this game for good measure, at least the seventh time that’s happened this season, but the overwhelming inability to protect the football was frankly exhausting.
Rice turned the ball over on their first three possessions, spoiling what should have been a very competitive game and forcing the team into comeback mode as a double-digit favorite on the road with backup quarterback Shawqi Itraish at the helm. If you were to write a horror story for any college football staff, that’s how it would start.
What makes this problem particularly frustrating is the lack of one person to point to as the root cause. On some days, it’s McMahon. On others, it’s the return game. Yet others still, it’s the running backs that put it on the ground.“It’s not one person,” Bloomgren said. And therein lies the problem. One person you can bench. A whole team? Some other solution has to emerge.
“I think you talk about it. I think you coach it the right way. I don’t know really what else to do,” Bloomgren admitted.
Rice turned the ball over a staggering six times against WKU. If they can’t fix that, they’re not going to find a way to win most of their games, regardless of how well they play in literally every other aspect of the game.
Third down defensive nightmares continue
Getting off the field on third down was a talking point for the Owls all week long. They knew it was something they had to do better if they were going to win. On Saturday against Western Kentucky, they might have actually gotten worse.
As the Rice offense milked the clock but failed to score, the defense forced Western Kentucky into six third down tries in the opening half. They converted five of them, including a deflating 62-yard touchdown pass on third and long in the second quarter.
Western Kentucky finished the game 8-of-11 on third down. Rice was nearly as good (7-of-11), but there was no keeping up with the Hilltoppers’ offense, especially with turnovers aplenty.
The extra plays led to extra big plays. Not only did Western Kentucky move the ball well, they got yards in chunks. Austin Reed clinically picked apart the Rice secondary. Five different receivers had a reception of at least 19 yards. Two caught touchdowns, with Reed running one in from the one-yard line himself. WKU punter John Haggerty never stepped on the field.
The Owls can run the dang ball?
It might have taken a quarterback to force the Owls’ hand, but when push came to shove, Rice ran the ball as well as they have in any game this season against Western Kentucky. Juma Otoviano led the way with 14 carries for 96 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per tote. Cam Montgomery and Dean Connors were both north of 4.8 yards per carry, too.
The running game was absolutely superb, perhaps even more so given the situation into which they were asked to run into. Western Kentucky knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop them. Had it not been for a holding penalty that negated a touchdown run, the numbers might have looked even more impressive.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice Football vs WKU
The unfortunate part, in this instance, was the disastrous way Rice started this game. Had they not handed over two red zone possession with interceptions, the running attack would have been able to do its job. Instead, Rice was forced to juggle a successful rushing attack against an ever-ticking clock. The result wasn’t what the Owls had been hoping for.
The bright spot — if there is any — was a resurgent performance by the offensive line and a strong rushing attack. If McMahon does miss further time, they’re going to need both aspects to succeed to scratch out another win. And even if McMahon does return, a balanced offensive attack is clearly the answer right now.
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