Rice Football went on the road in a must-win situation and came away with the victory, running all over Charlotte spurred by terrific defensive play.
Playing with a backup quarterback for the second week in a row, Rice football took care of business and won on the road. The victory over Charlotte served as payback from last season’s loss and sets Rice up in a familiar situation. If they can win in the final game of the regular season they’ll clinch bowl eligibility. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
Have a day, Defense
Charlotte scored 33 points and 38 points in their last two games, respectively. The Rice defense compiled a first-half shutout and they did so despite the Rice offense turning the ball over twice and losing one of their premier pass rushers, Coleman Coco, to a targeting penalty.
One quick aside on targeting — let’s get rid of the rule. The penalty has been called three times in the Owls’ last three games and the hit Coco gave on Charlotte quarterback Jalon Jones was probably the least egregious of the three. Yet Coco was ejected, the other players weren’t. This randomness in officiating needs to stop.
And even still, the Rice defense persevered. They held Charlotte to seven points for the game and 2.8 yards per play. There wasn’t ever a moment when it felt like the 49ers found any sort of rhythm on that side of the ball, despite Rice playing without Coco, without linebacker Chris Conti and with a limited Tre’shon Devones.
“I thought the defense was the story of the day. No matter what situation they got put in, they found a way to get off the field except for one time,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Our guys just competed and fought their butts off.”
Rice was minus two as a team in turnover margin against Charlotte (and minus three until the last possession in mop-up time). The 49ers offense still only mustered one score, and it took an interception return inside the redzone and a pass interference penalty that gave them the ball inside the five to get that much.
Playing against an offense that didn’t feature a top four quarterback in the AAC, the Rice defense looked stout. What that means for their year-long stature isn’t that relevant anymore, but it does bode well for the unit as they prepare for an undermanned FAU team at home next weekend. This defense is good, maybe not elite, but definitely stout enough to get the job done if the offense can carry its own weight.
The Dean Connors Show
Connors touched the ball 19 times on Saturday and averaged 9.7 yards per touch. His 19 carries were the most by a Rice running back this year. His 184 yards broke his own career-best outing against Tulsa, where he rushed for 120 yards on nine carries.
“That was a motivated kid who always has a chip on his shoulder. You know how I feel about Dean Connors,” Bloomgren said. “But this one was special for all of us. To have their defensive coordinator Ryan Osborn call him out by name and say they’re going to account for Dean Connors and know where he is and stop him. I don’t know that they were able to stop him today and that’s because he ran possessed. He played the game the right way.”
The only underwhelming part of his performance was a fumble late in the second quarter. But again, thanks to the Rice defense, the Owls weren’t hurt by the miscue. The fumble came on Connors’ first touch since the Owls’ opening drive of the second quarter. Somehow Rice managed to call 11 plays without getting the ball in Connors’ hands.
Connors wasn’t bothered by the miscue. He built on his strong first half performance with a dominant second half showing. He was instrumental in the Owls’ 13-play, 75-yard drive that burned 7:17 off the clock and iced the game. Connors touched the ball six times on that drive, seven if you count a 25-yard run taken off the board via a holding penalty.
Quarterback-proofing the Rice offense remains a work in progress
Following years of quarterback tumult, there have been a few moments this season when the Rice offense performed at a high level without its starting quarterback on the field. There were some of those on Saturday, most of which involved the Owls getting the ball into the hands of their playmakers and letting them make plays rather than leaning on their passer.
Freshman Chase Jenkins operated the offense at a high level in the second half against SMU. This time it was AJ Padgett whose afternoon was a mixed bag of good and bad. Whether they should have or not is an open question, but the Rice coaching staff clearly trusted Padgett to run the full offense. At times he rewarded them — like the final fourth down touchdown heave — at others, he didn’t.
“That’s not the best of AJ. We’ve got to find a way to be able to get it on gameday, to get the best of him, because it’s really good,” Bloomgren acknowledged. “There’s week over week in game growth, for sure, but we’ve got to play a little cleaner than that.”
Padgett led five scoring drives and ran the ball in himself twice, but his two interceptions were unforced errors that could have been much more costly had the Rice defense not been playing at such an elite level.
Yes, having JT Daniels is always the preferred option, but this is now the second time in the past three games Rice has proven they can move the ball and score without an all-time program great like Daniels on the field. They’re better with Daniels, but they’re not dead in the water without him. A few weeks ago that was a much more palpable concern.
Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren reminded the assembled media during his press conference this week the Owls entered the year with three primary goals: win the conference, make a bowl game and win that bowl game.
“We’re not going to win the conference championship,” Bloomgren stated then. “And neither are 12 other teams in the American.” The remaining two goals are still on the table. And they became even more tangible after Saturday’s victory over Charlotte.
It’s been a bumpy ride, but Rice football is one game away from bowl eligibility. If Rice can beat FAU next weekend, head coach Mike Bloomgren will become just the third coach in the history of the program to take the Owls to back-to-back bowl games. As the Owls’ headman fights to prove the program is making progress, that piece of potential history looms large.
Bloomgren understands what’s at stake. Last year his team lost at North Texas, reaching bowl eligibility as a five-win team. That loss came on the heels of two prior losses and came with a team not playing it’s best football of the season at that point. The Owls looked much better on Saturday than they did down the stretch a year ago.
“We understand what’s at play this week and how big of a deal this game’s going to be. It’s huge,” Bloomgren said. “I would expect these guys to prepare like they never have for a football game — and we really don’t need that — I just need them to do the process the way they’ve been doing it all year because they’ve prepared the right way. Now I need them to go perform like they did today and we’ll all be really happy with those results.”
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