Even with a somewhat difficult September slate, 0-4 blindsided Rice football. Like a quarterback who has no idea the blitzing linebacker was about to slam him from behind.
“I’d never dreamed we’d be 0-4,” Rice coach David Bailiff said after Saturday’s 42-35 double overtime loss to North Texas.
The Owls were not the better team against Western Kentucky, Army or Baylor, but from a talent and experience standpoint, Rice was at least even with North Texas. That’s why the mistake-filled game Saturday was so demoralizing.
Still, two-thirds of the season remain. Rice is still mathematically alive for a bowl bid and conference title. Some goals can be met.
Here are four reasons not to give up on the Owls:
- Good Rice showed up Saturday (albeit briefly) – Here’s a stat that makes it hard to believe Rice is 0-4. In the first quarter Saturday, Rice outgained North Texas 157 to negative 18.
I’ve got more where that came from. The Owls had 12 first downs compared to 0 for the Mean Green. Rice converted four of five third downs and possessed the ball 12:14 of the 15 minutes.
It was complete domination. And then it stopped.
“You’ve got to have the mentality when you get that kind of start that it becomes a frenzy of wanting more and more and not putting sunglasses on and enjoying your work,” Bailiff said. “We had a bad mentality, and that’s something we’ve got to fix fast. We can’t make the mistakes we’re making and win football games. And that all starts right here with me.”
The Owls up-tempo offense had the Mean Green on the heels. The defense came out aggressive and hungry. Even in defeat, the first quarter showed what Rice is capable of.
2. Emmanuel Ellerbee and his friends are making plays – Let’s not beat around the bush here. Rice’s defense still is horrible statistically speaking. The team’s total defense is 125th out of 128 FBS teams.
What was encouraging Saturday was Rice’s defense made 17 plays that resulted in loss of yardage. Rice’s five sacks were the most since recording eight at FIU in 2014. The 12 tackles for loss were the most since the 2014 Hawaii Bowl.
Leading the charge was linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee, who has 25 tackles the last two weeks. He also recorded his first career sack and had a fumble recovery. Ellerbee and safety Tabari McCaskey both set career-highs with two-and-a-half tackles for loss.
The defense is still a work in progress, but with Ellerbee and Alex Lyons at linebacker, there’s reason for hope.
3. The team hasn’t given up on 2016 – At the very least, Rice is talking like the season is fixable.
“You’re going to have adversity every season,” said WR Zach Wright at Monday’s news conference. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you respond. …“We need to go into Southern Miss with a completely different attitude. We’re going to fight like heck to get that win.”
Bailiff put it even more succinctly
“The one thing I know about these players is they’re not going to quit,” he said.
Rice isn’t an easy place academically. Chances are many of the players are used to facing challenges. Whether they want to win to try to make a run at a bowl game, win to increase Bailiff’s job security or win just out of pride, there is motivation to turn it around.
4. The remaining schedule is manageable – As a whole, Conference USA has struggled in non-conference play, going 4-27 against FBS schools from other leagues, including a 1-16 record against Power 5 schools.
The Western Division where Rice resides appears to be the weaker of the two. And Rice’s remaining Eastern Division foes, FAU and Charlotte, each are 1-3. Rice is a heavy underdog this Saturday at Southern Mississippi and will be in the season finale at Stanford, but in between is six potentially winnable games.
While Rice and Charlotte arguably have played the worst football in C-USA so far this year, the gap between Rice and FAU, UTEP and possible even UTSA and La Tech is not miles and miles. Plus, Rice will host FCS foe Prairie View.
A 5-7 season is not completely out of reach. And remember, 5-7 teams with good academic records can be eligible for bowl games, if there’s not enough eligible bowl teams.