It took until mid-November, but Rice is finally playing its best football of the season.
The Owls roughed up UTEP 44-24 Saturday in Houston and for the first time in 2016, Rice has a winning streak. Rice improved to 3-8 and now has defeated UTEP six straight times at home.
“This game shows that we should trust the process and stick with it because sooner or later everything will come to fruition,” said Rice linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee.
Rice built a 34-3 first half lead behind timely passes, sizable runs and aggressive defense by Ellerbee and his colleagues. And they largely did it without starting quarterback Tyler Stehling. After Stehling went out with a knee injury in the first quarter, Jackson Tyner took over and led six scoring drives.
Tyner completed 18 of 25 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He looked sharp in his decision making of when to throw the ball and who to throw it to.
“My mindset was just trying to recall everything coach told me and try no to do too much,” Tyner said. “The game started to slow down especially because we were running the ball so well.”
The Owls rushed for 236 yards. Playing his final game at Rice Stadium, Jowan Davis led the attack with 84 rushing yards.
Tyner and Rice coach David Bailiff credited the offensive line for Rice’s ability to put up 44 points on the scoreboard. After playing musical linemen for the first eight games, Rice has had the same offensive linemen start the last three games.
“A lot of Jackson’s performance is due to our offensive line,” Bailiff said. “I thought they communicated really well. They helped us control the time of possession.”
Rice’s defense held UTEP (3-8, 1-6) to just 42 total yards in the first half. Aaron Jones came into the Saturday’s game fourth in the FBS in rushing. But he was held mostly in check, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries.
“It was one of our more basic defenses because of what they do,” Bailiff said. “They try to create gaps on you for the running back. I thought we did a good job of what we were responsible for. We also got helmets to ball when they did start to pass.”
An early fumble by Tyner, the Owl defense held its ground, and UTEP settled for a 37-yard Jay Mattox field goal.
Rice responded with a 7-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 9-yard Austin Walter touchdown run. Walter took the pitch and was untouched going into the end zone. Rice upped the lead to 13-3 on a Davis 1-yard run late in the first quarter.
Tyner showed off his skills on Rice’s next drive. First, he hit Temi Alaka on a 41-yard bomb. Then Alaka returned the favor. On a double reverse, Alaka threw the ball to Tyner who had snuck out to the end zone unnoticed. Tyner said after the game he was a receiver in high school, so it was pretty natural for him to catch the ball.
He then threw for his first career touchdown pass on a 9-yard screen to Darik Dillard with 4:07 left in the second quarter. Destri White added a defensive score, intercepting a Ryan Metz pass and returning the offering 24 yards.
The game marked the last home appearance for 19 Rice seniors, including running backs Davis and Darik Dillard, and tight end Conner Cella. They will suit up one more time next week when Rice plays at Stanford.
Although the Cardinals will present plenty of challenges, Rice likely won’t go down without a fight
“We practice like we are undefeated and that just shows our character,” Bailiff said.