In his Hilltopper debut, Mike White passed for more than 500 yards Thursday to lead Western Kentucky to a lopsided 46-14 over Rice in Bowling Green.
White, a transfer from South Florida, carved up the Owls in a 517-yard performance. It tied for the 10th most passing yards in C-USA history. Dating back to last year, WKU has scored 45 or more points in five straight games.
Even without Brandon Doughty running the offense, the Hilltoppers showed they are a threat to repeat as conference champions. Conversely, Rice’s defense – and team as a whole – remain a work in progress.
The defense hung tough for two drives, limiting WKU to 28 yards and getting a key stop on a fourth-and-six from the Rice 25.
However, the trouble commenced on drive No. 3 as White hit a streaking Taywan Taylor on a 45-yard pass play. WKU then pulled out a well-executed flea flicker that resulted in a 25-yard pass to Shaquille Johnson. With the Owls still scrambling, Anthony Wales took a handoff and scored on a 5-yard run.
WKU upped the lead to 16-0 late in the first quarter on a 87-yard touchdown strike from White to Nicholas Norris.
Besides being beaten by receivers on too many occasions, Rice couldn’t consistently put pressure on White. The junior was 25 for 31 passing. Nine different receivers caught balls.
The Owls momentarily got back in the game thanks to an 86-yard scoring drive. Quarterback Tyler Stehling converted a third-and-10 with his legs by pulling the ball down and running for 13 yards. Later in the drive, he hit Parker Smith on a 16-yard pass to convert another third down. Two more completions moved the ball inside the red zone, and Jowan Davis scored on a 2-yard run to make 16-7.
But two more WKU touchdown on its next two drives put the game out of reach before halftime.
Stehling had ups and down in his first game as starter. He was Rice’s leading rusher with 85 yards. No one else gained more than 19 yards. He scored Rice’s second touchdown of the game on a 22-yard run in the third quarter. He also showed some accuracy, completing 22 passes, though WKU’s secondary was more lax later in the game.
Playing WKU in the season opener was going to be a tall order for a Rice team that still is trying to improve in many phases of the game. If the Owls could have switched the schedule around, perhaps the game against Prairie View would have been a better way to break in the new starters and give the defense some confidence.
Instead, Rice will have to lick its wounds and get ready for Army on Sept. 10.
There are several good things the coaches can take away from the game. But from the ominous start (a safety after the first possession) to the final score it was undoubtedly not the way Rice wanted to start 2016.