The game was anything but a spectacle. There were 26 combined points, 13 punts, a missed field goal, and a missed extra point.
But throughout all the offensive inactivity, the C-USA contest between Rice (0-8, 0-4 C-USA) and Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) remained close until the final minute, when running back Kevin Perkins turned the burners on for a 38-yard touchdown to seal a 20-6 win for the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss claimed the road win, but lost its typically explosive offense and had to rely heavily on its defense to provide the victory. By allowing just one touchdown and snatching a key interception in the end zone, the defense delivered and Jay Hopson’s team was able to rebound from a brutal road loss at Louisiana Tech last week.
On the other side of a relieving victory is a brutal loss, a feeling Rice has experienced eight times in eight outings this season. As the Owls have typically shown in C-USA play, their defense ranks among the conference’s elite units and played well enough to win. But the offense, which set a season-high 27 points at UTSA last week, was limited to a season-low of six points at home Saturday.
“The elephant in the room is of course our offense right now and the inability to score points, and the inability to give our team a chance right now,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Something will change, offensively. The status quo is not good enough.”
Rice typically relies on a strong running game to move its offense, but without injured starting running back Aston Walter and a prepared Southern Miss run defense, the Golden Eagles stuffed the Owls to just eight rushing yards. Rice’s quarterbacks were met by Southern Miss defenders for eight sacks, while the Owls failed to get to Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham once.
Abraham, entering Saturday ranked fourth nationally in passing yards, threw for 207 yards on 36 attempts. His main connection was with wide receiver Tim Jones, who registered 10 receptions and 96 yards against the Rice secondary. Jones helped set up Southern Miss’ first and only touchdown in the first 59 minutes of action, a 2-yard run by Perkins. The Golden Eagles managed 364 yards of offense, but Rice stalled several Southern Miss possessions to keep things interesting.
“The main preparation that we do is learning personnels, learning tendencies, studying their wide receivers, learning their routes, and all that came into aspect when we were watching film,” inside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain said. “We knew we were still in the game throughout every quarter, so every other drive, we knew we just had to just keep getting the ball back to the offense and find a way to keep them out of the end zone.”
With Rice’s defense keeping the Owls within striking distance the entire game, Bloomgren’s offense finally received a treasured opportunity in the fourth quarter. Set up by an interception by strong safety Naeem Smith and a pass interference call on the 2-yard line, Rice elected to pass to the right side of the field on 1st-and-goal. However, Wiley Green’s attempt was tipped and intercepted. In a game with limited trips into the Golden Eagles’ red zone, a missed opportunity proved to be lethal.
“We got them to sub to their goal line personnel. They did a very good job covering. That play is really a simple read that’s there or out of bounds, but that’s not what happened on that play. Last week, we ran a play on the 1-yard line after a sudden change and we fumbled it on the center-quarterback exchange. And this week, we threw an interception down there.”
Southern Miss waltzed right down the field as a response, but the Golden Eagles missed a 27-yard field goal, which kept the door ajar. When Rice took over deep in its own territory, sophomore quarterback Evan Marshman was inserted into the offense for the first time this season in place of Green (12-of-26, 104 yards). In limited action, Marshman completed 2-of-5 passes for 27 yards.
“I just told him to keep his head up,” said wide receiver Austin Trammell, who caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Green in the third quarter for Rice’s only score. “We wanted the next play. We were still in the ballgame. We moved onto Evan, and it was the same message to Evan.”
Senior Tom Stewart was named the starting quarterback for Rice this week, but the quarterback suffered an upper-body injury during a walkthrough in practice this week, leaving Wiley Green to start his seventh game for the Owls this season. Even freshman JoVoni Johnson received several snaps as a power running option from quarterback. With four men in rotation, Rice is in the midst of a complicated quarterback situation.
Rice remains in Houston to host another C-USA contender next week, as Marshall strolls into town. In what’s become a weekly theme, with bowl eligibility out of question, Rice players desire just thing as they enter the final third of the season — a win.
“(The morale’s) pretty down,” Trammell said. “Our team fights through adversity. We love each other to much to quit.”
On the other side, Southern Miss remains confident in its abilities as a C-USA contender. Although the offense didn’t have its best day, the Golden Eagles’ trip to Texas was a resounding success on the defensive side. After a bye week to look things over, Southern Miss travels back to Hattiesburg to face a 1-loss UAB squad.