The drought is finally over.
It was only a matter of time before the Rice Owls were going to sneak up on an opponent and snatch a victory. The victim happened to be Middle Tennessee, which suffered its seventh loss Saturday to prevent bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.
All year long, Rice played a step behind the level of its opponent. The inability to create home run plays on offense and string together quick scoring drives cost the Owls many of their close contests. The trend of falling just short initiated on Week 1 when Rice fell 29 yards and a 2-point conversion short of upsetting Army in West Point. Rice proceeded to lose by only eight points to a Baylor team vying for a Big 12 championship and a New Year’s Six bowl. When C-USA play commenced, the Owls forced overtime with 8-2 Louisiana Tech and held 7-3 squads Marshall and Louisiana Tech to 20 points apiece. Week after week passed, and the same story prolonged — Rice was close but not there yet.
But after all the heartbreak, after all the struggle, and after all the close calls, Rice can finally celebrate with an appearance in the win column after a 31-28 victory over Middle Tennessee on Saturday evening. The Owls’ defense had been solid all year, but Mike Bloomgren’s squad received unforeseen contributions from the offense in the first half. Prior to Saturday in Murfreesboro, the most points Rice scored all season was 27 in a loss to UTSA. In the first half against the Blue Raiders, the Owls ignited for 31 points. While the unit’s struggles of past games reiterated in a 0-point second half, Rice’s strong offensive showing in the first 30 minutes was enough to escape with a narrow victory.
Quarterback Tom Stewart nearly threw more touchdown passes than incompletions. He connected on 18/23 of his attempts, racked up 222 yards through the air, and connected with wide receiver Brad Rozner on three first half touchdown passes. Rozner was pivotal in moving the offense, as he contributed 130 yards on his eight receptions. Running back Aston Walter returned to a major role in the offense after earning just two carries in his last outing. Walter capitalized with his fourth 100-yard, 1-touchdown game of the season to consistently move the sticks during Owl possessions. The senior halfback was instrumental in eating up clock time to prevent Middle Tennessee at a realistic shot of a go-ahead score in the final minute, breaking free for a late 24-yard run to enter Blue Raider territory.
The Owls are still stuck in a 5-year streak without beating an opponent that finished the season with a winning record. On November 21, 2014, Rice defeated a 7-6 UTEP team, and the streak will not be broken this season, given the records of the two remaining opponents.
Rice finished last season on a high note by taking down Old Dominion on the final week. The Owls can usher in similar momentum heading into the offseason with upcoming games against preseason conference favorite North Texas (4-6) and UTEP (1-9) looming on the schedule. But with the victory, Rice can now breathe a sign of relief with a “1” in the win column and hope heading into late November.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said, “You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.”
After experiencing the brutality of defeat for nine consecutive games, Rice has finally learned how to win.