For the first time at Rice Stadium this season, the home locker room hosted the celebration, and the energy was a sight to behold. Wrestling-style belts were hoisted in the air, players motioned and danced toward the supporting crowd, and smiles were printed across the players’ faces. Club Rice was born.
“The juice on our sideline, we’re calling it Club Rice now,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said postgame. “I think we’ll charge admission from now on because it’s a fun place to be.”
Facing an 0-9 start to the season, the Owls refused to quit and instead hammered the gas pedal to the finish line. After energetic play from both sides of the ball, Rice (2-9, 2-5 C-USA) downed North Texas (4-7, 3-4 C-USA), 20-14, removing the Mean Green from bowl contention one week after doing the same deed to Middle Tennessee.
“My mantra to this time is, ‘Start fast, stay focused, finish strong,’ and I’m glad we were able to finish strong for the second week in a row,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said.
For the first time since November 2016, Rice is victorious in consecutive games. The Owls manufactured both victories behind strong starts on both sides of the ball, producing three-possession leads in the first half. With the defense forcing a punt or turnover on each of North Texas’ first eight possessions, the Owls stood firm with a 20-0 shutout entering halftime.
“They play with so much passion and so much energy they are hitting anything in their path,” Bloomgren said on his defense. “I’m so proud of Coach (Brian) Smith for organizing the chaos the way he does. To hold a good team with a dynamite quarterback to four yards rushing in the first half and keep them off the scoreboard, there’s no words that I can say other than ‘wow!’”
North Texas’ offense struggled from the get-go as Rice applied copious amounts of pressure on quarterback Mason Fine, the two-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Fine took three sacks and threw an interception to Treshawn Chamberlain on his second throw of the game, a turnover which set the Owls’ offense in favorable position for their first touchdown.
“That gave us the big edge as the offense came out the drive after that and scored,” Chamberlain said. “I know I had to put a damper on them, but our sideline was getting even hyper as we were doing that. We had our foot on their neck.”
The offense then capitalized off another forced turnover when strong safety Naeem Smith popped the ball out of running back Tre Siggers’ hands — an immediate response to a fumble by the Rice offense. The Owls recouped and scored another touchdown, as senior running back Charlie Booker waltzed to the end zone on an 8-yard carry — his first touchdown since transferring from Harvard.
Rice recorded 14 first downs in the first half, compared to North Texas’ two. At the same point in the game, Owls registered 228 yards while the Mean Green accumulated 51. North Texas’ offense arose in the second half, receiving a spark on a 37-yard carry by running back DeAndre Torrey. Several plays later, Fine was in the end zone after a 10-yard touchdown run and the shutout was no more.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, North Texas completed its second scoring drive of the night. On a methodical 12-play, 60-yard drive, Siggers dove across the goal line to cut Rice’s once-daunting lead to a one-score game. And immediately, opportunity struck for the Mean Green. Rice fumbled the ensuing kickoff and North Texas took over on the Rice 21.
The energy of Rice’s defense from the first half suddenly reverberated throughout the unit. On 4th and 12 from the 15, back against the wall, Chamberlain delivered a stadium-shaking hit on wide receiver Michael Lawrence to break up the pass into the end zone. Chamberlain’s clutch defensive play ensured a turnover on downs, causing the fumble on the kickoff to be all for naught.
“I was tasked with two different crossers on different sides,” Chamberlain recalled of the play. “The same thing happened against Louisiana Tech. That game I went for the pick and I missed it, so in my mind, this game it was, ‘Get the ball out of his hand’ as I knew it was fourth down and I knew the offense needed the ball back. That hit was one of my biggest hits I ever had.”
On Rice’s senior night, several offensive seniors delivered with extraordinary performances. Quarterback Tom Stewart, also a transfer from Harvard, won his second-straight game in his third start of the season, firing for 179 yards. No Stewart throw was greater than the one which landed in the hands of fellow senior Brad Rozner. The veteran receiver caught a 35-yard bomb from Stewart on 3rd and 11 in the game’s final minutes. A failure to convert would have given North Texas’ offense one more shot at a victory. Several plays later, senior running back Nahshon Ellerbe capped the game with a 7-yard run to clinch victory formation.
“When the game’s on the line, we knew we were gonna get a 1-on-1,” Stewart said on North Texas’ coverage scheme. “I just gave (Rozner) a chance and he found a way to make a play when we needed it most. We kept going, and what better way than Nahshon Ellerbe, fifth-year senior, to put the game on ice. Just an awesome team win.”
For the second consecutive week, Rice scored all of its points in the first half, but the defense limited the opponent enough to seal the victory. Rice came up short so many times this season, but after learning how to win against Middle Tennessee, the team is continuing to excel and reveling in the excitement of success.
“Winning breeds winning, and hopefully there’s gonna be more locker rooms like the one we just experienced,” Bloomgren said. “It’s so much fun for our football team and such a great reward.”