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Recap: Rice defense gives Army all it can handle, falls 14-7

Owls run defense forces Army to pass for game-winning touchdown.

NCAA Football: Rice at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

As 23.5-point underdogs, Rice wasn’t expected to compete with an Army team coming off an 11-2 record in 2018.

But Rice’s relentless run defense forced Army to earn a tough-fought victory in the trenches, and the Black Knights were forced to turn to the passing game in order to secure the game-winning touchdown. Senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. deviated from the triple option and found a wide open Kell Walker in the end zone with 3:58 remaining in the contest to put the finishing touches on a 14-7 victory.

Army head coach Jeff Monken opened the season with the boldest of calls. On his own 15-yard line, Monken opted to go for 4th-and-1, but Rice’s defense stuffed Sandon McCoy behind the line of scrimmage. Army’s inability to consistently beat Rice’s sturdy run defense — which prepared for the triple option since spring ball — would be a theme of the night.

Hopkins and McCoy were both held to under four yards per carry, and despite a combined 41 attempts between the two ball carriers, neither ran the ball more than 12 yards once. Defensive tackle Myles Adams and middle linebacker Antonio Montero were instrumental in forcing four Army punts on the Black Knights’ 10 possessions.

But following the fourth down stop, Rice was presented a golden opportunity to capitalize and create an early lead on the scoreboard in West Point. After three plays and seven yards, the Owls lined up for a chip shot field goal. Will Harrison’s 26-yard field goal attempt from the right hash sailed right of the uprights, keeping the game scoreless after Rice’s initial advantage.

Army scored its first touchdown in typical Army fashion. With Rice pinning Army deep in its own territory, the Black Knights launched a 16-play, 95-yard drive that ate up 9:58 of clock time, extending from the end of the first quarter to the middle of the second. In a possession fueled by two large gains by wide receiver Christian Hayes, Hopkins put on the finishing duties by punching in a touchdown run from two yards out.

The 7-0 score wouldn’t last long. Rice’s offense blazed down the field in antithetical fashion. Running Nahshon Ellerbe caught a 15-yard strike from quarterback Wiley Green on a wheel route to provide Rice a first down. The following play, Ellerbe turned on the burners on a 54-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven apiece. Ellerbe would finish a injury-riddled, but breakout night with 103 rushing yards on just nine carries.

Thanks to another key stop by the defense, Rice was granted favorable field position minutes before the half. However, the promising drive, which featured a 38-yard screen pass to wide receiver Austin Trammell, ended in another missed field goal by Harrison. This one, also veering to the right, was kicked from 44 yards out.

The second half was a glorified punt fest, but it also featured the lone turnover of the evening. Army’s offense seemed to finally regain rhythm, piercing into Rice territory. But McCoy fumbled the ball on first down and Rice’s Blaze Alldredge scooped up the pigskin to give Rice’s offense another shot.

The opportunities were there for the Owls. Mike Bloomgren’s team invaded Army territory on consecutive possessions. The second of the two drives was stalled by a crucial holding penalty which negated a 24-yard run, but both possessions resulted in punts. Punter Adam Nunez, a TCU transfer, was a bona fide star Friday night, consistently pinning Army deep with all four of his punts landing inside the 20. Excluding the Black Knights’ victory formation drive, Army’s average starting field position was its own 13-yard line.

Army then created a parallel from the first half. This time, the Black Knights constructed a 16-play, 96-yard scoring drive that hogged 9:21 of clock. With a 3rd-and-8 on Rice’s 17-yard line later in the drive, the Owls sold out on the run, leaving Hopkins an uncovered Kell Walker in the end zone. When Walker caught the uncontested pass, only 3:58 remained, although there were over 13 minutes left when Army initiated the possession back against its own end zone.

Besides Hopkins’ touchdown throw, passing was a struggle for both programs. The run-based teams combined to complete 10-of-22 passes for 115 yards. With struggles hampering the passing game and limited time, Rice’s final possession would be a difficult one. Runs from Ellerbe and fellow running back Aston Walter guided the Owls down the field, but faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Army 26, Rice opted to go through the air. Green lobbed a pass to tight end Jaeger Bull. Initially, Bull appeared to secure it but the pass was dropped, sealing an Army victory.

Rice, 2-11 in 2018, impressively came within one possession of beating an almost-ranked Army team on the road. Army only needed to string together two long scoring possessions to seal its 14th consecutive home victory. For Rice, missed field goals and a lack of passing production prevented the Owls from pulling off the greatest upset of the early 2019 season.