Rice entered NRG Stadium as massive underdogs to Texas and exited outmatched on the scoreboard by the No. 12 team in the country.
Tom Herman’s Longhorns (2-1) dominated Rice in nearly every facet of the game, annihilating the Owls (0-3) in a 48-13 showing at the home venue of the Houston Texans. Trailing 31-0 at halftime, Rice waited until midway through the fourth quarter before making a mark in the points department against its former Southwest Conference rival.
“Today was a very frustrating day to be a coach. It was a hard day at the office,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “1-to-22, we couldn’t really match up with them. We had a handful of guys that could match up with them for 60 minutes and I thought our kids still continued to fight for four quarters.”
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger tore apart the Rice secondary with an efficient day from the pocket. The junior completed 23-of-27 passes for 279 yards, and three touchdowns before earning a rest on the bench in the third quarter of the lopsided affair.
“Hats off to Rice, especially defensively. That was about as mentally challenging of a game for our quarterback as he’s probably seen in three years,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said. “This is a crew that if there’s a front blitz or coverage that’s run in football, they run it in a game. They threw a lot at him and I thought he handled it well.”
Ehlinger, who defeated Missouri at the Texas Bowl in the same stadium two years ago, made his presence felt again in the heart of Houston. He passed for 86 yards on the opening drive, finishing the possession by connecting with reserve quarterback/running back Roschon Johnson for a 25-yard touchdown.
Although Rice’s first play from scrimmage was a promising response — a 15-yard cut upfield by Aston Walter — the play did not set a precedent. Rice would not cross midfield until the waning minutes of the third quarter. Still, that third quarter drive propelled by a 45-yard quick slant from Tom Stewart to Austin Trammell resulted in a punt. Rice punted on each of its eight opening possessions, failing to move the sticks against a defense heavily composed of 4 and 5-star recruits.
“Coach Orlando did a great job tonight making things very hard in the sub-run game and had people in every lane when he tried to throw underneath. We struggled to get home and they ran their gap scheme very effectively.”
While Rice struggled moving the ball, Texas thrived. While Ehlinger was running the show offensively, the offense only punted once and kicked one field goal — a 57-yarder by Cameron Dicker. The remainder of Ehlinger’s sequences resulted in touchdowns. One was a 53-yard hit to freshman receiver Jake Smith out of the slot on a four verticals play. Smith also caught another touchdown on a 12-yard out route in the second quarter. Running back Keaontay Ingram added two scores of his own, propelling Texas’ injury-hampered backfield with touchdowns of 26 and 14 yards.
“The most frustrating thing to me would be on our early drives as a defense is we did so dang good on first and second downs — got some negatives — and we couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Bloomgren said, as Texas’ converted on 9-of-14 third down attempts.
In relief for the injured Wiley Green, Rice quarterback Tom Stewart made his first start as an FBS quarterback against a reigning New Year’s Six champion. Stewart completed 12-of-23 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns. He received constant pressure from the Texas pass rush early on and took three sacks, but he never got rattled. Stewart avoided committing a single turnover and drove the team down the field twice, throwing two halfback screens to Walter for touchdowns.
“He is a tough kid. This moment was not too big for him, where some of our other kids, went away from their technique in this moment,” Bloomgren said. “Tom stepped up, he prepared like a champion all week, and he took the reps with (the first-team offense). He kept running the ball when those lanes were open and he needed to tuck it. He kept standing there and trying to find a way to push the ball downfield.”
Rice entered its third game without recording a sack, but outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge ended the season drought by pummeling Texas backup quarterback Casey Thompson in the fourth quarter. Alldredge provided the Longhorns several fits defensively, accumulating 4.5 tackles for loss and forcing Texas keep the ball in the air on a myriad of second and third downs.
“Our defense has a tough mentality and we do a good job at forgetting about the last play,” Alldredge said. “I don’t think at any point, they’ll convert a third down and we’ll take the wind out of our sails. They obviously had an elite offensive line — definitely the best I’ve ever seen — but at the end of the day, you just have to fall back on the techniques and you have to execute.”
The Owls play another in-state Big 12 foe in Houston again next Saturday. Matt Rhule’s undefeated Baylor squad takes a visit to Rice Stadium in hopes of preserving its undefeated record. Despite the amplified difficulty of this non-conference schedule, Rice hopes its fighting spirit and perseverance displayed late in the game will pay off in the win column soon.
“I attribute it to all the guys not quitting — pushing, fighting, not looking at the scoreboard, and putting two solid drives together,” Walter said. “Look how good we can be, look how successful we can be when we all do the right job, when we’re all on the same page... We have to do that for four quarters, and I think we’ll be successful.”