Rice is almost there, but the Owls have yet to arrive.
The 0-4 record doesn’t depict the strides the Owls have made through four difficult games of a daunting non-conference slate. But those improvements remained evident in a 21-13 loss to Baylor, where the Owl defense limited the top scoring offense in the nation to just three touchdowns and zero second half points. In fact, Rice won the second half 10-0 and received an opportunity at a late game-tying possession, but couldn’t break through to complete the comeback.
“While I’m disappointed at the result, I’m absolutely over the moon and proud of the effort our kids gave, the way they fought, and the way they stayed together,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said.
Baylor (3-0) entered the game averaging 59.5 points per game after thrashing an FCS team and UTSA. The Bears faced elevated resistance against the Owls’ defense which set the tone and stopped them on the opening drive. It was Rice’s first opening drive stop since Week 1.
“Baylor, coming into this game, averaged 318 yards on the ground and we held them to 124 yards which is a testament to our d-line and our linebacking,” inside linebacker Antonio Montero said. “I thought we held them to a really low yardage considering how potent their offense is.”
But in an ongoing theme this season, the offense failed to move downfield with ease. The Owls returned starting quarterback Wiley Green in his first action since the opening quarter of Week 2, but they also inserted backup Tom Stewart into the game for several drives in the second quarter, and again, in the fourth.
“They threw the ball effectively and didn’t miss many throws,” Bloomgren said of his two quarterbacks. “Tom had the big touchdown run, Wiley had two in a row where he moved the sticks with his feet. They’re selfless, they’re doing everything we ask, and they’re playing pretty good.”
Stewart led the Owls to their first points of the night, a 28-yard field goal by Will Harrison — Rice’s first successful attempt of the season. The grad transfer QB attacked downfield in his limited dropbacks, completing 5-of-8 passes for 50 yards. Upon entering in the fourth, Stewart showed off his mobility, running around the edge for a 21-yard touchdown, untouched.
Green started the game and played the entirety of the third quarter before checking out in the middle of the fourth. The redshirt freshman finally got the offense rolling in the third quarter, capitalizing on a drive that resulted from a Baylor turnover. This particular possession landed inside Baylor territory, reaching as far as the 6 before a trio of incompletions caused Rice to kick another short field goal. Green finished 13-of-23 with a season-high 128 passing yards in his second start.
“Sitting out two games, dealing with some neck stuff, it was tough getting back in there,” Green said. “Shake a little rust off, complete a few passes here and there, and we’re ready to go. In the second half, the ball moved well. We were calling the right stuff, making the right plays, executing well — we just gotta score in the red zone.”
Rice’s defense did its part in limiting a powerful Baylor offense to just 21 points. The Owls limited the Bears to just 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. However, containing the passing game was more of a struggle. Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer completed 20-of-27 passes for 303 yards and a touchdown. His most impressive throw of the day was connecting with wide receiver Chris Platt for a 50-yard touchdown in the late second quarter, putting the Bears up 14-3.
But the killer drive which put Rice into a three-possession hole occurred after a missed field goal. Just 29 seconds later, Baylor flew down the field 74 yards in five plays for a touchdown to enter halftime up 21-3.
That possession proved to be lethal when Rice roared back in the second half and cut the Baylor lead to one score. Trailing by eight, the Owls dropped an interception on Baylor’s 3rd-and-long attempt, but they still received a shot to tie it. Rice’s final possession was hampered by consecutive sacks on second and third down, and the Owls punted on 4th-and-23 from their own 22.
“When the game was on the line and the defense had gotten the ball back with a chance to go down and tie it, (Baylor) just came at a level we couldn’t go and protect the quarterback at,” Bloomgren said. “They overwhelmed us offensively, and didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
Brewer’s production decreased in the second half, but he delivered his most crucial throw on his final dropback. Several plays after Rice’s punt, he fired a 13-yard strike to Denzel Mims in the middle of the field on 3rd-and-13 to seal the game and thwart Rice’s comeback effort.
Rice’s defense did its part in the turnover battle. The Owls entered the game with just one forced turnover during the season but they recovered two fumbles against the Bears. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith remained aggressive in pressuring Brewer, and the Owls managed to record their second and third sacks of the season, courtesy of linebackers Treshawn Chamberlain and Anthony Ekpe.
“Third quarter, no score. Fourth quarter, no score,” Montero said regarding the standout defensive performance. “That’s just the way we want to play. Our scheme didn’t change, we just executed at a high level because we were ready to go every play.”
Rice remains in Houston for the fourth consecutive week looking ahead to next Saturday. It opens C-USA play against Louisiana Tech at 6 p.m. CT in Rice Stadium, hoping its defensive prowess can lead to the third victory of the Bloomgren era and the first triumph of the season.
“We’re gonna turn the freaking page,” Bloomgren said. “We’re gonna move onto conference play and we’re gonna come the most focused we can possibly make ourselves, and we’re gonna take with us these lessons in our first four games against some outstanding opponents, and we’re gonna go for it.”