Rice stood just 26 yards and a 2-point conversion away from completing one of the greatest upsets of the young season. The Owls stifled Army’s triple option attack all game, limiting the Black Knights to just 14 points. But despite Rice’s defensive prowess, the team couldn’t come up with any points after an incompletion on 4th-and-1 stalled its final drive.
Now 0-1, Rice has to take the elements it succeeded at back home to Houston in preparation for a visit from Wake Forest. Along with retaining the defensive identity established in West Point, these elements include allowing zero sacks, winning the field position battle, and winning the turnover battle (1-0).
“The only thing that was disappointing is that we didn’t come away with a win,” Bloomgren said of his team’s performance against Army. “I’m so proud of our kids and I’m proud of our progress.”
The progress in Bloomgren’s second season is already evident. Considering Rice ranked in the 100s in yards allowed and points allowed per game in 2018, the fact that Rice held Army to just 14 points is a testament to how much this Owls team improved over the offseason. Bloomgren prepared the defense to perfection for Army, and his players held the Black Knights to their lowest scoring output since Sept. 16, 2017 against Ohio State.
But the offense Rice prepares for in Week 2 couldn’t differ more from Army’s scheme. Wake Forest runs an RPO-oriented, up-tempo offense under head coach Dave Clawson. In the Week 1 win over Utah State, Demon Deacons’ quarterback Jamie Newman fired the pigskin 47 times for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. Conversely, Rice’s secondary only saw eight passing attempts from Army, many of which were overthrows.
“We’ve already looked at some of their film and they have a lot of weapons on offense,” inside linebacker Antonio Montero said. “As Coach Bloomgren touched on a little with the RPO schemes and zone action schemes, we have to be really disciplined in our assignments, and not to let any big plays happen because they do have those athletes and they do have those weapons.”
Outside of Newman, Wake Forest’s offense harbors several other skill position stars. Wide receiver Sage Surratt caught seven passes for 158 yards against Utah State, including a 70-yard strike in crunch time, which set the Deacons in prime position to claim the victory. And running back Cade Carney opened 2019 with 105 rushing yards after eclipsing the millennium rushing mark in 2018.
“Cade Carney is a very good running back, especially with their scheme and the patience in which they run it,” Bloomgren said. “He gets the ball about the line of scrimmage and he goes forward. He’s a plow.”
With Newman hoping to replicate his standout numbers through the air and Carney looking to string together consecutive 100-yard ground games, Rice hopes the defense established in the Army game sets the precedent for the rest of the season.
“We had guys making plays all over the field. One you couldn’t help but notice is Antonio Montero,” Bloomgren said, reflecting on the Army game. “He led us in tackles with 11 and was there sideline to sideline. He was a guy I heard every single play. I heard his emotion on the field, and even if he was on the sideline, he was a voice I heard literally every play.”
Outside of the Montero-led linebacking corps, Rice looks to attack the Demon Deacons’ run game with Myles Adams. Adams recorded seven stops in the opener and will be assigned an additional role this week, as pass rushing becomes more necessary against Wake Forest.
“Anytime your peers elect you as a captain, that speaks volumes,” Bloomgren said of Adams. “His play and his leadership the other night was outstanding, and I don’t think he was going to allow anybody to not keep their gloves up and keep swinging.”
Offensively, Rice ran every first down against Army in effort to keep the time of possession battle more balanced to benefit the defense’s stamina. The Owls averaged over six yards per carry but the inability to finish drives resulted in a single-digit outing on the scoreboard. Rice struggled when forced to pass in medium-to-long yardage situations, and quarterback Wiley Green finished 7-of-14 with 62 yards passing. With time of possession playing a smaller factor against a more balanced offense like Wake Forest’s, Rice could expand its air attack in Week 2.
“When you only have 14 opportunities to throw the ball, your margin for error is small,” Bloomgren said. “In the flow of a normal game, you’re going to have more possessions. Maybe we’ll throw a ball on ‘possession and 10’... we’ll have more opportunities, but you have to make the most of every opportunity in the passing game right now.”
Rice hopes its rushing attack continues to thrive against Wake Forest, a team which allowed nearly six yards per rush to Utah State. Last Friday, senior running back Nahshon Ellerbe made a triumphant return to the field after missing nearly the entirety of 2018 rehabbing from an injury. Behind Rice’s offensive line which features a handful of experienced transfers, Ellerbe posted 103 yards on nine carries and scored Rice’s only touchdown of the season on a 54-yard sprint.
“Going into the Army game, you never know exactly how things are gonna shake out,” Ellerbe said. “It’s a long process of just rehabbing, and getting back into shape, and figuring out where I was going to fit into the gameplan, and rolling with the punches as the game went on.”
Ellerbe left the final drive of the Army game with an apparent injury, but if he retakes the field against Wake Forest, he’ll play a major role in advancing Rice’s offense — a unit which hopes scoring will be more abundant in its return back to Houston.
Time and Date: Friday, September 6 at 8 p.m. ET
Network: CBS Sports Network
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Wake Forest (-19)
ESPN FPI: Wake Forest has 87.2% chance to win
All-time series: Series tied, 1-1-1
Last meeting: Wake Forest 56, Rice 24 — September 29, 2018
Rice’s run defense looks like a true force to be reckoned with, and it’s a unit which could surprise many in the C-USA this year. We didn’t get the luxury of seeing what Rice’s secondary is capable of, as Army only granted the Owls a small sample size of eight passes in the opener — one of which was the game-winning touchdown.
But Wake Forest is a completely different animal. The Deacons run a more unpredictable, up-tempo offense, and Jamie Newman already showed he’s capable of dropping 400 yards on teams. Wake Forest’s offense (579 yards) thrived against Mountain West heavyweight Utah State, while Rice hasn’t quite established its passing game yet. Owls will make stops on the ground, but not enough to avoid an 0-2 start.
Prediction: Wake Forest 31, Rice 14