In what was supposed to be an energetic crowd welcoming in an improved Rice team under Mike Bloomgren, the stadium shuddered in complete silence in the first quarter.
Rice redshirt freshman quarterback Wiley Green scrambled to the sideline in attempt to fight for a score near the pylon. But behind his block awaited Wake Forest outside linebacker Justin Strnad, who stopped Green dead in his tracks with a head-on collision. For the next 13 minutes, the quarterback lied motionless on the field while athletic staff tended to him. Green was carted off the field.
“The reports are positive. He has movement and sensation in all of his limbs,” Bloomgren said after the game. “We’re waiting on a CT scan for confirmation, but things are trending the right way and he’s in all of our prayers.”
The terrifying injury put a damper on Rice’s 41-21 loss to Wake Forest in the Owls’ home opener. While the Owls were able to keep the score competitive throughout much of the first half, the Jamie Newman-to-Scotty Washington connection proved too lethal for a Rice secondary that had yet to be tested after a Week 1 loss to Army.
“We’re not quite there to play an ACC bowl team, a team with 23 fifth-year seniors,” Bloomgren said. “I hoped we could compete better than we did today. We’re going to continue to try to respond in the right way when things go wrong and when adversity strikes.”
Newman threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns with 158 of those yards headed in Washington’s direction. The senior wideout displayed his full range of athleticism on two touchdown catches to improve the Demon Deacons to 2-0, while the Owls fell to 0-2.
Wake Forest opened the game with an offense in stark contrast to Rice’s previous opponent. The Demon Deacons initiated the contest with a 10-play drive, quickly firing off each snap as soon as the offense was set. The drive cashed in for seven points on a 2-yard touchdown run by Christian Beal-Smith, with just 3:05 of clock time eaten away.
Thanks to strip-sacking Rice quarterback Wiley Green on third-and-long, Wake Forest set up deep in Rice territory again. This time, the drive last four plays before Demon Deacons’ quarterback Jamie Newman connected with wide receiver Sage Surratt on a 7-yard hitch in the end zone.
On the following possession, Rice lost its QB. Green’s head injury transpired near the goal line, delaying the game for a substantial period of time as medical staffers and carts addressed the situation. Surprisingly, no targeting was called on the play as the refs told Bloomgren the contact was shoulder-to-shoulder. But when the cart exited the stadium carrying Green, Harvard grad transfer Tom Stewart checked in under center for the first time this season.
“When the game stopped, we got really emotional,” Stewart said. “It’s all about how you control that emotion, and I think right out of the gate, we did a great job scoring a touchdown on the next play. But at the end of the day it comes down to consistent execution and we didn’t execute consistently.”
Stewart, who completed 19-of-30 passes for 185 yards, ushered in instant success. His first play as an Owl was a handoff to running back Aston Walter, who dove over the pile to record his first-career rushing touchdown. After recording a stop on the ensuing defensive drive and forcing Newman’s first incompletion of the evening on his eighth attempt, Rice set up back in Demon Deacon territory with a 34-yard punt return by Austin Trammell.
With Stewart commanding the offense, he immediately completed a 16-yard strike and capped off the Rice drive by scrambling 10 yards into the end zone, tying the game at 14 before the end of the first quarter.
“We did outstanding when our quarterback went down,” Bloomgren said. “Our defense makes them go 3-and-out, we get it back and score again, and now it’s 14-14.”
Then, Wake Forest’s offense unleashed 27 unanswered points behind Newman’s big arm (Newman completed 14 of his first 15 throws for 281 yards and 2 TDs). On the opening play of the second quarter, Newman lobbed a jump ball for the 6’5” Washington, who snagged the ball at its highest point. The 25-yard strike set Wake Forest ahead, 21-14.
After Wake Forest sunk a pair of short field goals on each side of halftime, the offense reverted back to its weapon of choice. By the left sideline, Washington snagged another contested jump ball from Newman and escaped man coverage. The wide receiver finished the 59-yard play with a sprint to the end zone causing Wake Forest to secure a 34-14 lead.
“You look out there and their receivers look like NBA forwards,” Bloomgren said. “Those are some big dudes that went and snatched the ball. With their RPO world and some of the things they do, they end up with man-to-man down the field quite a lot.”
Wake Forest’s big plays just kept hitting from farther out. After the Demon Deacons’ defense created a goal line stand by thwarting Stewart’s naked bootleg attempt, Wake Forest wasted no time continuing the rout. The following play, freshman running back Kenneth Walker III outran the entire Rice defense to go 96 yards to the house at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“The most disappointing thing in the game to me — as well as our defense has played this year — is to do something crazy on the goal line and for them to get the ball,” Bloomgren said. “On the first play, when all we’re talking about doing is fighting for each other, we let that ball go 96 yards for a touchdown. That was about as disappointed as I could be.”
Rice was defending Washington without its most experienced cornerback, TyRae Thornton, who was ejected for a targeting foul on the opening drive of the game. While the secondary struggled with its first exposure to an air attack this season, the run defense continued to look solid — outside of Walker’s 96-yard breakaway rush. Outside of that play, the unit led by outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe (9 tackles) held the Deacons to 3.1 yards per carry.
“Everybody does really care. I feel it, I know it, I see everybody in the locker room after this game with their heads high,” Ekpe said. “I believe in this defense, I believe in this team, and at the end of the day, we got each other’s back.”
But one week after averaging over six yards per carry, Rice’s run defense was stuffed by Wake Forest’s defense. Including their four sacks allowed, the Owls averaged 1.8 yards per attempt as Aston Walter led the charge with 29 yards and Nahshon Ellerbe was limited to three.
Rice’s brutal non-conference schedule doesn’t get any easier. The hunt for the first win of 2019 continues into Week 3 as the Owls host No. 9 Texas at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans.
“We know what a great challenge that’s gonna be,” Bloomgren said. “We know it’s not going to get any easier. There just can’t be moral victories. I almost hate hearing how much better we are than last year right now. I want to find a way to win a game. I want these guys to feel what that’s like. I want to beat somebody we ‘shouldn’t.’”