Rice Stadium was closed off to general attendance, but there was a different kind of silence in overtime while the Collin Riccitelli’s 45-yard field goal soared through the crisp air. The football suddenly collided with the right upright. As it fell, the pigskin situated onto the crossbar. After seemingly a minute passed, it traveled to the left upright. And while all players collectively watched in confusion, the ball returned back to the crossbar. And suddenly, like an old VHS tape, the football was ejected from the uprights and onto the blue turf of the end zone. Rice missed on the ever-elusive quadruple doink.
An absurd demonstration of physics prevented Rice’s game-winning field goal from landing in overtime in its season opener. In second overtime, a blocked field goal hampered the Owls’ chances of victory, and Middle Tennessee capitalized. Quarterback Asher O’Hara put the icing on his fantastic outing with a 14-yard walk-off rushing touchdown. Middle Tennessee (2-5, 2-3 C-USA) outlasted Rice (0-1, 0-1 C-USA) in a 40-34 double-overtime thriller filled with numerous plot twists — the highest scoring game at Rice Stadium since Nov. 11, 2017.
“It hit four times. I don’t know if you’re ever going to replicate that,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I think the statement that the ball didn’t bounce our way is true. That’s always going to be the case when you go to overtime or double overtime. There’s a lot of fight in these guys and a lot of things I can really appreciate.”
In the minute prior to overtime, there was no shortage of fireworks. Rice trailed 31-26, facing a daunting 4th and 24 from its own 27. With zero timeouts and one last opportunity at a prayer, quarterback Mike Collins heaved a bomb down the slot to an open Austin Trammell for 48 yards. One play later, Collins targeted his trustworthy wide receiver once again and Trammell corralled the go-ahead touchdown in the end zone. After a successful 2-point conversion to Trammell, Rice erased its 15-point deficit and hoisted a 34-31 advantage with 34 seconds left.
“We were extremely confident in that last drive that we were gonna go take the ball down and score,” Trammell said. “Fourth and long, got a little sketchy, but we ended up making a play and getting the ball in the end zone. We just gotta finish. It’s all about finishing.”
Thirty-four seconds turned out to be too much time. Middle Tennessee flew down to the Rice 30 in two plays, setting up kicker Crews Holt for a 48-yard attempt at the buzzer. Holt drained his career long to send the game into overtime. In less than 40 seconds of clock, the momentum shifted three times and 11 points were totaled. The drive was reminiscent of the first half, where Middle Tennessee answered Rice’s first touchdown of the afternoon with a 6-play, 63-yard touchdown drive.
“The biggest thing is that we lost our moxie, and we can’t have that as a team,” outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge said. “I think we were having some first-game missteps, first game errors, people being emotional and not remembering their assignments. I think we did a good job after that of coming out and being assignment sound.”
Middle Tennessee brought an offense to Rice Stadium uncharacteristic of most C-USA visitors. The Blue Raiders’ 40 points were the most any C-USA team (including the Owls) has scored in Houston since UAB dropped 42 on Rice on Nov. 3, 2018. Quarterback Asher O’Hara had a field day from the pocket and as a scrambler. He consistently found open receivers downfield finishing with 333 yards passing a two touchdowns. As a runner, he ranked first on Middle Tennessee with 69 yards and two additional scores.
O’Hara saved his best for the highest pressure moments. Not only did he score the game-winning touchdown in overtime. In three attempts from on 3rd down with 10 or more yards to go, he finished 3/3 with 83 yards and a touchdown strike.
Rice debuted its sixth different starting quarterback in the last six season openers. TCU transfer Mike Collins took over the reigns of the program and produced mixed results. He struggled out of the gate completing two of his first 10 attempts, which included an interception. Collins bounced back from his first half struggles to complete more than 50 percent of attempts and deliver four touchdown passes.
“I was shocked to see it,” Bloomgren said of Collins’ rocky start. “I’ve never seen him anything but efficient and giving us a chance. The way that thing started out, it did not look like us in the throw game. The way it ended up, that’s what Mike Collins can do, that’s what our receivers can do, and when our offensive line is back to protect and give him time, I feel confident that Mike Collins can slice and dice people up in this conference.”
Middle Tennessee earned the upper-hand in the turnover battle. Although the Owls eventually forced overtime, a key turning point in the third quarter involved the Blue Raiders strip-sacking Collins. Middle linebacker Johnathan Butler scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 32 yards to the end zone to secure a 28-13 lead. Later in the frame, Rice muffed a punt and Middle Tennessee capitalized with a field goal to lead 31-19. After yielding 10 points due to fumbles, Rice must amend the fixable errors going forward.
“When you have a minus-2 deficit in the turnover battle and still find a way to have the lead with 31 seconds, that’s a heck of a deal,” Bloomgren said. “We did what we wanted to do. We ended up getting to the fourth quarter with the team in deep water and take the lead.”
When considering the hole Rice dug itself into, rewriting the 28-13 second half deficit into a 34-31 lead was a remarkable sign of progress for the program, especially from an offensive standpoint.
“For them to battle back on both sides and make plays on special teams, that’s big time stuff,” Bloomgren said. “Does it hurt more? Yeah, losing sucks. It hurts. It hurts bad.”
While the Blue Raiders receive a much-needed hiatus next Saturday, the Owls continue their abbreviated 6-game conference slate on the road at Southern Miss next week.
“We’ve got a lot of things we will improve on from game one to game two,” Bloomgren said. “I’m a firm believer that’s your biggest gauge you can make in a football program in a football season. We’re going to come out next week and try everything in our power to beat Southern Miss.”