The wait is over. The pads are on. Football season is finally approaching for the Rice Owls.
The Owls returned to the practice field toward the end of last week after delaying all practices on Saturday, September 6 due to COVID-19 related concerns and the need for faster, reliable testing results. The delay was a long and anxious wait for the players and coaching staff, but the notion of Rice playing football this fall is becoming increasingly certain.
“There were points throughout the summer where I thought there was very little chance anyone would play football this fall,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I’m so thankful to be a part of Rice University where our people did absolutely what was right for our student-athletes and my staff... If you look at the Rice dashboard — I think we’re at 0.09% positivity rate right now on tests. It’s taken everything we could to mitigate this virus and make this the safest environment for our kids.”
Back in August, Rice originally delayed its football season to September 26, but canceling practices pushed the Owls’ opener further back. Rice’s first two C-USA matchups, an October 3 road game at Marshall and an October 10 home game against UAB, were both postponed as a result of delayed practices.
Rice now opens its 2020 season October 24, hosting Middle Tennessee. The Owls are one of two Conference USA teams, along with Florida Atlantic, still waiting to play their 2020 fall opener. Rice’s original decision to delay the season to September 26 wiped away its non-conference slate which included a game against crosstown rival Houston and a battle with Army for the second-straight season. The Owls’ schedule now consists of six games exclusively against C-USA opposition.
Rice enters its 2020 campaign riding a 3-game win streak dating back to the end of last season — the Owls’ longest winning stretch since 2014. Bloomgren is slowly turning the program around, improving upon Rice’s previous record in each of his two seasons at the helm. Even with a month of delayed practices, he sees a Rice team that’s ahead of schedule in preparation, ready to improve on the 3-9 record from last fall.
“We’re as conditioned as we’ve ever been coming into camp, (strength and conditioning coach) Hans Straub has done a great job, and our knowledge of our system is higher than its ever been on either side of the ball — and that includes the freshmen because they’ve got about 100 Zoom hours,” Bloomgren said. “We just need 10,000 reps on the field and that’s what we’re gonna try to do in the next month.”
Under Bloomgren’s tenure, Rice has embodied the “Intellectual Brutality” mantra. Prior to putting on the pads, he believes Rice’s high level of preparation amid the unique circumstances can be attributed to high execution of learning in walkthroughs.
“I have always been a great believer in kinesthetic learning,” Bloomgren said. “The most success I’ve ever had as a teacher is through kinesthetic work, and that’s the walkthroughs. We’ve done more walkthroughs than any team I’ve ever been a part of, so I better take it as the blessing that it is and be very thankful that we got that time in, that time on task that our kids have a good understanding of our schemes.”
Despite the level of preparation the Rice players have from intellectual and conditioning standpoints, the Owls are not ready to engage in contact in a real-stakes football game. Fortunately for the program, approximately one month sits between Rice’s return to the practice field and the October 24 opener against Middle Tennessee.
“I don’t think we can play a game today. I don’t think we’re in game condition,” Bloomgren said following the team’s third practice on Saturday afternoon. “We’re far from ready to play a game physically. Even though we’re in great condition and we’ve done all the right things to get prepared for this moment, we’re gonna need these practices the next four weeks and the 10,000 reps I hope to get on each technique.”