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Constantine, interceptions push Rice past Southern Miss, 24-19, in C-USA opener

The Owls defense records four interceptions en route to their second consecutive victory.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Rice at UTSA Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Saturday night marked a clean slate for Rice and Southern Miss alike. Two 1-3 teams that struggled offensively in non-conference competition earned a chance to commence C-USA play with a 1-0 record. In front of its home crowd, Rice snatched the opportunity and won its second consecutive game in wire-to-wire fashion, 24-19. Many of the Owls’ preseason goals remain in front of them as they jump to 1-0 in the conference for the first time in the Mike Bloomgren era.

“As we always say, the fun is in the winning and it’s great to get a win at home and start off conference 1-0,” Bloomgren said. “They battled through 60 minutes like I asked them to. Our defense stepped in the fourth quarter the way we needed to and we got a big turnover at the end to really seal the game.”

In a night defined by Rice’s defense, it was fitting for the unit to manufacture a highlight play in the final minutes. Clinging on to a 7-point lead, Owls free safety Kirk Lockhart corralled a spectacular on-the-run interception with 1:15 remaining to secure the team’s first C-USA home victory since November 2019.

“If you put me in position to make that play, I’m gonna make that play,” Lockhart said. “The only thing going through my mind was, ‘Do your job. Do your 1/11th. And if the play comes to you, you’ll make it just like your other teammates would.’”

Last week, Jake Constantine became the third different starting quarterback for the Owls in the young season. Injuries to Luke McCaffrey and Wiley Green in the Week 3 loss to Texas provided the Weber State transfer his first action at the FBS level. After recording Rice’s highest passing output of the season in Week 4, Constantine got a stranglehold on the starting role for the Owls.

His arm talent was on full display in his follow-up act as he connected on 16/22 throws with two impressive touchdown passes, all without an interception. In Constantine’s sample size of three games, his completion percentage has hovered above 70 percent each time.

“I’m really proud of him. He stepped up into a role and we’ve been down two QBs early in the first three games,” tight end Robert French said. “He just stepped up and made plays when we needed to and he’s just played really consistent ball.”

Quarterback injuries are not exclusive to Rice this year. Southern Miss starter Ty Keyes nicked up his ankle on the opening drive of the contest. That left freshman Jake Lange to step up to the plate for his first taste of college football, and his first career drive went swimmingly. He accounted for 70 passing yards on the possession and wound up with a touchdown delivery to wide receiver Chandler Pittman, putting the Golden Eagles on the board. Despite 304 passing yards, the smooth start quickly transitioned to a rough finish, as the quarterback tossed three interceptions on downfield attempts to a hungry Rice defense.

“The biggest part wasn’t the quarterback doing whatever he did,” Lockhart said. “It was about everybody on defense doing their 1/11th and getting to the ball. That’s why George (Nyakwol) got that pick, Naeem (Smith) got that pick, so many guys up front were getting to the ball — because they were doing what they were supposed to do and not relying on their QB.”

Lange’s lone touchdown strike to Pittman deadlocked the game at 7-7, but Constantine initiated the scoring effort for the night. He found Jake Bailey on a slant route in the first quarter, and Bailey avoided a shoestring tackle, maintained his balance, and stumbled roughly 15 yards before falling in the end zone. Later, on the Owls’ opening drive of the third quarter, Constantine completed 5-of-6 passes for 58 yards. His final throw of the drive was a perfectly-placed lob to French in the end zone to go up 17-7.

“It was awesome. I’ve been working hard for four years and to finally get to see that play out on the field was really nice,” French said, commenting on his first collegiate touchdown reception. “We had a lot of great plays by the o-line tonight, so we could throw down the field which was really awesome.”

The Constantine-to-French connection launched the most bizarre sequence of the game. No shortage of chaos was concocted in this 6-play sequence. Rice strong safety Naeem Smith picked off Southern Miss quarterback Trey Lange several snaps later. Then, on the play following Smith’s takeaway, the Owls’ offense capitalized on a reverse to wide receiver Cedric Patterson III. With a head of speed and a downfield blocker, the New Mexico transfer receiver sprinted 38 yards for a touchdown to secure a 24-7 lead for Rice — its largest against FBS competition this season.

With a dormant offense, a 17-point deficit seemed to be a death sentence for Southern Miss. But the Golden Eagles received an instantaneous boost from the special teams unit to get back in the game. Camron Harrell fielded the ensuing kickoff and cashed in for a 95-yard touchdown for the third touchdown in a six-play span.

“It was definitely good for us to have those two touchdowns to really give us a lot of momentum, and we’ll continue to work on our special teams,” French said regarding that sequence. “But offensively we did everything we wanted to.”

Relentless defensive effort paved way for Rice to hang on. Prior to opening kickoff, Rice’s defense ranked third to last in the country in opponent points per game. In their best showing of the season, the Owls limited the Golden Eagles to a lone offensive touchdown while wreaking havoc from opening kick to final buzzer. They picked off Keyes once and Lange on three occasions, and interceptions by starting safeties George Nyakwol and Naeem Smith led to touchdown drives. Inside linebacker Antonio Montero hauled in his first interception since 2018 and Lockhart snagged the first of his career to ultimately ice the victory.

“The biggest thing is in practice every week, going into each meeting, this emphasis is getting these takeaways — either sacks, fumbles, peanuts — we need to get those takeaways,” Lockhart said. “All my brothers went into practice and that’s all they did was practice peanuting, catching every ball that came into their hands, and I think that’s why we made so many TFLs and tackles and sacks. It’s just showing the results now.”

The backfield applied copious amounts of pressure on the true freshman quarterback. Nose tackle Elijah Garcia proved to be the toughest Owl to contain for the Southern Miss offensive line, and the man in the middle finished with two of Rice’s five sacks Saturday night. Rice registered season-highs in sacks and tackles for loss. Consistently breaking through to the quarterback produced several of the team’s four interceptions.

“It was a tough week of practice and I think it translated to the game,” Garcia said. “We call it ‘grimy,’ but it was a grimy game and we got it done. And that’s something I’m proud of this defense for.”

On the other hand, Southern Miss only notched one sack and recorded zero takeaways from the Rice offense. After a turnover-filled defeat, Southern Miss travels back to Hattiesburg to prepare for a clash with UTEP, remaining in search of its first FBS win under head coach Will Hall.

Meanwhile, Rice carries its perfect C-USA record into a bye week where the team waits to weeks before facing UTSA, the lone unbeaten squad in the conference. Bloomgren hesitated when asked if the bye week is ideal after the team’s longest win streak since 2019.

“Part of me would like to roll into the next one because we’re starting to grow and take steps together,” Bloomgren said. “But there’s also the reality that we get more players back after this bye that will help us.”