Major setback evolves into major comeback
Rice could not have entered Birmingham coming off a worse performance. The Owls spent a week of practice marinating in the feeling of a 45-0 gut punch from UTSA. The team generated just 102 yards of offense, punted 10 times, and failed to cross the UTSA 47-yard line in the disastrous showing, which marked the second time the Owls were shut out in 2021. The program displayed resiliency after the first shutout — a 58-0 shellacking from Texas — by responding with a 48-point outburst against Texas Southern of the FCS.
But after the UTSA result, Rice wasn’t returning home to battle an FCS foe. The Owls were traveling to Protective Stadium for a matchup with the three-time reigning C-USA West division champion UAB Blazers. As three-touchdown underdogs, the Owls didn’t let the prior loss beat them twice. Instead, Rice emerged victorious to the tune of 30-24 and snapped a 4-game losing streak to UAB.
“This one’s absolutely huge. This one means the world to me because of the way these guys have continued to prepare,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “They had every reason to quit. When you get beat like we did last week and put on a horrible performance after having a great week of practice, you search your soul for what’s going on.”
Unlike the Owls’ first two wins of the season, this one wasn’t wire-to-wire. Fast starts have been the catalyst for the team’s success this season, but Rice’s 13-0 advantage was quickly overcome. By the end of the first quarter, UAB erased the Owls’ progress and claimed a 14-13 lead. Rice didn’t fold in the face of adversity and responded with 14 unanswered points to ultimately secure the statement victory.
“When we lost to Texas, we really had to dig deep as a team. Nothing has ever been perfect this season — guys have been injured, other guys have had to step up — but I love the resilience of our team,” strong safety Naeem Smith said. “It was not a perfect game at all today, and at the end of the day, this was a big-time win for our program. This is something we need to continue to snowball going forward.”
A 5-for-5 deal
In order for Rice to knock off UAB as considerable underdogs, aggressive play-calling was required from Bloomgren and his coaching staff. The Owls executed in critical situations by converting on all five of their fourth down attempts. All five conversions extended drives which resulted in end zone appearances.
The ‘no risk it, no biscuit’ mentality started early, as Rice converted a pair of fourth down tries on the first drive of the day. Even when the Owls held a 20-14 advantage in the third quarter, they kept their foot on the gas by calling a fake punt on 4th and 5 from their own 40. Tight end Jaeger Bull racked up 30 rushing yards on the fake, and he fittingly finished the drive as the recipient of Wiley Green’s touchdown pass — another instance of success stemming from a fourth down attempt.
“That’s something (special teams) Coach (Chris) Monfiletto drew up maybe a month and a half ago,” Bloomgren said of the fake punt. “We called it once and had to end up checking out. We called it again and ended up getting a different look than we expected there too, so we burned a timeout and gave ourselves time to regroup against a different look. Then we got the right look and gosh, it was awesome to hit that thing and turn that drive into points.”
Veteran Owls embrace ‘mudita’
Some of the major contributors in the victory over UAB haven’t been amassing as much playing time as they did three years ago. But Wiley Green and Juma Otoviano are longtime program staples and kingpins of the team’s culture. When given opportunities Saturday, their efforts were witnessed on the field once again.
No player on the roster has experienced a roller coaster of a career like Wiley Green. The quarterback was a member of Mike Bloomgren’s first recruiting class and started three games as a true freshman in 2018. Green was listed atop the depth chart to begin 2019, but injuries and competition in the quarterback room limited him to seven starts. TCU grad transfer Mike Collins stepped into the equation in 2020, and Green’s playing time was limited to three drives in the season finale vs. UAB.
This fall, Green trotted out as the starting quarterback in the Week 1 showdown in Arkansas but didn’t retain the role for the following week. He suffered an injury as a relief quarterback in the Week 3 loss to Texas, a setback which kept him out until Saturday. Back in the starting lineup, Green’s return was his greatest showing as an Owl yet. He efficiently completed 17/22 passes for 205 yards (most since 2018), complemented with a career-high three touchdowns. With the veteran under center, Rice’s offense benefited immensely and amassed 30 points vs. an FBS team for the first time all season.
“(Offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo) and I were able to walk through this week and I can’t tell you how confident I felt coming into this game,” Green said. “One thing that I talked about a lot of, I had this verse Galatians 1:10 which pretty summarizes to say, ‘Don’t pursue for the audience of people, but for the audience of God.’ That was my mentality coming into this week — I’m not going to please the people or these coaches or even my teammates, but all I’m gonna do is please the audience of One and that’s God and that helped me a lot this week in my confidence and preparation.”
The story of running back Juma Otoviano is similar to Green. A fellow member of Green’s recruiting class, Otoviano saw immediate impact as a true freshman in 2018. He registered career-highs in attempts, yards, and touchdowns that year, and the cherry on top was his 224-yard rampage in the season finale win over Old Dominion. Offseason surgery limited him to three games in 2019, and he made two appearances in the shortened 2020 campaign. This season, Otoviano has only fielded one handoff, but the running back found a new role to relish in Saturday.
Otoviano handled kick return duties for the first time in his career. Before the offense could even take the field, he provided the entire team a much-needed spark. Otoviano sprinted the opening kickoff 50 yards to midfield, providing the offense a short distance to score. Green and Co. capitalized in the form of a touchdown thanks to Otoviano’s setup. The seasoned running back finished the evening with 92 kick return yards — the most by an Owl all season.
“We’ve talked about something in this program, a Buddhist word called ‘mudita,’ which is happiness for others’ success. Juma Otoviano has been the king and chairman of ‘mudita.’ He has been so happy for everyone else’s success. He’s been the ultimate practice player, the ultimate teammate. As has Wiley Green. I talked to him about how he’s been able to do what he’s done through this year. And then they come out here today, they get opportunities, and have that level of success, that makes me so proud of those two individuals in particular.”