The Rice Owls’ 2021 non-conference schedule presented a wave of nostalgia for fans who remember and cherish the now-defunct Southwest Conference. Rice rekindled old ties when opening its season slate against three former conference mates — Arkansas, Houston, and Texas.
Unfortunately for Rice (0-3), all three rivalries of yesteryear resulted in disastrous fashion. But none were more disastrous than the trip to Lone Star State capital. In Austin, the Owls were severely outmatched in all facets of the game leading to a hapless 58-0 shutout at the hands of Texas (2-1). Rice has now lost 15 consecutive matchups against the Longhorns in a streak dating back to 1995.
“Aside from the people in this room, in this building, in our locker room, nobody in America thought we’d be anything other than 0-3 coming out of this stretch,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We set goals before this year that were to find a way to a bowl game and to win it. Everything we want is still right there in front of us... We have things to build on, but we are an 0-3 football team.”
The 58-point shellacking was the Owls’ most lopsided defeat since a 73-14 loss to Houston in 2009 and first time held scoreless since 2018. Texas was virtually unstoppable and scored touchdowns on eight of its 10 possessions. It was essentially over by halftime when the Longhorns held a 44-0 advantage in front of the home crowd.
“At halftime, it was like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know if we can overcome this. But I know this. We are going to evaluate the way we play every snap,’” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I don’t believe in playing this game for pride. I believe in playing this for each other and trying to put something on film that we can be proud of.”
Texas switched quarterbacks this week, opting to roll with Casey Thompson over Weeks 1 and 2 starter Hudson Card. However, the Longhorns didn’t need the aerial attack to pierce through the Rice defense. On the second play of the game, running back Bijan Robinson bolted for a 17-yard gain to breathe life into a Texas team coming off a deflating loss at Arkansas. From that point on, it was clear that Texas’ running game would significantly control the outcome. The Longhorns manufactured 427 yards in the rushing game to nearly double Rice’s entire offensive output of 284.
Robinson stampeded the Rice defense with broken tackles, breaking free for long runs all night. He recorded a personal hat trick in the first half to complement a season-high 127-yard outing on 9.8 yards per carry. Robinson’s signature highlight of the night was a 62-yard run which spanned from sideline to sideline.
“He’s a Heisman candidate, he’s a very special player — the best back we’ve ever seen. He made us miss as a defense a lot tonight and it’s really frustrating because we pride ourselves on the fundamentals of the game and swarm tackling,” strong safety Naeem Smith said.
Texas’ secondary back Roschon Johnson also enjoyed a sizable scamper in the first half with a 72-yard burst en route to a 112-yard day. In the second half, the pathways remained clear as sophomore halfback Keilan Robinson became the third Longhorn to explode for a 60+ yard touchdown run on the Owl defense.
“I never thought I’d see someone have three explosive runs of over 60 yards against our defense,” Bloomgren said. “You better take your hat off to Steve Sarkisian and his staff and you better talk about how good (Bijan) Robinson is. That kid may win a Heisman. We had him bottled up several times and we couldn’t get him on the ground.”
The Owls suffered a share of early special teams struggles which let the result get out of hand. Rice presented itself with its best scoring opportunity after defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu applied pressure to Thompson, causing him to lowball an interception to strong safety Gabe Taylor. But the promising offensive drive ended in a shanked 29-yard field goal. Rice dropped to 25 percent on field goal attempts this year — all kicks originating from fewer than 40 yards out.
Also, on the final play of the first quarter, punter Charlie Mendes was swarmed by a sea of burnt orange immediately after fielding the snap. His punt was ricocheted out of the back of the end zone to force a safety for the Longhorns. It was Rice’s second consecutive game on the wrong end of a blocked punt.
“We have to make sure we have every punt answer in our pocket and ready to be executed. That was inexcusable tonight,” Bloomgren said. “We win on special teams. We change the game on special teams. As far as the missed field goals, we have work to do there. Their job is to score, there’s no other way to look at it.”
Rice rotated three quarterbacks in Saturday night’s defeat. Luke McCaffrey started his second consecutive game for the Owls, but left the game early due to injury. Then Wiley Green, the Week 1 starter, eventually checked in for several series but his night also ended in a meeting with the trainers. Bloomgren said both quarterbacks’ status is unknown for next Saturday.
Handling relief duties, FCS grad transfer Jake Constantine made his Rice debut near the end of the first half. Rice’s offense was already struggling without two starting receivers Bradley Rozner and August Pitre III, but thinning the quarterback depth made matters worse. Constantine finished 12/15 with 80 yards in his first FBS action.
“Injuries happen. You always want to prevent them but that’s kind of the game,” running back Jordan Myers said. “Shoutout to Jake. He came in and did a good job, especially considering it’s his first time playing here with a whole new system.”
Through three games, Rice still has not been able to start or finish well offensively. The Owls have yet to score a first quarter or fourth quarter point this season. In a major step-back from last season, offense has only managed to notch three touchdowns through a quarter of its 2021 campaign. Since holding a 17-7 lead over Arkansas in the third quarter on Week 1, Rice has been outscored 133-7.
The Owls return home with a must-win situation against FCS opponent Texas Southern, hoping to prevent its second 0-4 start in three seasons. After suffering the two most brutal beatdowns since 2018, Rice is aware that plenty of changes must be made before next Saturday.
“There’s gonna be decisions made off this game film, whether it’s the first half or the second half, of people who can take care of the football, people who will play the game with the right intensity on defense and get their guy on the ground,” Bloomgren said. “We’re gonna find out who those people are, we’re gonna ask the coaches to put them in the right position, and we’re gonna go forward.”