The Rice Owls’ 2021 football season launched in SEC country Saturday afternoon, and from the first play, it was clear they wouldn’t leave Fayetteville, AR without causing a bit of havoc. Rice forced a fumble on the opening kickoff. Despite an Arkansas recovery, the Owls’ defense came out firing and registered a sack on the first play from scrimmage.
From that point, it was clear it wouldn’t be a cakewalk for the Razorbacks. But after Rice held a 10-point lead, Arkansas rallied with poise and firepower, piling on 31 unanswered to claim a 38-17 victory.
The Owls did not announce a No. 1 quarterback before kickoff and elected to insert fourth-year quarterback Wiley Green into the starting lineup. Green played the majority of snaps, but Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey saw ample action at QB in his first game as an Owl as well. Green finished with 12/25 with 125 yards, one touchdown, and a trio of interceptions. McCaffrey was 5/10 for 75 yards. Arkansas contained the quarterbacks with ease, allowing neither Green nor McCaffrey to affect the game with his legs.
Green was the architect of Rice’s best offensive play all afternoon. In the early third quarter, he fired a 41-yard bomb down the sideline to connect with August Pitre III, who burned the cornerback in zone coverage to propel the Owls to a 17-7 advantage.
Rice was able to build the 10-point lead primarily via defensive and special teams dominance. The Owls effectively stopped the run early on and created momentum-swinging plays. In the second quarter, they blocked a punt and recorded an interception at midfield, providing an extended scare at Razorback Stadium.
Arkansas quickly woke up the moment the deficit extended to double digits. The Razorbacks returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield and wound up with a quick score on K.J. Jefferson’s second rushing touchdown of the afternoon. While Rice contained the running backs with moderate success, Jefferson’s mobility presented problems for the Owls and he broke out for 51 rushing yards on eight attempts.
After tying it at 17 apiece, the Razorbacks tipped one of Green’s passes at the line of scrimmage. The wobbling pigskin situated into the hands of strong safety Jalen Catalon who was nine yards short of a pick-six. Arkansas instantly cashed in the takeaway for the go-ahead score to put the home team in front, 24-17. Green tossed his second pick on the following drive, and the inability to inflict damage on the Razorback defense ultimately cost Rice a chance at victory.
Catalon was the player of the game for the stout Razorbacks’ defense, securing 11 tackles and two interceptions while providing significant assistance in the coverage department. With Catalon also playing a role in stifling Rice’s running backs, Arkansas’ defense prevented the Owls from attaining a single run of more than seven yards.
The injury bug struck Rice repeatedly throughout the contest. Starting VIPER (OLB/S combo) Treshawn Chamberlain was carted off the field with an apparent arm injury. Other Owl starters that were helped off the field included running back Khalan Griffin, EDGE rusher Kenneth Orji, and defensive end Trey Schuman — although some of the aforementioned players returned.
Conversely, the Razorbacks lost several key contributors due to targeting fouls. First Team All-SEC inside linebacker Grant Morgan was assessed with a targeting penalty in the opening quarter, removing him from the field for the remainder of the contest. Outside linebacker Bumper Pool also drew a targeting ejection with roughly eight minutes left in the game.
Similar to previous years, Rice’s main issues stem from the offensive side of the ball. The Owls averaged 2.1 yards per carry and completed fewer than half of their passing attempts. Losing the turnover battle plagued Rice and Arkansas was able to collect 14 fourth-quarter points from the Owls’ miscues. The defense shined early when winning the field position battle, but the inability of the offense to stay on the field eventually affected the defense’s effectiveness in containing the Razorbacks.
The Owls’ non-conference schedule continues next Saturday at Rice Stadium, where they hope to upend crosstown rival Houston and claim the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010.