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Rice offense faces shutout in final three quarters in 17-14 Owl battle at FAU

Rice fails to preserve early 14-0 lead as passing offense struggles to build on an explosive start.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After years of falling short of bowl eligibility and remaining an afterthought in the C-USA title race, the tide was beginning to turn. Rice snapped Louisiana’s 15-game win streak and knocked off perennial contender UAB for the second consecutive season. The program’s newfound success appeared to carry over to Boca Raton in a matchup against Florida Atlantic.

But after Rice stormed out to a 14-0 start, the offense stalled for good. The Owls couldn’t notch a single point in the final three quarters, paving a pathway for the other Owls from Florida Atlantic to secure a 17-14 win, effectively ending Rice’s perfect C-USA record.

“I’m disappointed that we didn't perform a little better today,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I’m disappointed we did some things to hurt ourselves. We got to learn and grow from those things, and we will, but it sure doesn’t stop us from being disappointed and hurt right now.”

Rice appeared to have a complete stranglehold game in the first quarter when jumping out to a 14-0 advantage. The Owls pieced together explosive play after explosive play through heavy utilization of Brad Rozner. The senior demonstrated a knack for getting open downfield and shed several tacklers en route to picking up significant gains. The most notable home run play from Rozner was a 78-yard touchdown delivery from TJ McMahon — marking Rice’s longest touchdown pass since 2014.

“It always feels good to score like that... That feels good and everything’s firing on all cylinders,” center Shea Baker said on the explosive start. “And then you go three (quarters), the whole second half, and get shut out. It’s not good enough.”

Rozner finished the first quarter with 126 receiving yards on three catches — exactly nine times the amount of yards Florida Atlantic registered through the air in the first half (14). But the script quickly flipped for both offenses following a first quarter dominated by Bloomgren’s team.

“I don’t think FAU did much to change,” Bloomgren said. “They played a rotation of coverages like they typically did. They maybe pressured a little less than we had expected from their past performances. They simplified things pretty well. I think they did a good job of being in a couple different coverages, very few pressures, and they played fast.”

FAU’s double-digit comeback was a two-part effort. One, the team started finding openings with their creative rushing attack, utilizing Larry McCammon and Johnny Ford to matriculate downfield. Their first scoring drive of the second quarter featured 78 rushing yards on eight carries and that prowess on the ground sustained into the second half. FAU’s go-ahead score didn’t come until the 11:22 mark of the fourth quarter when Jahmal Edrine made a spectacular end zone grab to secure a 17-14 lead that would not be relinquished.

Rice entered Saturday night ranked sixth in the FBS in time of possession, a statistic the Owls have prided themselves on dominating in the Bloomgren era. They held a slight advantage in the first half but FAU consumed over 22 minutes of clock in the second half as a steady run game sustained, while Rice often went three-and-out through the air.

“All we had to do was get in field goal range to keep this game alive or score a touchdown and win it,” Bloomgren said. “It wasn’t a big ask we were making of our offense. We just needed them to be efficient, put a drive together, and we would have had some really good chances to have a different outcome.”

Rice couldn’t muster up a consistent rushing attack with 64 yards on 23 carries. As a result, the team resorted to airing it out, with a series of forced throws. McMahon followed up his 139-yard first quarter with 58 passing yards the rest of the contest, completing just 10-of-28 attempts. FAU snagged three interceptions from the quarterback, including two in the end zone in the final nine minutes — shutting the door on Rice’s attempted fourth quarter comeback.

One of the interceptions transpired while Rice had a 2nd and 5 from the 7-yard line. Strong safety Dwight Toombs blanketed McMahon’s target in the end zone to rapidly swing the momentum of the contest. The other fourth quarter interception was a heave downfield in 1-on-2 coverage, where free safety Armani-Eli Adams tracked the ball and secured it in the middle of the end zone.

“Unfortunately, as we were trying to get ourselves going and I think TJ was trying to get ourselves going as well, some of those throws maybe would have been better served moving the sticks and helping us in that way,” Bloomgren said. “We’re all still growing and he is too. I think it was his fifth start ever in college football and we’re going to support him, we’re going to support our offense. We lose these things together and we win them together.”

Although Rice’s defense struggled to get off the field, the unit certainly provided a slew of opportunities for the offense. Inside linebacker Myron Morrison captained the ship with a career-high 15 tackles and Rice limited FAU to 14-of-26 passing with 126 yards. The only turnover Rice registered resulted from a bizarre sequence where Kirk Lockhart forced FAU wide receiver LaJohntay Wester to fumble on the 1-yard line and into the end zone for a touchback.

“I think our defense played well enough for us to win and we didn’t get it done,” Bloomgren said. “They gave us chance after chance offensively. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to work on and we will continue to work. But one thing that is very true is nobody can beat us but us right now.”

This isn’t Rice’s first setback this year, as the Owls suffered a 66-14 defeat to USC in Week 1 and lost on a goal line stand to Houston in Week 4. Bloomgren’s squad has responded well to defeats, securing confidence-boosting victories after each one. Remaining a factor in a wide-open C-USA race, Rice moves on to Louisiana Tech next Saturday in hopes of snapping a 5-game road losing streak.

In both of Rice’s FBS wins, the Owls overcame halftime deficits, but Saturday night in Boca Raton, Rice couldn’t protect its halftime advantage. Thus, the key focus going forward involves consistency for all 60 minutes of the contest.

“Beating adversity and not having to comeback from adversity,” Morrison said on what can be applied from this loss. “Being ahead early and not having to come back in the first place.”