Last October, Rice strolled into Birmingham as considerable underdogs and exited UAB’s house with a stunning, 30-24 victory. The momentum generated from that win looked as if it could usher in a new, more prosperous era of Owl football.
One year later, the effects of that victory could be felt as UAB paid a return trip to Houston with hopes of avenging Rice. Instead, the Owls proved their progress in tangible fashion by upending the team which head coach Mike Bloomgren repeatedly referred to as the “standard” in the C-USA. Rice rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat the Blazers for the second consecutive season, 28-24.
“It means we’ve taken some real steps in this football program and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Bloomgren said. “To beat them two years in a row means everything. (Running back) Cameron Montgomery and (defensive end) Ikenna Enechukwu were on that field in 2018 when they beat the life out of us. We all remember that. When you talk about how far this program has come, and we’re nowhere near the pinnacle — we’re still growing — this means a lot to a lot of people in that locker room and on this coaching staff.”
Rice trudged down the field in signature fashion to open the game, as running back Ari Broussard punched a first quarter touchdown to cap an 11-play, 75-yard drive. But the Blazers responded with 17 unanswered points to claim a double-digit advantage at halftime. UAB’s scoring run commenced when the Blazers pinned the Owls at their own 1-yard line thanks to a spectacular punt. On the following play, Rice hoped to avoid a safety, but something more disastrous transpired. Broussard fumbled and the ball was quickly scooped up by UAB inside linebacker Noah Wilder. Not wasting any time, Blazers running back DeWayne McBride powered into the end zone one play later.
“To play that way in the first half and to only be down 17-7 I thought was a blessing,” Bloomgren said.
There was a clear disparity between first half Rice and second half Rice, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Owls regained some rhythm in the third quarter when Broussard punched in his second short touchdown run of the night — his eighth of the season. All eight of Broussard’s scoring plays have stemmed from within three yards of the goal line, proving his near-automatic ability to thrive in short-yardage situations.
“I just know Ari’s gonna score,” Montgomery said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind or another running back I ever want to have the ball on 4th and goal or 3rd and 1 because Ari’s physical. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen him lift but he’s as strong as an ox. I would never want to get in front of him when it’s short yardage on the goal line.”
Rice gifted UAB a touchdown courtesy of a fumble in the first half, but the Blazers returned the favor in third quarter. On the second snap following Broussard’s second touchdown, a bizarre play unfolded which ended up swinging the momentum of the game. UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins lateraled the ball backward to his running back and Rice free safety George Nyakwol blew it up behind the line of scrimmage.
“I see George and I’m like, ‘That’s my boy!’” Montgomery said. “I saw George make the tackle on the running back in the backfield, but I just thought big hit like, ‘Boom!’ That’s what I’m screaming. ‘Boom!’ I wasn’t even thinking backwards pass. I saw everybody celebrating so I just jumped off the bench, forgot my helmet, grabbed a towel and started swinging a towel. I’m just cheering like big play.”
Similar to Montgomery’s reaction on the sideline, nearly all players on the field assumed the play was dead after Nyakwol’s disruption in the backfield. But Rice outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain was the only Owl with a heads-up response, sprinting to the loose ball and picking it up near the pylon for a free touchdown. That sequence handed the Owls a 21-17 lead — their first lead of the second half.
“I knew it was a backwards pass,” Bloomgren said. “I knew George hit it. I knew it was a fumble and I actually caught the official on the sideline in my vision and saw him going with the ball waiting for somebody to pick it up. If it went out of bounds or we hadn’t picked it up it would have remained in their possession, but heads-up play by Treshawn Chamberlain.”
UAB overcame a penalty-laden drive to regain the lead on a 28-yard heave from Hopkins to Trea Shropshire. But once again, the resilient Owls responded in signature fashion. Piecing together a lack of explosive plays, Rice slowly matriculated down the field on a 14-play, 82-yard drive. Quarterback TJ McMahon connected with running back Dean Connors on an out route near the goal line for the go-ahead score — Connors’ first of his young Owl tenure.
A roughing the passer penalty on UAB was a key component to Rice’s scoring drive. Penalties reigned supreme Saturday night, but they were more of a thorn in UAB’s side than that of the Owls. Rice’s 10 penalties for 75 yards paled in comparison to the 116 penalty yards UAB racked up on 12 flags. Overall, it created a slow-moving game between two of the slowest-paced offenses in the FBS.
“Honestly, that’s the type of game we live for defensively,” defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu said. “We want to be the most brutal, the most physical team out there. We want our opponents to know — while we were trying to keep it in between the whistles — between whistles, we’re gonna dominate.”
The game ended with the Owls relying on the defensive side of the ball. UAB invaded Rice territory and reached as far as the 11-yard line in the waning minutes of the contest. The Owls defense stepped up to the occasion to force a key turnover on downs. When UAB got one last crack at victory in the final minute, Rice delivered in convincing fashion by tackling Hopkins in the backfield on three consecutive plays until the buzzer sounded.
“We just stopped them about three minutes left in the game and then we got called out to finish one more time,” Enechukwu said. “We live for that. We were excited to get back on that field and just end it as a defense and make it clear that our defense is solid and you’re not scoring on us.”
It wasn’t the most productive day for the Owl offense, which generated just 209 yards — 104 on 17 passes and on 105 on 2.1 yards per rush. Despite the victory, there was a shortage of explosive playmaking as only one completion covered more than 17 yards of ground. Meanwhile UAB posted 360 yards of offense, headlined by McBride, who entered the night averaging 200 rushing yards per game. McBride likely hovered near his per game average but many of his significant carries were wiped off the board due to penalties.
“You talk about this runner who I have so much respect for, he averaged 4.3 and it didn’t feel like that,” Bloomgren said of McBride. “Those are two unbelievably talented running backs on that sideline and we did a good job keeping them in check without them getting too explosive.”
Rice’s second consecutive victory over UAB improved the Owls to 3-2 on the season and 1-0 in C-USA play. Floating above .500 through five games, Rice clinched its best start since 2013 when it won the C-USA championship. The Owls have also enjoyed newfound home success, winning their fourth consecutive game at Rice Stadium dating back to last year’s season finale against Louisiana Tech.
“This is where I thought we’d be coming out of the game,” Bloomgren said. “It’s not exactly how I thought we’d get there during the game. I’m proud of getting our third win under our belt and I’m proud of starting 1-0 in conference against a team that was the target in this conference, was the standard in the conference. If you look at the second half, if we can learn to play that way for 60 minutes, I don’t know who can beat the Rice Owls right now but the Rice Owls.”