For the first time since 2014, the Rice Owls ran out of the tunnel and onto the gridiron with an opportunity at bowl eligibility. Rice took the road for a showdown with C-USA contender Western Kentucky, but when the postgame festivities subsided, the Owls never found themselves close to qualifying for their first bowl game in eight years.
WKU handed the Owls their worst C-USA loss of this season in a 45-10 annihilation which methodically snowballed into a blowout as the game progressed. Rice never led once all game and WKU thoroughly dominated in every facet, scoring at least one touchdown in all three phases of the game.
“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We were playing a really good football team. I don’t think we made any bones about that. I don’t think we were surprised about how good they were. At the end of the day, we lost some one-on-ones we needed to win.”
The main force driving the 35-point margin separating the teams was found in the turnover department. Although Rice obtained two takeaways from the Hilltoppers, the Owls committed an alarming six turnovers. Four of these Rice giveaways transpired in WKU territory, and the two most critical were the ones coming out of the gate. Starting quarterback TJ McMahon guided the Owls on consecutive promising drives, but both series concluded in interceptions — one from the 20-yard line and another from the 32-yard line of the Hilltoppers.
“If you break it down by the three phases of the game, offensively, it’s hard to beat anybody with six turnovers,” Bloomgren said. “That’s not a thing, especially when two of them are on your opening two drives where you drive it a little red. Obviously, you’re doing some good things. You’re moving the ball, but you don’t finish.”
Matters only got worse on the third turnover of the contest. WKU’s blitzing strong safety Kaleb Oliver sacked McMahon and jarred the ball loose, allowing outside linebacker JaQues Evans to complete a scoop-and-score. McMahon was shaken up on the play, causing Rice to send in third-string quarterback Shawqi Itraish. Itraish, whose college football résumé was limited to two passes prior to Saturday, finished 11-of-18 with 96 passing yards and two interceptions in his most substantial action to date.
“There were some things I saw that were very good and things that he did a good job of handling, and there’s some times where he looked like a redshirt freshman and a backup quarterback or a third-team quarterback that got thrown into a college football game,” Bloomgren said. “Especially those ball security issues, we’ve got to work on those. We’ve got to work on those with all the quarterbacks, obviously.”
Itraish checked in amidst a 21-0 deficit, but the Bradenton, FL native leaned on an effective running game to get situated into his expanded role. Rice scored its first touchdown of the contest on a 13-play drive where four different running backs were involved. When Uriah West entered the end zone, only 32 seconds remained in the half, and Rice was set to receive the third quarter kickoff down two scores.
But WKU’s typically-spectacular passing game collected 377 yards on the Owl defense, and Austin Reed’s ability to conduct the offense was on full display in those 32 seconds. With three quick completions, Reed maneuvered the Hilltoppers down to the Rice 7-yard line, and a chip shot field goal extended WKU’s advantage to three scores. That’s where Bloomgren believes the game changed most.
“We were doing a good job of holding the ball in the first half,” Bloomgren said. “We get the one turnover and you’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a chance here at least to win the middle eight.’ You go down, you score. You think it’s going to be 21-7 at halftime and they get the ball back with 32 seconds on the 25-yard line. They work it down to the 7-yard line to kick a field goal. Look, that happens in college football, but it shouldn’t happen. We’ve got a defense that we believe in and we’ve got to be able to say it’s 21-7 going into the locker room.”
Six turnovers can be problematic, but Rice’s issues Saturday extended beyond the inability to take care of the pigskin. The Owls permitted WKU to rack up 495 yards of offense and especially struggled in limiting an aerial attack which averaged 11.4 yards per dropback. Reed and the Hilltoppers did not flinch in critical situations and connected on 8-of-11 third downs in the victory. One of the contributing factors was the lack of pressure Rice applied to the quarterback, as the Owls notched one tackle for loss and zero sacks in their fifth loss of the season.
“Defensively, I thought our first and second down play in the first half was pretty good. They converted 6-of-7 third downs in that first half — three of which I believe were 3rd and 9 or 3rd and 8. Those are just backbreakers. You can’t win football games if you don’t get off the field on third down and if you turn the ball over on offense.”
The silver lining for Rice is that this team is resilient. The Owls have suffered concerning losses this year, including a 33-point home defeat to Charlotte. But after each of Rice’s prior four slip-ups, it responded in victorious fashion. With two crucial matchups looming on the schedule, Rice hopes to learn from its first half mistakes from the WKU game and prevent another unraveling from happening this November.
“It didn’t feel like the game two games ago,” Bloomgren said, referring to Rice’s 56-23 loss to Charlotte. “It didn’t feel like we just got boatraced right out of the game and they were scoring touchdowns on seven straight possessions like what happened that game. That wasn’t the case today, especially since we were moving the ball offensively and we had a chance in the low red on both of those drives to put them in the box. If you do that, you feel completely different at halftime. I guess at the very least, you’re down 24-21, and now you’re cooking with gas and you’re feeling good. But that’s not what happened.”
The Owls continue their quest for bowl eligibility against the current top two teams in the C-USA standings. They must knock off UTSA at home next Saturday or defeat North Texas in Denton during the regular season’s final week to snap the conference’s long bowl eligibility drought.