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Houston 34, Rice 27: Takeaways from a wild Bayou Bucket finish

The Cougars’ “Sack Ave.” defensive line proves to live up to its name, and other observations from the rivalry game.

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

City supremacy was on the line Saturday night in Houston, TX.

For the 44th time, the Houston Cougars and Rice Owls settled things on the football field in a rivalry known as the Bayou Bucket Classic. Houston entered Saturday leading the all-time series 32-11 while riding a 6-game win streak, and although the Owls proved to be valiant challengers, the Cougars continued their winning ways in a 34-27 decision.

Rice led with under six minutes remaining but Houston knotted the score at 27 on a late field goal. On the ensuing Owls possession, Cougars defensive end D’Anthony Jones strip-sacked Rice quarterback TJ McMahon and Nelson Ceaser scooped up the loose pigskin for a go-ahead score.

The Owls seemed to be out of the equation after throwing a subsequent interception, but Rice nearly traversed the length of the field in the game’s final 24 seconds. The game came down to one final snap from the Houston 9-yard line, where nickelback Jayce Rogers deflected McMahon’s last-second dart toward the end zone.

Both Houston and Rice finished their non-conference slates at 2-2 following the thrilling Bayou Bucket Classic finish. Here’s what we learned:

Sack Ave. is what makes Houston different and it runs deep

When Houston desperately needed a defensive stand to protect its Bayou Bucket streak, it’s no question which position group delivered. The Cougars’ defensive line, coached by Brian Early, has been the premier unit of the team for several years now. Ranking 11th in sacks per game at 3.2 in 2021, the unit became colloquially known by the moniker “Sack Ave.” During the Cougars’ 12-2 campaign last season, defensive end D’Anthony Jones often wielded a street sign with the nickname on the field following victories.

Houston demonstrated the return of Sack Ave. in Week 2 when recording six sacks against Texas Tech, led by defensive end Derek Parish’s 4.5. But the defensive line faced an onslaught of adversity afterward, as the team recorded an uncharacteristic zero sacks against Kansas and then lost Parish to a bicep injury in the second quarter against Rice.

But the defensive line remains deep and even without Parish, the unit includes four players that registered 3.5+ sacks last year. One of them was Jones, who shot out of a cannon on consecutive plays to turn the tide of the rivalry game. With around four minutes remaining, he forced a fumble while sacking TJ McMahon, but the recovery went to Rice offensive tackle Clay Servin. One snap later, Jones reiterated his playmaking ability, strip-sacking McMahon once again. Except this time, fellow defensive end Nelson Ceaser recovered and enjoyed a clear 9-yard path to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Houston
Houston DE D’Anthony Jones produced sacks and forced fumbles on back-to-back plays in the final minutes to turn the tide of a tie game.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Houston recorded all three of its sacks in the fourth quarter after the Parish injury, proving that Sack Ave. runs deep and can be the defining unit which separates victory from defeat.

Luke McCaffrey’s playmaking transformed the Rice offense

Rice has not finished a season better than 80th in passing offense since 2015, and in several of the past six seasons, the Owls ranked below 110th in the category. That being said, Rice has endured a long wait for an explosive kick to its passing offense. The Owls first addressed the need for a more explosive offense by bringing in Marques Tuiasosopo as offensive coordinator prior to 2021. But a move made this offseason seemed to be the spark which ignited a long dormant passing offense.

Luke McCaffrey started three games at quarterback, making his first start against Houston, in 2021 for the Owls. But this offseason, the near-lifelong quarterback made the transition to wide receiver. Not only is McCaffrey a serviceable option in his new role — he is the explosive piece Rice’s offense had been searching for in the Mike Bloomgren era. McCaffrey surpassed the century mark in receiving for the second consecutive game, compiling a career-high 121 yards on seven receptions. This former quarterback’s most impactful play of the contest provided Rice a second half lead, as he got an extra step on Houston cornerback Alex Hogan to receive a 52-yard touchdown bomb from TJ McMahon.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Rice WR Luke McCaffrey snags a 52-yard touchdown pass from TJ McMahon. McCaffrey scored his third touchdown in two games, recording 226 receiving yards during that span.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

McCaffrey is on pace for roughly 1,000 yards with 323 through a third of the regular season, along with three touchdowns. Because of his contributions, as well as the luxury of the team’s deepest receiving corps under Bloomgren, Rice’s passing offense is ranked 53rd in the FBS. The position change is clearly working wonders for the unit.

Houston’s penalty proclivity is problematic

How did Houston out-gain Rice offensively, win the turnover battle 2-1, fare 50 percent on third down compared to the Owls’ 36 percent success rate, and still remain nine yards and a two-point conversion away (Mike Bloomgren confirmed he would have gone for two in his postgame press conference) from defeat?

Rationale for the closely contested result must include Houston’s penalty problems. In Week 1, the Cougars committed 11 penalties for 75 yards. In Week 2, those numbers rose to 12 and 126. In Week 3, the unwelcome trend continued as the team was flagged 10 times for 73 yards. Finally, Houston drew 10 penalties for 110 yards against Rice, far outdoing the Owls’ three flags issued the entire contest.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Houston RB Ta’Zhawn Henry picked up 28 yards on a run right after a block in the back penalty set the Cougars up with 2nd and 29. Henry scored one play after the long pickup.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Houston has noticeably outdone every opponent in the penalty comparison, and now the Cougars rank first in the country in total flags (43) and penalty yards per game (96). The team has yet to finish with single digit penalties in a single contest, and the constant holdings, pass interferences, and personal fouls have made things difficult for both the offense and defense alike.

Houston impressively overcame a 2nd and 29 spawned by a block in the back to take the lead in the third quarter, but the flags proved very costly otherwise. Rice regained life twice in the fourth quarter after failed third down attempts due to Cougar penalties, extending the Owls’ opportunities to win a game which could have otherwise been wrapped up. As AAC play approaches, bucking this trend must be the team’s No. 1 emphasis.

Rice has all the tools needed to snap its bowl skid

December 24, 2014 marked the last time Rice competed in postseason competition, as the Owls breezed past Fresno State 30-6 in the Hawaii Bowl that Christmas Eve. The Owls followed up that season with a 5-7 record, and since, the program has been unable to break the 4-win barrier.

Situated at 2-2 as C-USA play commences next Saturday, it’s clear Rice has the capability of shattering the drought. This has been as strong of a non-conference showing under Mike Bloomgren, and the team stood one completion and a two-point conversion away from stunning Houston to jump to 3-1.

Rice has shown plenty of promise this season, starting with the way it established a potent first half run game against a challenging USC team in Week 1. In Week 2, the Owls demonstrated their offensive improvement by posting 52 points on their FCS opponent — signifying the highest amount in the Bloomgren era. That offensive prowess translated to Week 3 against Louisiana, when the team posted 33 points in a two-touchdown victory. And honestly, the victory would have been even more commanding if Rice didn’t gift Louisiana 14 first half points due to interceptions.

After posting 424 yards and 27 points on Houston, Rice’s offense ranks 65th and 72nd in points per game and yards per game, respectively — a noticeable uptick from its 107th and 96th ranks from a season ago. TJ McMahon has opened up the passing game in a manner previously unseen, becoming the first Rice quarterback to string together back-to-back 300-yard outings since Driphus Jackson in 2014. Before this season, the Owls only enjoyed three 300-yard passers in the Bloomgren era so the tangible progress is evident.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Rice QB TJ McMahon is 2-1 as a starter this season, exceeding 270 passing yards and firing a touchdown in all three starts.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the Owls pieced together an inspiring performance against Louisiana, limiting the Ragin’ Cajuns to 175 yards of offense (their lowest output since 2011) and only yielding one sustained touchdown drive. And they did it without using unsustainable turnovers as a crutch, simply recording stop after stop against the Ragin’ Cajuns by dominating in the trenches and preventing the run game from being established.

All three facets of the game are vastly improved — even special teams, considering kicker Christian VanSickle reset his career-high twice Saturday by nailing 42 and 43 yard field goal attempts in the second half. Now that all the pieces are in place, Rice must capitalize in C-USA play because this is a bowl-capable squad.