Rice Stadium was enveloped in an unfamiliar hue Saturday night. It wasn’t necessarily the purple from the traveling East Carolina fans, who flocked into the city of Houston for the first-ever AAC meeting between the Owls and Pirates. But the Owls recognized their home debut in a new conference with a nod to the past. They donned “Luv Ya Blue” uniforms that paid homage to the Houston Oilers which played their home games at Rice Stadium from 1965-67, and the associated merchandise sold throughout the stadium was a hit among the Owl faithful.
With palpable hype surrounding the uniforms, the new conference affiliation, and the early success of the season, the Owls rose to the occasion. Rice delivered a 24-17 win over East Carolina, backed by a relentless defense which registered opportune stops consistently throughout the night.
“A lot of cool themes in this game with the Houston connect stuff — throwback to the Oilers,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said, wearing a stetson hat to his postgame press conference to pay homage to former Oilers head coach Bum Phillips. “I think our kids had a good time and our fans did as well. But the thing I want to talk about is the way we found a way to win that game with four fourth down stops by our defense in the second half.”
Rice quarterback JT Daniels’ availability heading into the matchup was up in the air after suffering an ankle injury at South Florida last Saturday. Daniels did not practice once all week and when asked when he was certain he would play, the sixth-year senior responded, “Around kickoff.”
“I didn’t think it would be a very significant deal,” Daniels said on not practicing. “I did notice coming in, with my first throw since USF being today, that was definitely something I had to adjust to. That’s all you have — a week of film and meetings and all of that. None of that is the same than actually throwing the thing physically.”
The lack of practice reps showed in the early going as Daniels completed one of his first six attempts, tossing his lone interception of the night. At one point, he was 6-of-16, but suddenly, everything clicked for the veteran gunslinger. Daniels connected on 12 of his next 14 attempts, jump-starting a dormant Rice offense to finish with 232 yards.
“It was an adjustment, basically trying not to use (my plant foot) for the most part,” Daniels said. “It’s not like a super significant crazy change that I had to get adjusted to. Once I felt good moving, then I was completely fine out of the question. There was a little bit of confidence in feeling good.”
The 12th completion of that span held more weight than any other pass by either team. With under seven minutes remaining in a tie ballgame, Daniels delivered a screen toward Landon Ransom-Goelz, and the true freshman weaved his way through defenders en route to a 44-yard touchdown — the first of his young career.
“I thought JT Daniels was a complete warrior today,” Bloomgren said. “We have such high hopes and expectations every time he plays, and this will never go down as his best game on the stat sheet, but it’s one of his best games ever because of what he fought through to get there and because he stayed on the field through it all.”
The job wasn’t finished yet, as Rice’s defense needed to prevent the Pirates from one more end zone appearance. That’s exactly what transpired, as ECU finished 0-of-3 on fourth down attempts following Ransom-Goelz’s go-ahead score. The farthest the Pirates maneuvered was to the Rice 29-yard line where wide receiver Chase Sowell appeared on track to convert a 4th and 6. However, Sowell was suddenly stonewalled by Rice outside linebacker Josh Pearcy, who utilized the hit stick to deliver a devastating blow.
“That was real,” Bloomgren said about Pearcy’s tackle. “That will make the team meeting on Monday. I promise you.”
Rice put an exclamation point on the game in sack-happy fashion. East Carolina reached midfield on its final gasp, but a pair of Owl reserve defenders — Demone Green and Chike Anigbogu — sacked quarterback Alex Flinn on back-to-back victories to seal the victory. Rice was the more demonstrative unit at the line of scrimmage, finishing with three sacks. Even star safety Gabe Taylor registered the first of his career on a blitz in the second quarter.
“This team is so resilient,” Taylor said, wearing the phrase ‘TIRED OF LOSING’ on his eyeblack. “This team always finds a way. Four fourth down stops in the fourth quarter — that was amazing. Our mindset was just different this year, way past from last year’s. We just came in and fought today.”
The story of the game for East Carolina’s offense was missed opportunities. The Pirates pioneered inside the Rice 30-yard line on five of their first seven drives. But not a single one of those promising drives resulted in the ultimate reward. Andrew Conrad successfully drained three short field goals for the Pirates, but the team tossed an interception to Rice inside linebacker Chris Conti on one of these possessions, and another one ended with Coleman Coco and De’Braylon Carroll teaming up to stuff an ECU QB sneak at the 1-yard line.
“They’ve got great players that are on scholarship and they’re gonna make some plays too,” Bloomgren said. “That’s why we’ve got to find a way to keep them out of that zone. If we can do it and we can believe... When you can answer, ‘Yes, I believe in my self. I believe in my teammates,’ really cool things can happen like that goal line stand. I thought that goal line stand was phenomenal.”
East Carolina’s offense finally found the end zone in the middle the fourth quarter. Still, scoring was an arduous process for the Pirates which required six snaps inside the Rice 10-yard line before running back Rahjai Harris punched it in. ECU converted the ensuing 2-point attempt, knotting the game at 17 apiece with 8:24 to go before Ransom-Goelz’s crunch time touchdown.
Ransom-Goelz wasn’t the only true freshman Owl to make an imprint on the game. Due to Daniels’ uncertain status, Rice practiced true freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins throughout the week. The Katy, TX native took a series of snaps and wound up as the team’s leading rusher with 27 yards on four carries, including his first touchdown at the collegiate level.
“I love Chase,” Daniels said. “For some reason I don’t think I can run like Chase. I’ve never had an issue with dual quarterback systems. It can be difficult if you end up falling behind... but I love being able to be multiple.”
East Carolina (1-4, 0-1 AAC) has yet to beat an FBS opponent this season, and Mike Houston’s Pirates will have a week to sit on this one. They’ll search for gold on Thursday, Oct. 12 when hosting SMU at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Rice (3-2, 1-1 AAC) is above .500 after five games for the second consecutive season. With their inaugural AAC win officially on the board, the Owls believe a conference championship appearance is an attainable goal during their first year of affiliation.
“It doesn’t look like there’s ever been two undefeated teams in the American Conference Championship Game,” Bloomgren said. “So that means everything we talk about, everything we dream of is still right there. It’s in the palm of our hand. We’re gonna take it week-by-week and find a way week-by-week. We’re still very much alive.”