It was just another home game for the Rice Owls, playing before a sparse crowd and hosting a better squad. And just like with every other home game this season, the final result was a loss as the Owls lost 43-34 to Southern Miss to drop to 1-9 on the season before a Rice Stadium crowd of 18,124.
It was legitimately a good effort by the Rice offense, who, after quickly falling behind 13-0 found a way to get back into the game. The Owls knocked the deficit down to two points on several occasions in the second half, but as has been the case all too often for the Owls, it was too little, too late. In past games, it’s been the offense that didn’t execute when counted, but on this occasion, it was the defense that found itself unable to make a stop and force a turnover or a punt when it counted.
Southern Miss was clearly the better team on the field. It’s players looked bigger. It’s players appeared to be more talented. And when Southern Miss jumped out to 13-0 first quarter lead, Rice fans could be forgiven thinking this was just more of the same for the Owls. Especially seeing as how Rice had minus-six passing yards in the first quarter.
The Rice offense did begin to crank into action behind its running game and moved the ball up the field behind a mix of power rushes, sweeps, and quarterback keepers. It also helped that the Southern Miss defense kept committing unsportsmanlike penalties, allowing Rice to extend drives and gain extra yards. The halftime score found Rice down just 22-14 despite being out-gained 303 to 123 in total yards, and despite accumulating just 10 passing yards.
The key for Rice was superb play execution and a lack of mental errors. The Rice philosophy is always that it has to play smarter since the opposition is usually more talented. And Rice has shown multiple times this year than when it executes the offense and cuts down on the errors, that it can gain yards and put up points.
Rice scored on its final two drives of the first half and it scored on its first three drives of the second half. It turned into perhaps the best game the unit played this season. The Owls finished with a total of 381 yards, gaining 254 on the ground and 127 by pass. Running back Nashon Ellerbe rushed 22 times for 153 yards and four touchdowns and was pretty much an unstoppable force in the second half.
“Proud of Nashon Ellerbe…you look at that position right now, and he’s the feature back,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said. “He’s earned that spot…Nashon knew we really needed him to stop up his game, and I really feel that’s what he did here.”
RICE BEATING RICE
It is a not a Rice football game without the puzzling play call or the stupid penalty or both. The penalties were minimized against Southern Miss, so that leaves the puzzling play calls. Like the attempted onside kick after the first Rice touchdown. Southern Miss recovered the ball in great field position and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. Then came the first drive of the second half in which Rice promptly marched down the field and scored a touchdown to make the score 22-20. Rice then went for the two-point conversion to tie the game, but failed. That failure was big at the end of the game when Rice needed to overcome a nine point deficit, which meant finding a way to score twice without allowing Southern Miss anymore points. But as was the case most of the season, the Owls just could not pull it off.
The offense again got off to a slow start, which put the team in the hole that it was just not able to overcome. And no matter how the offense did afterwards, putting up no yards and getting no points early in the game makes for a difficult afternoon.
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“We’ve got to start fast. We’ve got to start getting those drives early,” Bailiff said.
But more worrisome was the inability of the defense to make any stops. Southern Miss scored on every possession but one, and that was the very last possession of the game which saw the Golden Eagles taking the knee out of the victory formation. Southern Miss gained a total of 517 yards on offense (331 by passing and 186 by rushing). There were multiple times in the game, especially on the last drive, where Rice had Southern Miss in a third and long situation, needing just a stop to force a punt, yet failing to make the key tackle.
“We have to continue to get better,” Bailiff said. “We’re down to two games. We’ve got to go to ODU next week and come home and finish out against North Texas. All I know from this point is we’re not happy with where we are and obviously with our record. We've got to guys in the right places and try to get a couple of more Ws before we run out of time."
That ODU is on the road. Rice will finish out the season at Rice Stadium in a noon game against North Texas on November 25. And hopefully in one of those games the Owls will find some way to put together a complete game where the offense and defense both perform excellently and let Rice get the win.