It may be a new football season, but so far, it’s the same old Rice Owls. And that’s a bad thing.
The Owls journeyed to Bowling Green, Kentucky, last night to do battle against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers finished 12-2 last season, won Conference USA and ended up ranked at number 24. The Owls finished last season 5-7, including an embarrassing 49-10 loss to the Hilltoppers in a game that wasn’t as close as that final score indicated.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same, primarily Rice's losing to Western Kentucky. This time the final score was 46-14, but like last year's game, this one was nowhere near as close as that final score indicated. The Owls were down 2-0 just four plays into the game, were down 16-0 after the first quarter, 30-7 at the half and 36-14 after three quarters. Rice took one last shot at making the score look semi-respectable, going on a 74-yard, 16-play drive that ended when Rice QB Tyler Stehling threw his second interception of the game with :34 left on the clock.
Western Kentucky gained 649 yards to Rice’s 288. The vaunted Owls running game failed to appear at any juncture of the game (Stehling was the leading rusher with 85 yards on 11 carries), but it seemed as though Rice never even gave the running game a chance, going into pass mode as soon as it fell behind 2-0. Stehling was 22-37 for 183 yards and two interceptions in his first collegiate start.
The game was nothing Rice fans have not seen, many, many times over the past decades. Misfire after misfire leading to mistakes leading to an opposition score. There was the snap that soared over Rice punter Jack Fox’s head to give the Hilltoppers the 2-0 lead. There was missed defensive assignments leading to multiple receivers getting past the Rice secondary and catching the ball in stride for big gains. There were the defensive penalties that kept Western Kentucky drives alive, and the offensive penalties that killed Rice drives.
Western Kentucky is a good football team. Not Alabama good. Not Clemson good. But good. Especially for Conference USA. And a Rice loss was not something unexpected. But fans should be disappointed in the lack of a better showing.
It’s not as though the Owls appeared to be unprepared for the game. On the plays where the defense got beat, it often looked as if the players were in the right formation yet there was just a failure of execution, especially in the backfield. And as has been the case over the past seasons, the defense put up a really good fight early, especially the front line, but the offense was unable to stay on the field, meaning the players got tired, which meant the execution was off, and meant things fell apart.
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It’s perhaps unfair to grade the Owls on this game. The Owls just aren’t a team that can compete with better, more athletic squads. It’s a team that can, however, compete against most of the squads in Conference USA, and it’s thus a team that can win seven games and go to a bowl. If it doesn’t beat itself, that is.
It’s been said by head coach David Bailiff and his players many times. The Owls have to play nearly perfect football every time out. The players have to execute, minimize mistakes and outthink their opponents because they can't compete with other teams. In those seasons when Rice goes to a bowl game, this happens. When Rice doesn’t do this, well, look at last season.
Rice is off to West Point next week to take on Army. Rice won last season’s game with Army when Driphus Jackson hit Zach Wright for a 12-yard TD pass with mere seconds remaining in the game for the 38-31 win. After Army, the Owls finally come home, hosting the Baylor Bears for a Friday night prime-time game on ESPN — set before the sexual assault scandal drove Art Briles away from the Baylor program.
Who knows, maybe Rice will be 1-1 by that point. But if the Owls play Army like they did against Western Kentucky, the odds of that happening are slight.