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UH 45, Rice 27


Rice tight end Jordan Myers stretches for six after hauling in Sean Stankavage  pass to put Owls up, 7-3, late in first quarter against UH (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 2) – When the Rice Owls surged to a 27-17 lead midway in the third quarter of their game with the University of Houston Saturday, one already could have declared the day a successful one for the Boys of the Institute.

A near-30-point underdog, given zero chance to be competitive against its high-octane cross-town rival, Rice had worked the playbook of the new head Owl Mike Bloomgren strictly by-the-book, if not to perfection, establishing a credible passing attack to augment its already- established running game, forcing three-and-outs on defense and refusing to allow their opponent to turn field position advantages into touchdowns.

In truth, the score quite easily could have been more one-sided in favor of Rice at that point in the game. At the very least, nothing about that ten-point Rice bulge could have been considered flukish.

But just when the ticking scoreboard clock began to tantalize long-suffering Owl fans with notions of possibly shocking the football world with a clinically-engineered victory, well, that’s when the wheels fell off and the followers of the Feathered Flock were rudely wrested back into the Real World.

Did it have to happen that way? Probably, but one can visualize scenarios wherein it might have not.

Rice not only matched the Cougars punch for punch, but managed to land a few haymakers that, for a good while, had Shasta seeing more than a few stars, if not on the ropes. It was that way for the first two-thirds of the game.

But like a boxer who’s out-trained and out-prepared his opponent, but comes up short in the tale of the tape, the litttler guy was eventually worn down by the pace, the intensity, and the sheer native tools and skills of the opponent.

To be more specific, from the point that Haden Tobola punched through a 28-yard field goal to give the Owls a 27-17 lead midway through the third quarter, Rice’s yardage on first and second downs dwindled to near zero, which resulted in a greater pressure on third downs, which resulted in fewer third-down conversions, which resulted in stalled or non-existent drives, which kept the UH offense on the field, which allowed the Cougar attack finally to develop a pummeling efficiency against the just-plain-worn-out Owl defense.

For want of a nail...

“I think U of H did a good job at halftime, making adjustments,” Rice quarterback Sean Stankavage said, post-game. “They knew what we wanted to do, and they started making adjustments on first and second downs, and then we’d get ourselves in third and medium, third and long – and that’s not where you want to be.”

“We did pick up yardage on first and second down in the first half, and we scored points.”

True, after a tentative first quarter, the UH offensive machine had hummed smoothly the rest of the game, but until midway in the third, the Rice offense more than matched every punch the Cougars threw at them.

But – and was it just coincidence? – the from the moment when Stankavage had to leave the field because of leg cramps, Rice scored no more. From that juncture on, it was UH 28, Rice zero, to close out the game.

Rice dominated defensively in first quarter

The contest didn’t start out that way. UH took the opening kickoff and got one boost when QB D’Eriq King connected on a 32-yard strike to Marq Stevenson, putting the Coogs in field goal range. But from there, the Owl defense stiffened, and UH had to settle for a Caden Novikoff 45-yard three-pointer.

In what remained of the first quarter, the Owls three-and-outed the vaunted Coog attack three times in a row, the third being after an Emeke Egbule interception gave UH field position at the Rice 22 – the possession ending in a failed field goal try.

With just over three minutes left in the first stanza, the Rice offense emerged when Emmanuel Esukpe took a Sean Stankavage handoff and roared 52 yards down the home sideline. Three plays later, Stankavage connected with a streaking Jordan Myers who’d outpositioned his defender on a post pattern. Jordan made a circus catch and then stretched out prone to reach the goal line, a 29-yard scoring play that put the Owls ahead, 7-3.

On UH’s next postion, the Coogs managed to cross midfield, but were shut down on fourth and two when Patrick Carr was stuffed for a loss by Martin Nwakamma.

From there, the Owls once again moved the ball, getting as far as a second-and-one at the UH 23 before a couple of rushing attempts failed and the Owls, in turn, had to settle for a 44-yard Jack Fox Field goal.

Houston immediately countered as Marq Stevenson took advantage of a breakdown in the Owl defensive secondary and rolled 51 yards for the touchdown. The subsequent Caden Novikoff PAT attempt caromed off the upright, however, enabling the Owls to hold onto a 10-9 lead.

A false start penalty hindered the Owls’ next drive, and when Jack Fox lofted a booming punt causing UH deep man Bryson Smith to have to backpedal, the frosh returner was met by a host of Owls as the ball arrived, fumbled, and the pill was recovered by Rice’s Campbell Riddle at the UH eight, much to the delight of the Rice student body, which had a ring-side seat for the action.

On third and goal from the two, then, Sean Stankavage play-faked and hit Jaeger Bull all by his lonesome in the end-zone, putting the Owls up 17-9 and completely quieting the UH fan contingent. Nice.

But that lasted, alas, only a moment, as UH’s King ripped off consecutive passes that went 24 yards to Keith Corbin and 40 yards to Courtney Lark for the score, the Rice defensive secondary having a ring-side seat for those proceedings.

A two-point conversion tied the game at 17, and any Rice team of the past 11 years would’ve been tickled pink to take that and go into the halftime locker room at home with a tie game against the likes of Houston.

This coaching regime apparently thinks differently, though, for the call went out for an urgent charge out of the trenches.

And the Rice offense responded, roaring 88 yards in 10 plays, a drive that consumed all of 86 seconds on the scoreboard clock. Austin Trammell had two key receptions of 14 and 15 yards on that advance, and Aaron Cephus managed to outleap two defenders to haul in another Stankavage pass at the UH one yard line. Next play, Sean hit Brendan Harmon in the end zone and the score gave the Flock a 24-17 halftime lead. That was the Vanderbilt-graduate signal-caller’s third TD toss of the half.

Owls ground it out on receiving third-quarter kickoff

The Owls were to receive the second-half kickoff, and having done so, ground out the aforementioned 62-yard, 13-play, seven minute drive that ended with the Tobola field goal to put the Flock up by ten.

With that score, the Owls had collected a paycheck on five out of their seven previous possessions, Ed Oliver’s efforts notwithstanding. Catch this skein and bottle it and re-use it, and this Rice team will win itself some ball games.

But not this one. And we’re not going to waste your time with a recitative of the ensuing four UH TD drives. Suffice it to say they went three plays for 75 yards, three for 70, five for 68, and five for 71 to bring the final scoring margin to 45-27.

During that brief reign of terror, the Owl offense was ineffective, Sean Stankavage having been benched momentarily, and then not performing up to his first-half level upon his eventual return. “I had to step out of the game in the third quarter,” he said afterwards. “I wish I hadn’t had to, but I caught cramps, and they really weren’t going away. I need to hydrate more throughout the week to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, the defense suffered from a combination of lack of speed, apparent lack of comprehension of defensive schemes, and a case of being just plumb tuckered out. It was, after all, a hot’n humid one out there this day. The capper: no hot water on the UH quarterback, Coach Bloom said.

"Anytime you can't get pressure on the quarterback soon enough it's hard to be standing out there on an island all day," he added.

And once the Coogs really started clicking, you know how that goes. You’ve seen it all before. Eat-em-up, eat-em-up, raw, raw, raw....clang, clang, clang, clang, ad nauseam.

But you’ve got to hand it to our cross-town neighbors. That was an impressive performance on both sides of the ball, once it built up a head of steam.

Mr. Football, Ed Oliver, wound up with 13 tackles on the day, three of them TFLs. Yeah, he is special indeed.

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that the Owls didn’t fold in the end. First, down 38-27 with ten minutes left in the game, they forced what might’ve been a key turnover when Justin Bickham stuck UH’s Mark Terry on a pass in the flat, forcing his fumble which was recovered by Houston Robert at midfield.

Immediately, both the Walters twins got in on the action, Aston darting for 14 yards and them Austin picking up 11 more to the UH 25.

A reverse play to Austin on second and eight was sniffed out by the Cougar defense, however, and the resulting six-yard loss set up the Owls for a long field goal try, which was badly missed by Haden Tobola. “Haden is better from the right hash mark,” Coach Bloom said afterwards, also noting that Jack Fox had missed acouple of long field goal tries in the midst of the Owls’ second-half offensive dry spell.

That miss made three in all. "On one of those I wish I'd left the offense out there to go for it," Coach Bloom averred afterwards.

Even when the game was out of reach, the Owls resolutely engineered a 64-yard drive that carried as far as the UH eight yard line before three pass attempts into the end zone, made apparent and necessary by the few seconds remaining on the clock, came up empty.

"Going against a different scheme, a much bigger front on both sides of the ball, I thought they played pretty well," Bloomgren said. "They gave this coaching staff everything they have in their bodies for four quarters. They played their butts off and we played well for about two and a half."

"I think everybody in that locker room expected to win that game coming out of halftime," said  Shawn Stankavage, who passed for three touchdowns in the first half. "There was a confidence that wasn't necessarily there before."

Yeah, but nonetheless, the real students lost the game. "We had a great opportunity to do something we knew we could do but not a lot of people in the city thought we could," saidlinebacker Dylan Silcox said after the game, brought to the podium on account of his career-high 11 tackles.

 "That's what's most disappointing."


H-Town turnover?

HOUSTON (Aug. 30) – The new-look Rice Owls face one of their most daunting tests of the season as they take on the cross-town rival University of Houston Cougars at Rice Stadium in an 11:00 a.m. kickoff Saturday.

There’s hardly a soul on either the Owl side or the Coog side of South Main Street who give the Owls much of a chance to compete against the Coogs, with their high-octane, up-tempo offense and their defense led by the most decorated and celebrated defender in the land in defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

To hear it told, the Owls ought just as well to roll over and play dead, like so many pill bugs, against the vaunted defensive thrust of Oliver, who already has one Outland Trophy under his belt and is bucking for a second one, not to mention the number one spot in this year’s upcoming NFL draft. Like, forget about the other 10 UH defensive players, Oliver can beat this Rice bunch all by himself with one hand tied behind his back.

Last season, the Owls were uncompetitive in a 38-3 loss at UH’s TDECU Field that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. In that game, Man Mountain Oliver finished with six tackles on the night, one of them a TFL. Not a gaudy statistic. But he had no need to be particularly busy that eveningt, as the Rice offense was ineffective and the Coogs rolled to a 35-0 halftime lead before UH head coach Major Applewhite put on the brakes in the second half.

Let the record reflect that the Owls have played awful football against their cross-town semi-rivals when the kickoff took place on the East End. Rice’s last three bouts on the UH campus (2009, 2011 and 2017) have all resulted in lopsided losses for the Flock.

But when the venue changes to Rice Stadium, the most recent results haven’t been nearly so one-sided. To wit: in 2006, the Institute lost a 31-30 season opener that should’ve been a win. In 2008, a ten-win season for Rice, the Owls bested UH 56-42 on the Hallowed Turf. Then in 2010, Rice made a three-touchdown first-half lead stick in a 34-31 victory. That’s two out of three; should’a been three out of three.

All that means nothing when the two teams tee it up on Saturday morning, of course. Or does it?

Rice will be facing a Cougar team that fell somewhat short of expectations last season, finishing with an overall record of 7-5, 5-3 in American Athletic Conference league play. They were lackluster in a 33-27 loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.

The high-speed UH offense averaged right at 430 yards per game total offense in ‘17 with a balanced attack. This year’s version is piloted by junior quarterback D’Eriq King who is highly mobile, in addition to being a-gile and hos-tile. In an injury-marred 2017 season he nevertheless picked up eight rushing touchdowns and will be calculated to give the inexperienced Rice secondary fits with his ability to make the pass on the scramble.

His receiving corps is a bit on the light side, however, with Courtney Lark (1.9 catches per game; 33.6 yards per game; 2 TDs) and Keith Corbin (0.8 catches; 13.7 yards per game) as the leading returners. They’re speed burners, though. In the backfield, leading returning rusher is Mulbah Car who averaged a whole 38.8 yards per game last season; yet, his coaches are high on his playmaking ability.

Defensively, well, let’s see, there’s Ed Oliver, and then there’s that Oliver guy, and then they have a guy named Oliver who won the Outland Trophy last year. Beyond that one-man team, the Coogs return four additional defensive starters from last year’s unit which gave up a relatively stingy 23.8 points per game.

With the Owls’ seeming difficulty in pulling out a narrow 31-28 win over FCS entrant Prairie View in their season opener last week, you can bet that no one on the UH sideline is quaking in his boots over the prospect of facing the Owls. Hard to be anything but overconfident in that regard, one might surmise.

But the Owl players show no sign of intimidation; in fact, if anything, come off as just a tad bit chippy going into this rivalry game, which is the way it oughta be.

“Being an underdog to me is never a bad thing,” Rice DL Roe Wilkins said at Tuesday press briefing. . “When you get underestimated, it gives you room to excel, and that’s exactly what we’re planning on doing.

“We take pride in the city, we take pride in Rice, and we take pride in our home. Them coming over thinking they’re going to blow us out of the water is not how we roll over here.”