Army 14, Rice 7

The Rice defense was relenless in keeping Army QB Hoopkins, Jr., bottled up -- that is, until that last drive (PTH photo)
WEST POINT, NY (Oct. 31)  The Rice Owls’ collective effort against a heralded Army team here Friday evening left their  mini-legion of Instituters stunned and, while they and their team obviously were still a long way away from that boat on the beach in Zihuataneho, the results suggested the Owls seemed definitely to have made it out of the sewer pipe.

When an aggressive, swarming Rice defensive front locked up Army RB Sandon McCoy for a loss after Academy coach Jeff Monken rather arrogantly went for it on fourth and one on their own 15-yard line, first possession, the boisterous Corps of Cadets assumed the position of silence, while Rice supporters felt a sudden surge of hope down deep.

When rejuvenated senior running back Nahshon Ellerbe busted out for a 54-yard second quarter, game-tying touchdown touchdown run, a cheer ran through the tiny crowed of Owl fans hunched in the corner of the end zone. This time, Hope had welled up to the point that even the most pessimistic most assuredly began to feel it, were they paying any attention.

Even after the Owls finally fell in the end, 14-7, after all the ‘what-if’s’ were added up, all the ‘would’as” and the “should’as” taken into consideration among the faithful and semi-faithful, that feeling of Hope just wouldn't be tamped down. So did the Owls’ performance againts Army merit such good feelings? Well, consider...

Win was 10th straight for Army

Army entered the game on heels of an 11-win 2018 season including a 13-game home winning streak; a nine-game win skein home and away; a taking last season of a number-one ranked Oklahoma team into overtime; and, oh yeah, by the way, a hanging of 70 points on our friends the Houston Coogs at last season's Armed Forces Bowl.

Army’s game is based upon precision, technique, elimination of mistakes, and playing hard-nosed, old-school football. And those sum up the Owls’ modus operandi here on the banks of the Hudson Friday.

There were holes that will need to be patched. There remain huge qualms about the Rice defensive secondary’s ability to handle an aerial circus. Owl quarterback Wiley Green, though hardly lacking in confidence and control of his team, made a couple of decisions that might have been otherwise. But when you get right down to it, the Boys of South Main came right in ready to play, kicking Army in the teeth from the opening possession.

Except for Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr.'s late game solo-heroics, the Rice defense shut down the Army offensive attack, with an answer for everything the Cadets threw at them.

In fact, it took a broken assignment by a Rice secondary man to enable Junior Hopkins to throw for 17 years to a wide open Kellen Walker for the winning score with 3:58 left in the game. Hell, if that hadn’t happened, those boys might still be out there playing; it was that hard-nosed; it was that even.

3:58 left; one score needed -- could they get it?

In the event, the Owls had under four minutes left to pick up a seven-spot necessary to tie the game and take it into overtime -- although with the Owls’ field goal kicking woes, that might not have been such a good place for them to be.

Second-string place kicker Will Harrison missed on a couple of tries, the first being a simply inexplicable shank of a 26-yard attempt after the Rice offense failed to get six on the heels of the aforementioned, first-possessiion, fourth-and-one stop. Thus,  starting at the Army 15 yard line, the Owls got no points out of the huge defensive statement.

"Our defense stood tall and really should've changed the game," Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said of the early defensive stand. "We should've gotten points on the board there."

At another point midway in the third quarter, the backup kicker couldn’t convert on a 44-yard attempt that would’ve put the Flock up 10-7, but that’s a horse of a different color.  We have no intention of running down Will Harrison. 

On another third-quarter possession, an Astin Walker down-the-middle scoot for 26 yards, which would’ve put the Owls in business at the Army 10, was nullified by a ticky-tacky, away-from-the-play holding call against an Owl, stalling an incipient Rice drive.

The Owl defense, though,  made themselves another break with 5:40 left in the third, when Elijah Garcis ripped the ball out of Sandon McCoy’s grip up the middle, and Blaze Alldredge recoved the fumble. Rice again wound up punting back to the Cadets, though, backing them up to their own four yard line - the fourth time in the game Owl TCU-transfer punter Adam Nunez so pinned back the Army team.

Owl 'D' made Army QB out of sorts until late in game

Army’s to top offensive guns, Hopkins and McCoy, were both held to less than four yards per carry in 41 attempts between them. The vaunted Army quarterback, Hopkins, seemed fairly well discombobulated for a good first 50 minutes of the game, at times looking confused by the Rice defensive front who spent quite a bit of time visiting with Junior in the backfield.

But after that Nunez punt to the Army four, the stage was set for one of those 90-plus yard, Chinese water torture drives that Hopkins Jr has visited on enemy teams a significant number of times before.

With the Rice line finally tiring out after having worked so hard for so long, Hopkins took the Army offense on his shoulders, juking, spinning and dancing for five or six drive-sustaining yards at a pop. Then, operating from the Rice 17, Hopkins found his wide-open receiver smack in the end zone for what proved to be the final margin of victory.

Still, the Owls weren’t through, though. On first down at the Rice 21, following the kickoff, Nahshon Ellerbe powered his way for 16 yards and a first down. Unfortunately, his leg was roughed up on the tackle, and he had to leave the game. Army had never realled stopped him, the entire contest. And now, they no longer had to.

Aston Walter picked up seven more yards on the next play, and after a false start penalty, Wiley went deep to Jordan Myers, the pass being somewhat underthrown but close enough to draw a pass interference penalty.

Aston Walter followed that up with consecutive runs of nine and three yards, giving the Owls a first down at the Army 35 with 1:23 left in the game. The Corps once again assumed the position of silence, for Rice was driving.

After a timeout, Wiley Green scrambled, had real estate in front of him, but then inexplicably coughed up the ball, uncontested (we think) as he crossed the scrimmage line. Aston Walker alertly fell on the pill, however, sustaining Rice’s possession.

Aston then picked up eight on second and 12, and then on third and seven, Wiley hit Brad Rozner in the flat, but the pass was made too late for the receiver to maintain his momentum and avoid the sideline.

With game on the line, a gutsy call

As a result, it was fourth and one, with a minute left – the game on the line. As the Army defense bunched up, expected a running play, Wiley ran play action and threw on the nose to receiver Jaeger Bull about ten yards downfield. Jaeger had the ball for a split second, but the Army defender McClinton was able to rip it away as the two came down in a pile. Game over.

Post-game, Coach Bloom was disappointed, but not without a modicum of satisaction with his team’s play. "Defensively I just don’t know if we could have asked for more," he said.

“We took a team of that caliber to deep water, and we came up a play short at the end of the day. We’re going to learn from it.”

Owl defender Antonio Montero, a soph from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, led the team with a career-high 11 tackles as he flew all over the field. He was sanguine after the game.

“Obviously, it was a very tough loss and a game that we thought we could have won," Antonio said. "But this gives us a lot of confidence knowing that if we can hang in there with a really good team like Army we can win a lot of games this season and down the road."

"I couldn't be prouder of these guys," Coach Bloom added. "That's a great team on the other sideline. They made a few plays. It's a credit to that team."

So where does a Rice core supporter stand now, on the matter of “Hope,” never mind moral victories.

Remember the conversation between our protagonists, Andy Dufresne and “Red” Redding. One may recall that Red told Andy, “You know, Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

And Andy came back to his friend. “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

To that, we can say: we Hope the Owls can steal a victory from one of the remaing non-conference opponents. We Hope the Owls can as much as split an eight-game Conference USA card. We Hope Wiley Green gets better every time he takes the field. We Hope Juma Otaviano and Aaron Cephus are able to find themselves back on the playing field early enough in the season for them to do us some good.

We Hope.