Rice 31, MTSU 28

MURFREESBORO, TN (Nov. 17) – When graduate transfer quarterback Tom Stewart first took the field against Middle Tennessee here Saturday afternoon, the silence among the small contingent of gathered Rice fans was palpable.

One game after the Owls’ freshman QB, JoVoni Johnson, breathed life into an otherwise moribund Rice offense, though in a losing effort, the return of the Harvard grad to man under seemingly had indicated a reversion to status quo ante.

In fact, however, the freshman phenom was in street clothes, relegated to the sidelines while still feeling the effects of a late hit in the second half of the Marshall game.

But this day, it was Tom Stewart who breathed life into the Owl attack by his own methods, filed under the category of “game management”.

“He did all the things we asked of him, and he protected the ball, which I thought was outstanding,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said post-game.

Tom indeed earned his football MBA this Saturday as he excelled in at least two crucial categories: handing the ball off to his fellow grad student, Astin Walter, and throwing tall arcing passes into the enemy end zone in the direction of the Man from Needville, 6-5 junior receiver Brad Rozner.

Three times Stewart did so, and three times did the prized junior transfer come up with the prize, making it look relatively easy in the event.

“The thing (Tom) did down the field was give Bradley Rozner a chance,” Coach Bloom noted. “And if Bradley gets opportunities to go up and get that rebound, they count for six points, in our game,” he added with a grin.

Those three TD pass receptions all turned out to be necessary in preserving the Owls’ 31-28 margin of victory, as, leading 31-14 at the half, the Flock perhaps focused to a fault on protecting their lead as the clock ticked down.

But who could  blame them, resting on the laurels of their most spectacular first half of play all this live-long season.

Deluge of first-half points could've helped in previous weeks

The 31 first-half points were more than the Owls scored in any entire game this season.  Appropriately distributed, they could’ve resulted in the Owls coming into this game with hopes of attaining bowl eligibility.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Come time to review the film, there will be ample  aspects of this game which present serious performance deficiencies and raise questions of coaching game-day, if not strategic, decisions.

This was not a day to delve into that, however. The aerial circus that Tom Stewart and Bradley Rozner put on led one to comparisons with former Owl great Jarrett Dillard.

For Brad didn’t only sky for three acrobatic touchdown receptions, he also made catches in traffic, then dragging multiple defenders for first down yardage.  In that respect, it was a complete game, his first of many, one would hope.

And about those “sky high” receptions…they weren’t really that.  All three touchdown Rozner TD grabs were the result of his outmaneuvering and outsmarting his defender.  In fact, he brought in a couple of them virtually flat-footed.  And the other, he stole from the defending corner in mid-air.

The first made it 10-0, Owls, Rice having taken an initial 3-0 lead as a result of a fumble recovery by George Nyakwol after Tre’shon Devones separated MTSU’s scatback Ty Lee from the ball on first play from scrimmage.

That turnover gave the Owls field position, but the running offense was not yet up and running under Mr. Stewart, plunges into the line not yielding much.  Nonetheless, Chris Barnes’ field goal attempt from 42 yards out had plenty of leg, and it put the Owls up, 3-0, and set the table for the coming heroics.

LB George Nyakwol continued his hot hand on the next defensive series, as he snuffed two plays in a row to cancel an incipient Blue Raider drive,  MT’s Kyle Ulbrich punting out to the Rice 22.

Still a bit of sputtering by the offense, though, as the two squads exchanged unsuccessful possessions.  That gave Rice good field position, however, at their own 47, and it was thence that the Flock set up its offensive shop.

Jordan Myers got things going with a 14-yard reception to the MT 40. Juma Otaviano then kept the drive alive with a two-yard fourth-down plune to the Raider 30.

From there, on first down, Tom Stewart  lofted a high fly ball in the direction of  Brad Rozner, who was five yards behind his defender in the end zone.

10-0 early lead a shocker

So the Owls led, 10-0, as the first quarter waned.  And the Rice defense next did a number on the MT attack, next possession, Antonio Montero, George Nyakwol and Javante Hubbard chasing down MTSU quarterback Asher O’hara after short scrambles.

On the ensuing punt, a face mask penalty set up the Flock at midfield, where they wasted little time in adding to the home team’s deficit.

First, true frosh Zane Knipe on the first carry of his collegiate career picked up 12 yards and a first down at the Raider 27.

From there, on third and eight, Tom Stewart connected with Rozner in the flat, and Brad carried three or four defenders for first down yardage, 18 yards in all.

After a holding penalty pushed the Owls back to first and goal from the MTSU 18, Tom hit Brad again after Needville  had hornswoggled his defender in the end zone.

The Rice sideline went agog as the South Main boys had themselves a 17-0 lead scarcely three minutes deep into the second quarter.

But MTSU came back to cut the deficit, thanks in great measure to the generosity of the gents in the striped shirts.  Three times during the Raiders’ next possession were third down shutdowns averted by defensive holding or pass interference penalties against the Owls.

When the Owls forced a fourth and goal from the two yard line, a goal-line stand appeared to be theirs when George Nyakwol broke up an against the grain passing attempt, O’hara to Anderson.

But as J. Fred used to say….”however”. This time the boys in stripes managed to come up with a defensive hold on an Owl defender who was several yards out of the play.  That gave MTSU a first and goal from the one, where the Raiders pushed one across to make it 17-7.

Disgust at the selective discretion of officialdom turned into deep concern only a few minues later.

Nashon Ellerbe got things going with a bang via a 36-yard kickoff return to the Rice 46.  Moments later, the decision to punt out facing a fourth-and-two at the MTSU 46 seemed sound when Adam Nunez banged one into the coffin corner forcing the Raiders to set up shop at their own 10.

But on the next play from scrimmage, QB O’hara seemed to have an inordinate amount of time in the pocket, and he found his receiver, Ty Lee, wide open down the middle after an Owl defender tripped and fell.

The pass reception went for 90 yards and the score, and suddenly that 17-point Owl lead had melted down to next-to-nothing.

Suddenly, 17-14 and gut check time

So it was gut check time for the Rice offense.  And they came through in fine fashion.

Once again, Nashon Ellerbe, seemingly frustrated at the lack of offensive touches he’d been getting at the running back position, dashed off another fine kickoff return, this time storming back for 34 yards to the 45 yard line.

An unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty gave the Owls the ball at the Middle Tennessee 40, and a six-yard completion, Stewart to Rozner, to it to the 34.  From there, next play, Astin Walter took the inside handoff, made his cut, found daylight and dashed to paydirt untouched.  So it took all of two plays for the Owls to grab back half of that 17-point lead.

Next Raider possession, key stops by Blaze Alldredge and Tyrae Thornton forced a three-and-out, and the Owls once again had the ball at their own 21.

From there, Professor Stewart led his team on a 79-yard, 11-play scoring drive that featured a broken-field catch-and-run by Juma Otaviano, a nine-yard completion to Brad Rozner setting up the Owls with second and short at the MTSU 36, and then, with only 14 seconds to go in the half, once again Tom Stewart lofted the perfect pop fly to Brad Rozner, and once again the lanky, 6-5  Juco transfer hauled it in for six more points.

On the day for Roz, eight receptions for 130 yards, and the three TDs.  Where did that come from?

“This week we just emphasized going up there and getting balls,” he said afterwards, “and I think we did a good job of  that.”

So it was 31-14, Rice, at the half, and both MTSU scores could be considered flukes, the first coming via the generosity of officialdom, and the second on a long bomb to its alpha receiver after the Owl defender tripped and fell.

And Rice was getting ball to start the third quarter.  Things were looking good, mighty good, at that point in the proceedings.

No offensive carryover from first half effort

Rice began that third quarter reverting its ‘pound the rock’ strategy, which, of course, resulted in a three-and-out, Rice’s first of the day, on a possession where the Institute Boys might have established absolute dominance over the opponent.

For most of the third quarter, then, the two team played the field possession game, MTSU getting a nice punt from M. Stevenson to the Rice one yard line.

The Owls almost were stuffed for a safety when Astin Walter was swarmed by a host of would-be tacklers, but he managed to get the ball back back on the plus side of the goal line.

Eventually, though, the field-position gambit worked for the home team, as QB O’hara was much sharper in his short passing game than he was in the first half.  Of course, in the first half, he usually had a couple of Owl DLs staring down his tonsils.

A half-time adjustment diminished some of that, however, and the Rice defense lacked a ready answer.  The result: a six-play, 43-yard drive set up when the Owls had their backs to the goal ended in a seven-yard Asher O’hara dash to the pylon that made it 31-21, Owls, with four minutes left in the third.

The two teams managed to put together short drives, but no scores, for the next 15 minutes of the game.  But it was clear that the momentum was shifting to the homestanding Raiders, and that momentum showed up big-time when MTSU fashioned a 91-yard, six play scoring drive that cut the score to 31-28.

The scoreboard clock said 4:03 left; and the question then was, can the Owls hold on?  Or will this game, like the nine before them, end ignominiously?

We’ve seen this play before, and we all know how it ends.  Except not this time.

“I told Coach Mack, we’re not throwing it.” Coach Bloom said of his reaction at the time.  “We’re going to run this ball, and we’re going to find a way to move the sticks.”

Facing third and 11 at the Rice 30, the call went out to Astin Walter, ostensibly for a clock-eating gain of three or four yards at best.

But Astin wasn’t content with that, as he shook first one, then a second tackler.  Off balance, hit with glancing blows, and with leg injuries and body aches that would have sidelined many a would-be grid hero, he kept his feet driving for 24 more yards and a first down in MTSU territory.

“Here’s the thing,” Astin told us afterwards. “I've only got three more college games  left; I want to leave Rice University getting the program back on track. If I had to give an ankle, a leg, whatever it took to get this win, I was going to do it.”

So that's what it is...

“That’s the physicality we’re talking about; that’s exactly what we want out of our kids,” Coach Bloom said afterwards.  “And I think we’ve got some guys playing banged up, up front.  And they just kept grinding and kept straining.”

Now it was a matter of running down the clock, and three consecutive handoffs to Astin took the scoreboard clock down to 24 seconds.  On fourth and three, Adam Nunez punted the ball through the end zone – no return possible there.  And with 16 seconds and no times out left, the Raiders tried to replicate one of those crazy-quilt, multiple across-the-field laterals to keep the ball alive.  They did so long enough to run the clock to zero before before being chased down by several Owls at the MT 35.

Whew, game over.  And time to celebrate. And how, then, to carry this win forward?

“We’ve had such a workman-like approach,” Coach Bloom concluded.   “I don’t know that there’s anything that we have to do very different.”

“I just know Monday morning will be a lot more fun."

--PTH, reporting from Murfreesboro, TN