Marshall 20, Rice 7

HOUSTON (Nov. 2) -- Ostensibly, Rice’s 20-7 loss to Marshall on this cool, sunny Homecoming afternoon followed much the same pattern as have the bulk of the Owls’ ever-accumulating stack of defeats this benighted season.

With a Groundhog Day-like regularity, this Rice team has offset  a strong, competitive effort by an overworked-but-underpaid Owl defense, with an inscrutable offensive game plan featuring missed opportunities and many square pegs fitted into round holes.  The result:  holding the opponent to no more than three touchdowns but still managing to lose to them by one or two scores.  Rinse, repeat.

But head coach Mike Bloomgren said he saw something different in the Flock’s performance here Saturday, something, one must add, that does not  speak particularly well of the Rice staff’s tutelage over the course of the season.

It had to do with the play of that new frosh quarterback, JoVoni Johnson, who earned the first start of his college career this day.  His stats weren’t particularly noteworthy because he had to be helped off the field twice due to big, if not dubiously legal, hits.  And his teammates stifled a promising opening drive with a 15-yard penalty on first down. But the implications were clear, nevertheless, for all to see.

“He wasn’t just a spark, because obviously he did that,” Coach Bloom averred.  “He had a little edge to him. I thought when plays broke down he was able to move the sticks.”

“It felt different. It felt like we were moving the ball. With JoVoni in there, our offense was different, the team was confident in him -- and I have confidence in his ability, what he brings to the table and the way that he commands the offense when he’s in there.”

“You can see that our offense had life today, whereas last week we had none. That was the difference. Today our offense had life.”

Johnson plus Otoviano = hope

It didn’t hurt a bit that JoVoni was joined by another potential Owl stalwart who also drew his first start of the season, having been out by injury since August.

Sophomore Juma Otoviano joined JoVoni and in the event piled up 66 yards rushing from the ‘pound the rock’ position, while the frosh QB garnered 77 more himself, despite missing most of the second half due to bangups.

It was Juma’s first time on the field, save for a couple of carries the week before, since his 200-yard effort in the Owls’ 2018 season-ending win over Old Dominion.

“It felt pretty good to get out there for an extended time,” Juma told press afterwards.  “There was a lot of jawing at the mouth, a lot of action I’ve been missing, just a lot of action on the field.”

But it was the Rice passing game that initially seemed to get off the ground in the early goings.  The offense coaches hardly turned JoVoni loose with a complex passing playbook from  the get-go.  But a steady stream of mainly run-pass options where he had a single receiver to go or no-go to, got the Owls going against the league’s stingiest defense.

Buoyed by frosh Adrian Bickham’s block of a 28-yard field goal attempt by Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser on the Herd’s first possession, JoVoni’s first three play calls resulted in 18, 10 and 7-yard completions to Austin Trammell and Brad Rozner. But the drive was effectively negated by the aforementioned 15-yard offensive pass interference assessment on that third play.

Marshall again moved the ball with relative ease on its second possession, that is, until bucked up inside the red zone thanks to key stops by Antonio Montero, Treshawn Chamberlain and Trey Schuman.  The Herd had to settle for a 22-yard field goal, but the Owls came roaring right back.

A crisp, 66-yard, 11-play drive was capped by a two-yard TD pass from JoVoni to Austin Trammell to put the Owls up, 7-3.  En route, Rice got good yardage from hard runs in traffic by Juma Otoviano and a couple of key plays by JoVoni to sustain the drive.

First there was a 17-yarder from Johnson to Rozner, followed by an eight-yarder to Jordan Myers which both earned first downs.  JoVoni himself moved the sticks with an eight yard run through the Herd defense, setting up the Owls with a first and ten and the Marshall 12.

A short-lived 7-3 lead

But that 7-3 lead, alas, endured all of 45 seconds of clock time.

A short-ish kickoff into the wind set up the Herd at their own 37, where, on the first play from scrimmage, Xavier Gaines got behind the Owl secondary, hauled in an Isaiah Green aerial bomb,  and raced to the Rice one yard line, from where MU’s Brendan Knox took it in on the next play.

Rice again moved the ball under JoVoni’s leadership, next possession, but the coaching staff decided to play it conservatively, punting the ball away on fourth and one at midfield.  Grrrr....

Not surprisingly, Marshall took immediate advantage, blowing down the field for 95 yards in 13 plays, the final 19 coming on a TD pass from  Green to Talik Keaton.

That long drive effectively consumed all the time remaining in the second quarter, and so the Owls had to take the 17-7 deficit into the halftime locker room.

“We played a very physical Marshall team,” Coach Bloom said, postgame, adding, “it’s the first time in a conference game this year where I felt we got out-physical-ed, especially in the first half. But I thought our defense came out and really answered the bell the second half.”

The Owl offense seemed to be answering the bell as well when they took the second-half kickoff. JoVoni promptly rushed for 10, 14, and 12 – three first downs on three consecutive first-down plays.  When has that happened in Rice’s games this year?  For that matter, when has that happened in Rice’s practices this year?

But on fourth and eight from the Marshall 20, Chris Barnes (Rice's hitherto most accurate place kicker) missed a field goal attempt, and the drive went to no avail.  Never mind, the Rice defense showed that it was still up to the job, as Naeem Smith made an athletic pass breakup, followed by two straight rushed incompletions by Herd QB Isaiah Green, and Marshall had to punt out -- one of their five punts on the day -- establishing a defensive pattern for the Rice side that prevailed throughout the second half.

Rice came back from its own 18, and once again, JoVoni and Juma got themselves cranked up.  Otoviano plunged for four, and then Johnson weaved his way for 16 more, and the Owls were on the march.

Uh, what does 'he slid too late' mean?

But next came the “late hit slide.”  With just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, Johnson made the read and cut in, attempting to slide for safe yardage.  But then, Coach Bloom tells us, according to the officials, he slid “too late,” (looking in the rule book, can’t find it) and was smashed into the turf, after he’d already slid into the turf.  No penalty, no late hit, no targeting, no nothin’.

And that ended JoVoni Johnson’s day on the field at Rice Stadium.

So bear in mind, he’d wound up playing barely over half of the game, and remained in command, and moved his club, throughout the duration. He and Juma Otoviano appeared to present a daunting one-two combination.  But now JoVoni was done for the day – let’s hope nothing beyond that -- and his game but less-fleet-of-foot substitute, graduate transfer Tom Stewart, came in to spell him.

With the diminished athleticism at the man-under spot, what kind of production did Rice get from its QB?  Viewing the stats, one sees that Tom was 1-for-9 passing for 6 yards total.  He was sacked twice for minus eight yards rushing.

This is no slam against Tom, who has given a sturdy effort for Rice throughout the season.  But consider Coach Bloom’s postgame admonition – this was the first league team we’d faced who’d “out-physical-ed” us.  The Rice OL couldn’t give Tom time to drop back and pass, and when the Harvard grad tucked it under, he had nowhere to go.

JoVoni, facing the same odds, used his athleticism to rack up yards, both in the air (to a degree) and on the ground (consistently).

So the Rice offense was effectively shut down for the remainder of the day, allowing the Homecoming grads in attendance to depart for their reunion parties on the early side.  Marshall eked out one field goal the entire second half, and that was it.  Twenty-to-seven, the final.

Ground Hog day? Kinda looked like that.  But then again, maybe not.