UTSA 31, Rice 27

SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 19) – It took a heck of a lot of hard work for the Rice Owls to manage to lose this one.

Leading narrowly most of the game, the Owls managed to shoot themselves in the foot enough times to allow the homestanding UTSA Roadrunners to grease their way to a 31-27 victory, much to the delight of hey boisterous, albeit diminutive, homecoming crowd.

The makes five in a row the San Antonio contingent owns against our storied, hundred-plus-year-old major college football program. How the not-so-mighty have fallen.

As the measure of defeat, three key turnovers slapped even the most casual pro-Rice observer in the face like a sucker punch. Two bobbles of man-under snaps, one at the UTSA one yard line, and a juicy pick-six thrown directly to the opposition on the first play of the second half, spelled the Owls’ doom. More particularly, it cost them 14 points, right then and there. We don’t pick on individual players here. We merely direct your attention to the box score.

Still, there was a good chance for a game-saving scoring drive, as, you’ll observe, trailing 31-27, the Owls got the ball back with a full five minutes to go in the game – seemingly adequate time to mount a 75 yard drive to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. And under the field generalship of the game, but somewhat ponderous of foot, grad transfer quarterback Tom Stewart, the Owls for a moment looked like they were going to pull it out.

They converted on three first downs to sustain a drive that got them as far as the UTSA 26, as the clock ticked. But it was there that the wheels fell off.

Poor clock management, head-scratching play calling, and a relentless rush by the Roadrunner front four spelled doom, as a first-down run by Steward gained but two, and ran off precisous seconds. A second-down plunge by Charlie Booker next resulted in a loss of three. Tick, tick, tick.

Then on third and 11, Tom Stewart, flushed out of the pocket, such as it was, was pursued and nailed for a 13-yard loss to make it fourth down and impossible. Game over, as a fourth-down fumble sealed the game for the locals.

Figure it out. If the Owls had scored on first and goal from the one after Naeem Smith retrieved an improbable interception of a tipped ball at the Road Runner 1 yard line, that would’ve added seven more to the South Main side of the ledger. Alas a fumble snap gave the ball right back to the San Antonians..

Still, the Owls had the opening kick off, and the momentum, to start the second half. That all went poof in a single play, the first from scrimmage, when the quarterback’s pass was lofted into an area where about three UTSA players could play “who wants to intercept this one, and return it to the end zone?”

So instead of a 17-7 lead, the Owls were looking at a 13-10 deficit, and although the offense was able to match the UTSA offensive effort blow by blow throughout the second half, it wasn’t enough.

It certainly look like it would be enough when, with four minutes left in the third, Owl defender Garrett Grammer blew up a UTSA fake punt on fourth down deep in their own territory, giving the ball the owls the ball at the UTSA 22, late in the third.

From there, it took Owl workhorse Aston Walker all of two plays to push it over for the score, dashing 21 yards down the home sideline from the one, and then winning a tug of war to cross the plane on first and goal.

That made it 24-16, Rice, with 3:09 left in the third quarter.

Shoulda been 31-9, Owls, at that point, and there’s no use arguing about the transitive nature of play-by-ply. It flat should’ve been 31-9, Rice, and game effectively over. But it wasn’t.

That was a bad time for the Rice defense to turn into a poor shadow of what it had shown three weeks ago in a narrow, 21-13 loss to number 12 Baylor. Former backup UTSA quarterback L Narcisse and running back S. McCormick took turns gashing the Owls’ middle defense for big rushing yardage, while Narcisse also set the table with a 26-yard completion to C. Strickland to give the Roadrunners a first down at the Rice 17.

Seconds later, McCormick scored from six yards out, followed by a successful two-point play as Narcisse rolled left and threw against the grain to a wide-open receiver to tie the score at 24.

The Owls responded with a 56-yard, 13-play drive that took them as far as the UTSA 19, where Chris Barnes nailed his 37-yard field goal attempt to put the Owls back on top, 27-24.

But the lead didn’t hold, as the Roadrunners responded with a nine-play, 79-yard drive feauring the passing of Narcisse and the running of McCormick. And the utter lack of defensive chutzpah such as that shown by the Owls in previous, albeit losing, efforts.

That’s it. That all adds up to another loss, another close loss to a squad which is hardly superior in skills and tools to the Rice men.

“That locker room is a morbid place right now,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said afterwards. “We played really hard. We just didn’t play real well at times.”

“We did things to shoot ourselves in the foot. I told the kids, in a game like that, we’ve got to coach them better. I’ve got to find a way to do better.”

“Close is just not good enough for our program.”

Close, indeed, for the Owls are just one needless overtime loss and one turnover-riddled close one that both should have been wins, setting up the Flock at 2-0 in conference and in the hunt, still, for a bowl bid. Not to be, however. Not to be. The search for a win continues.