Wake Forest 41, Rice 21

Rice running back Aston Walter dives for Owl TD to make it 14-7, Wake, first quarter (David Speed Elder photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 7) – Well, perhaps we can consider it just a warmup for Texas week. The Rice Owls did fall to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons here at Rice Stadium Friday before a nationally televised audience, 41-21, in a game that was a smorgasbord of mistakes, outstanding efforts, mismatches, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and, yeah, then there was The Injury.

Let’s put it this way: if the name of the game on Friday was “sucker punch the enemy quarterback” then the visting Baptists had one hell of a first quarter. With Rice down 14-0, and driving, second and goal at the one yard line, Owl redshirt frosh QB Wiley Green pulled out the ball and headed for the flag.

Just before he got there, he was greeted by 6-3, 260-pound Wake DL Royce Francis, who spun him momentarily, while senior linebacker Justin Strnad saw a chance for a direct hit. He rocketed in, helmet first.

Don’t let anyone tell you Wiley was anything but defenseless, in the event. When the blow was delivered, Wiley landed a yard out of bounds, flat on his back, and motionless.

“They said it was shoulder-to-shoulder,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said of the men in stripes. “I saw the Jumbotron, and it didn't appear that way to me. The referee was very clear to me that they had a great replay in the booth. And so that is one person in the booth that is charged with making that decision.”

There he lay for some 15 minutes, with everyone in the stadium wondering how badly he'd been injured. He lay still, having to get his helmet off in a way that avoided risk to the ever-critical C5 spinal columnar, but, praise be, the initial reports on his condition turned out negative: nothing severed, nothing broken.

Call it Men versus Boys, or, if you prefer, call it something less charitable. But the injury play pretty much circumscribed the events going on  at Historic Rice Stadium this hot, hot Friday evening.

"We're not quite there to play an ACC bowl team," Bloomgren said. "I hoped we could compete better than we did today. We’re just not there yet;.”

After Wiley went down, Harvard graduate transfer quarterback Tom Stewart, who played his high school ball at Dallas Episcopal, came in for the Owls, and, riding the emotion caused by the poorly officiated injury, handed the ball off to Aston Walker who scored on the next play.

The emotional tide continued as the Owls forced a three-and-out on Wake’s next possession. Then Austin Trammell took the ensuing punt and burst his way for 34 yards on the return, setting up the Owls at the Wake Forest 40.

Fom there, Rice moved in to tie the score quickly, as QB Stewart hit Jordan Myers and August Pitre for catches of 11 and 16 yards, respectively, and then carrying it in himself for the score from ten yards out.

So the first quarter ended 14-14 -- something of a moral victory itself, esepcially given the slow Owl start.

Wake managed ten more points in the second quarter, though,  to take a 24-14 halftime lead – but compare that to the 42-3 deficit the Owls faced at the half last season playing the Deacs on the road in Winston-Salem.

Taking the second half kickoff, though, the Rice offense went nowhere. The Owls' first three possessions of the second half all ended in three-and-outs, generating a grand total of 10 yards as the play selection looked to be unimaginative, to say the least.

The Rice student section stayed relatively full and commendably boisterous up until that point. But by midway in the third, the student section was pretty much empty.

The Rice defense gave its best effort as repeated time on the field began to wear down the defenders of South Main. Wake held a 34-14 lead before the Owl offense began to show signs of life. With five minutes left in the quarter, Stewart was able to connect with his wideout Brad Rozner, the Needville junior college transfer, for consecutive complestions of 15 and 20 yards.

As the fourth quarter began, Rice looked as it it were bound to display a degree of pride in the final outcome, looking at cutting the deficit to 34-21 with a first and goal at the Wake 7.

Alas, on fourth and one, the call went for a bit of trickeration, as Nahshon Ellerbe faked the dive over the goal line (crossing it easily), while Tom Stewart bootlegged left, as one might expect him to walk across the goal with all Wake defenders going for the dive.

But no soap, as that same Wake Forest, er, studenathalete, Strnad, was in the backfield waiting for him, killing the drive.

Next play, a down-in-the-mouth Rice defense let frosh Wake running back Kenneth Walker III slip into the secondary and sprint and weave 96 yards for a touchdown which made the score 41-14, effectively putting the game away.

Naurally, it was the longest run for a score in Wake Forest football history. And it came against, guess who....

Rice did make it look more respectiable with a 65-yard, nine play drive late in the game, culminated by a spinning and turning Austin Trammell who took a quick toss from Tom Stewart and ran it in for the touchdown from 19 yards out.

Super play for Austin.  As for the game...Meh. Some bright spots. A lot of questions. And mainly, a bunch of guys who are playing hard but find themselves, in the words of Tom Ewell, “Beat up. Mighty beat up.”

And that, with a “home” game with Texas lined up in NRG stadium this next Saturday. The Horns lost a close one to LSU in Austin this past week, and likely be of a mind to run up the score.

But it’s all good, Coach Bloom said. This is going to be a fun game for his team, playing in an NFL stadium and such.

“You go get dressed in the NFL locker room and go step on an NFL field, your juices are going to get flowing,” Bloomgren said. “When the schedule came out years ago, I said, ‘Man, that'll be a fun game for our football team.’”

Fun game for the Horns, anyway. For the Owls, let us hope for.....another step forward. And for heaven’s sake, no more injuries.