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Rice 24, USM 19x

Rice QB Jake Constantine sparked Owls to second straight win, leading with efficient passing, capable game management (PTH photo)

"You let that NERD score agin' you??? Man, you NOTHIN'!  Go sit down!" (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Oct. 3) – At the very least, it was a step in the right direction.

Newly ensconced Rice starting quarterback Jake Constantine was fully in command of the Owl offense, making accurate passes that engendered an effective scoring punch, and basically directing his charges to do just what needed to be done, no more, no less, in leading the Institute Boys on three touchdown drives and a key field goal en route to a 24-19 league win over Southern Mississippi here Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Rice defensive unit, still banged up and hobbled by injury, managed four interceptions against USM backup quarterback Jake Lange – four coffin nails driven into a Southern Miss passing attack that, alas, otherwise exhibiteded consistent success against an up-and-down Owl defensive secondary.

The five sacks tallied by the Rice defensive front didn’t hurt matters at all, either, for when the USM frosh QB was unmolested in the pocket, he was able to pick apart the Owl defense. But when heat was applied, he started throwing interceptions.

It turned out that the passing game of this newcomer was something the Owl defense had not been expecting to see, and at least at first had not been particularly prepared for. Primarily at least, Southern Miss was supposed to be a team that ran with the football.

True, the third-string freshman USM signal-caller had been relegated to running the Eagle scout team going into Saturday’s game. But he wound up making his college debut early in the contest after Ty Keyes went down with injury on a deep passing play that resulted in the Flock’s first pick of the game, this one by George Nyakwol, who leapt high for it like a center fielder trying to prevent a long fly ball from leaving the park.

That interception set up the Owls for a scoring drive culminating with a 39-yard TD strike, Jake Constantine to Jake Bailey. Jake to Jake. The last 15 yards of Bailey’s TD dash proved an excercise in balance, as, falling forward, Jake managed to maintain his stride into the end zone while his helmet was no more than a couple of feet from the turf.

But then there were the Owl special teams, who sleepwalked through a second half performance that almost wound up giving the game away.

Pete Lembo, where are you? Come back, we need you.

The special-teams coordinator brought in by newly anointed head coach Mike Bloomgren in his inaugural year at the helm took a fairly ragtag bunch of youngsters and turned them into a well-oiled machine. That same machine, at least Saturday, played more like a rust bucket badly in need of an overhaul. (Exception: place kicker Christian Van Sickle, who was perfect on PATs and booted a 41-yard field goal.)

Third-quarter offensive surge put game out of reach

As young Rice fan watches with great concern, Owls get key partial block of field goal try to preserve lead (PTH photo)

Having entered the second half bolstered by a 10-7 lead, the Rice offense under Commander Constantine surged to two consecutive, and quite impressive, third-quarter touchdown drives that gave the Owls a 24-7 lead midway in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, USM had done nothing since a late first-quarter touchdown drive, as that’s when the frosh USM gunslinger Vance, came into the game. He promptly completed four of six pinpoint downfield passes, much to the surprise of the Owl defenders, who watched him sew up the drive a 31-yard pass to freshman Chandler Pittman, knotting the score at 7.

Rice then stumbled through three three-and-out possessions before Constantine’s passes of 18 yards to Cedric Patterson, 21 yards to Bailey and 13 to Jack Bradley led to the 41-yard field goal by Elon College grad transfer Christian VanSickle to make it 10-7. It was the grad student place kicker’s first college career field goal, and he made the hard way, bouncing it high off the right upright from where it caromed across.

It took Coach Smith‘s defensive crew a while to get used to the un-prepped-for USM quarterback switch – but they did, and meanwhile, the Rice offense hit its stride in surging to that big third-quarter lead. Taking the second half kickoff, the Flock moved 75 yards in nine plays, culminating in an acrobatic Robert French leaping reception in the end zone where he wrestled the ball away from two USM defenders.

“It was awesome. I’ve been working hard for four years and to finally get to see that play out on the field was really nice,” French said, commenting on his first collegiate touchdown reception. “We had a lot of great plays by the o-line tonight, so we could throw down the field which was really awesome.”

Next USM possession, after Elijah Garcia sacked QB Lange for a loss of 13, and facing third and long, under a hard rush, Lange tossed the ball up for grabs, and grab it, Rice’s Naeem Smith did.

Owls scored via big-play reverse

Swarming Owl defense actually held USM to 10 points, not counting special teams TD kickoff return allowed and gimme safety at game's end -- that's four points fewer than Alabama allowed this Southern Miss team. Hmmm... (PTH photo)

First play, the Owls tried a bit of trickeration, and it actually worked swimmingly, Cedric Patterson taking a deep-pitchback reverse and circling around end for 38 yards and the score, untouched.

So with that 24-7 third-quarter lead, Rice looked to be totally and completely in the catbird seat, with even a chance of rout within reach.

Remember, we beat these guys last year, 30-6. In Hattiesburg.

So there they were, Owls 24, Golden Eagles 7, midway in the third quarter, Rice kicking off aftet the Owls’ second touchdown drive of the stanza.

Enter the Rice kickoff team. The ensuing kick traveled at medium altitude to the USM five yard line, where Eagle scatback Camron Harrell pulled it in, and with a couple of feints and a juke or two, proceeded to jazz right up the middle, 95 yards to the pay station, without any Rice defender getting within Covid-catching distance of him.

That touchdown sprint just like that changed the game from a potential laugher into one that was once again significantly in doubt. A moribund USM bench leapt back to life, and the small but vocal Southern Miss contingent in the stands howled with delight.

After a field goal cut the margin to 24-17 early in the fourth, Southern Miss converted an onside kick. But a pair of costly penalties and a key pass breakup by Antonio Montero thwarted that threat, in so doing, one might say, really saving the bacon of the Owl special teamers.

On that onsides kick, USM lined up for the kickoff in two clumps – the latest fashion, it seems, in fake trickery. As they broke into what seemed to be a standard sideline-to-sideline formation, the USM kicker sent just an OK onsides kick toward the home sideline. No bad bounces, no funny stuff – but the Institute Boys’ minds were somewhere in the Chem Lab or someplace like that, and there wasn’t a gray jersey within five yards of the pill as the recovery was made.

The defense simply had to come to the fore, as the Owl offense was bogged down after Jake Constantine took a hit during the first Owl possession after those two third-quarter TD drives.

It was then, on third and long Jake dropped back to pass, cocked his arm, and was immediately bulldozed by a USM defender who shall not be accorded the dignity of referral by name here. As a result, Player X was tossed from the game for targeting, and Jake had to take a slow walk to the bench, seeing a few stars and hearing a few bird tweets en route.

The ding suffered by Commander Constantine seemed to take the wind out of the Rice offensive sails, so it was up to Rice defenders at that point, to take their powdermilk biscuits and get up and do the things that needed to be done to make it through the game. And they did just that.

But the Rice defense did not buckle, holding the Eagles at bay via a hard pass rush led by Elijah Garcia and a couple of late-game picks, one by Miles McCord at the Rice 29, and then an outfield rundown by Kirk Lockhart at the Rice seven for the fourth and game-clinching interception with 1:18 left.

“The biggest thing is in practice every week, going into each meeting, this emphasis is getting these takeaways — either sacks, fumbles, peanuts — we need to get those takeaways,” Kirk Lockhart said afterwards. “All my brothers went into practice and that’s all they did was practice peanuting, catching every ball that came into their hands, and I think that’s why we made so many TFLs and tackles and sacks. It’s just showing the results now.”

Owls closed out game the safety way

From there, it was only for the Flock to weather USM’s last two timeouts; let the clock wind down as far as possible on third down; and take a safety on the fourth down non-punt out of the end zone, well fashioned by “punter” Jake Bailey who took the deep snap and raced around the back of the end zone until he was finally forced beyond the end line with three seconds to play.

Brutal intellectuality, one might say.

It was a bit of brutality exhibited by Rice's defense that changed the tenor of the game, Coach Bloomgren said afterwards. “Five sacks and four picks is getting off the field. The offense took chance of the quick-change opportunities. Our defense did a great job getting them behind the sticks and then punishing them.”

“We took a step toward being a more mature football team,” Coach Bloom added. “We had times where one side was doing better than the other, but nobody started saying anything about the other side. They did their job, and that is what you want.”