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UNT 21, Rice 17

DENTON (Nov. 26) -- In the waning moments of the third quarter of this game, with the score tied at 14, our Rice Owls found themselves facing first and goal at the North Texas four yard line with the score tied at 14.

The play was a quick fullback dive, frosh QB AJ Padgett to Juma Otaviano. Juma sliced his way to inside the one yard line, where the Owls would be facing second and goal, needing only a few more inches to go up 21-14.

Doubtless, there were Rice  fans out there in TV land and among the surprisingly vocal group that weathered the unfavorable climate and showed up for the game, where the thought at that time had to be along lines of, “We’re gonna win this damn thing. We’ve outplayed them up to now. With a green freshman quarterback, we’ve taken everything they’ve thrown at us. We’re going to win this thing.“

But, alas, it seems that Mr. Magoo had other ideas. On a lightning quick handoff and dive for the goal, the striped shirts perceived a holding infraction somewhere among the Rice interior linemen, nullifying the gain, and moving the Owls back to the 14 yard line, still first and goal.

It was at that point that  momentum utterly changed. The Owls had had the Mean Green on their heels, punching the ball up through the middle and completing key pass plays to little-known reserve receivers virtually since the opening kickoff. But there is where the air went out of the tires.

In fact, the Owls  regained  as far as the 6 yard line, and from there chipped in an easy field goal to take the lead 17-14. But 17-14 was not 21-14, and, as said, as a result of the call, the worm turned, and in a big way.

Bizarre calls, late in the game, when it really meant something

It was not the only bizarre holding call against the Rice interior line during that benighted quarter of play. Previously, the Owls had lined up for a very makeable field goal at the UNT 12. Before the kick went away, the striped shirts here too found a hold, and that set back the Owls 10 more yards, where, going against a swirling wind, Christian Van Sickle missed his second field goal try of the day, and the Flock got no points out of their effort.

Christian was fairly well deadeye the first two months of the season, but had his troubles in the cold and rain in Denton.  Sad, because his two missed field goal attempts also could have been the margin of victory, even given the escapades of the gendarmerie.

In that regard, we take time out to ask: when was the last time you saw an interior offensive  lineman get flagged for a holding penalty on a halfback dive at the 4 yard line that executed within a microsecond? Have you ever seen that? Well that makes one of us. In 60-some years of observing college football, we’ve never seen that call made.

And let’s back up a little. What about the holding call on the field-goal try? Surely it’s happened before, but when was the last time you can remember our boys were flagged for such a thing? Ever? Yeah, surely it’s happened, but when? Was King Hill the kicker then?

Those two holding calls completely took the starch out of a Rice offense that prior to then had gotten the job done, working behind the field generalship of a green freshman quarterback who never before started a varsity game, and in fact only had only seen a few garbage-time signal calls here and there. The kid did everything he needed to do for Rice to win the game, and the stat sheet shows it – up to that point.

For those who are counting, A J Padgett became the 13th  Rice starting quarterback during the Bloomgren regime. 

“I felt ready,” he said afterwards.. “Going through the week, my mind-set was -- I play football, I’m going out there and play football. I felt prepared. The nerves, they were all gone; I got it out of my system before the game.”

AJ’s tale of the tape showed 229 yards, almost all in the first three quarters, including a 48-yard TD strike to an excited freshman receiver Braylen Walker, who wound up with four receptions for 77 yards.  Padgett also connected  to Juma Otoviano on a 48-yard pass-and-run which carried to the UNT six yard line, oh so close to the end zone.  No matter, another newcomer, Uriah West, plunged in from the one yard line to tie the score at seven early in the second quarter.

“A.J. did some great things, and you can see how bright his future is, and Braylen Walker was doing things as well,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said

Home crowd finally animated when norther blew in

When AJ connected with Braylen Walker for his 48-yard TD romp just before the half, the home contingent in the stands was as silent as sisters of the poor at midnight mass.

But by  contrast, those holding calls amped up the rain-soaked crowd, and North Texas got things going early in the fourth.  Suddenly gashing the Owl middle on previously unsuccessful running plays, the Greenies surged to a 21-14 lead with 10 minutes left in the game.  

On the stat sheet, the Owls exceeded a prolific Mean Green offense in total yardage,  415 to 362  But in that fateful, post-holding-calls fourth quarter, the UNT offense took over, outgaining the Owls 115-32, 109 of them on the ground.

“We had the lead in the fourth quarter and they were able to run the ball down our throats, and that hurts” Bloomgren said. “We think the foundation of our team is stop the run, and we were unable to do it.”

Rice’s game-opening possession under its green frosh  quarterback was not without its bright moments, as AJ led the Flock from the Rice 29 to the UNT 31.  But there, facing a third and short, there was a bobble in the exchange between AJ and the running back on the made-to-order Bloomgreen halfback dive on third and short.

The handoff never materialized, UNT got their hands on the ball, and proceeded to march the length of the field behind the passing of Austin Aune to take a 7-0 lead.

During the entire first half, it seem that Aune’s biggest weapon was a quick down-and-in pass to one or more receivers headed across the middle. Didn’t matter what was the down, third and eight,  third and 11,  first and 10 -- the pass seemed to clear for 10 or 12 yards each time. That was the only thing, frankly, that worked consistently for UNT during that juncture, but it kept the visitors playing defense more than they needed to.

Nevertheless,  UNTs first scoring strike came on a 45 yard pass from Aune to Jyaire Shorter  when a defensive coverage breakdown reared its ugly head. Other than that, the Rice defense had been stout, early on.

The next drive, the Owls reached as far as UNT 28, where Christian VanSickle‘s field goal attempt from 46 yards out was a miss, and not a near miss. The swirling wind had something to do with that effort.

But the Owl defense shut down UNT on its next possession,  Josh Pearcy, Chris Conti and Isaiah Floyd making key pass breakups to shut down that ten yards down-and-in trash.

Four straight runs set up TD bomb for Owls

On Rice’s ensuing possession, the Owls got in gear. Four straight rushing attempts each netted short yardage but but kept the drive going.  Then AJ Padgett found Juma Otoviano in the open on the home sideline, leading to the aforementioned first Rice score.

The wiley UNC quarterback Austin Aune brought the Mean Green  back right quickly with three long passing plays culminating in a 7 yard touchdown jaunt on first and goal by UNT‘s Ikaika Ragsdale.

At that point less than 4 1/2 minutes left in the half, and the supposition was that the Owls would be content to go in to the locker room down by only a touchdown.  

But not so. AJ Padgett once again got good and cranked up, hitting Bradley Rosner for 20 yards down the middle, and then, on a wheel route play which sprung totally unheralded freshman Braylen Walker free down the visitors sideline, AJ hit him right over the shoulder and he never broke stride, sprinting 48 yards for the TD to tie the score at 14.

The third quarter was frustrating for the Owls, as the defense kept the UNT offense on its heels, and in return the Rice offense managed to move the ball on the ground, getting tantalizingly close to breaking things open, but never quite getting there.

Of course, as mentioned, our boys had help from officialdom  in not getting there.

Alas, the momentum was picked up by the UNT offense, having rediscovered their running game. During the Eagles’ ultimate scoring drive, the Flock was gashed for runs of 36 and 28 yards leading to a first and goal from the eight. From there, the Rice defense bucked up, but facing third and goal from the six, Austin Aune hit Akaika Ragsdale in the flat, where an Owl defender narrowly missed pinning him to the floor. Instead, the scatback shook lose and slithered into the end zone, giving the Mean Green a 21-17 lead they would not relinquish.

There still remained 8:15 left in the game, but by then the Owls were spent and down in the mouth,  the thermometer was falling, the rain was beginning to come down harder, and damned fate seemed to take effect as one might expect. The Owls had the ball a couple of times, and were subject to a couple more questionable calls by the officials then, but the bottom line was they never seriously challenged to  go the distance to score the winning touchdown.

They were on the cusp of doing so late in the third quarter, their efforts were nullified, and the game was lost.

“We were really close, but we did not find a way to get this win,” said Coach Bloom.  “I’m frustrated because there are a lot of things that affected the outcome. We’re capable of making some of those plays and winning this football game.”

“We didn’t get it done,” he added. “Wished we had found a way to win this game.”

Us too.