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USC 66, Rice 14

ON THE MARCH, EARLY -- Luke McCaffrey grabs Wiley Green pass en route to Owls' opening-drive touchdown (David Speed Elder photo)

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 4) – In the pregame talk surrounding Rice’s season opener with USC, Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren made it clear that his game strategy against the Trojans was going to be Plan A.

Now his Plan A did sport some new wrinkles, some
 non-Plan-A offensive tactics thrown in, but for the most part, Plan A remained strictly the order of the day.

All of you by now must be well-versed in this football philosophy.  It presupposes equal, if not superior, athletic wherewithal compared to one’s opponent.  It seeks to impose an intellectual form of brutality that bends the enemy to one’s very straightforward dictates.  It depends little upon artifice, upon doing the unexpected, upon unconventional and atypical tactics.

Patton was a Plan A sort of guy.  So was General Ulysses S. Grant.

Mike Bloomgren had, and ought continue to have, reason for optimism going into this, his fifth campaign on South Main.  A more experienced squad awaited this year’s opponents of the Feathered Flock, with better size and speed, more steeped in his coaching more steeped in his coaching philosophy, and with a tantalizing array of skill players on both sides of the ball. So why not dance with who brung you?

But Lincoln Riley and his USC squad wound up presenting an overwhelming contraindication to such notion.  Newly recruited from the Oklahoma hinterlands straight to Hollywood in order to preside over the resurrection of a storied, but moribund, USC program that finished 3-9 last year, this Wuenderkind, bought in, er, pardon, brought in with him 40 transfers, among them a goodly number of the best collegiate football players in the land.  That included  a Heisman-candidate quarterback, perhaps the best wide receiver in college football, and more.

Just how good might this USC team be?  Rice fans would hope that they’re not only good, they’re really that good.

GOT THIS ONE -- This time, Luke McCaffery skies high to haul in Wiley Green pass; first down, Rice (PTH photo)

Whatever the game plan, USC was just too plain good

Against USC,  even had the Owls come in with full implementation of a Plan B offense – somehow combining the snazziest aspects of the Wishbone, the Air Raid, and, what the heck,  throw in some Run n’ Shoot to boot; even if they’d had Tom Brady at quarterback and Earl Campbell in the backfield, they still would’ve lost this game.

For under the command of their golden boy, Caleb Williams, each time the Trojans got their hands on the ball, they scored.  Seven offensive possessions led to six TDs and a field goal.  No punts.  No fumbles. No interceptions.  No sacks. Any QB hurries?  Can’t remember any.

Then there were those other three SC TDs – all pick-sixes against a harried, hurried pair of Owl quarterbacks plus another, four steals in all. It was just the sort of highlight-film stuff that might bring sugarplum visions to the minds of die-hard Trojan fans, and renewed notions of despair to South Mainers.

Clearly there was a major talent deficit.  No game plans, no offensive theories, could have made a difference in that indomitable fact. And yet, this Rice bunch kept that inevitable conclusion in doubt until midway through the second quarter.

By then down 21-7, the Owls’ first play went 55 yards as Cam Montgomery took  the deep handoff, shook off a tackler and burst into the clear, only to be stopped by a Calen Bullock shoestring tackle at the 20.  Now that was a Plan A play that popped, big time.

So why not run it again?  Indeed,  Cam took the same handoff on the next play, broke up the middle, and very nearly scored, albeit dragged down at the 13.  But from there, Wiley Green missed Jack Bradley across the middle.  The Owls took a timeout to plot – alright now, some  Unconventional Wisdom is about to erupt, right?  Nope, rather, it was a handoff up the middle to Ari Broussard.  Gained one yard.

TEAMWORK - Here, Owl defenders team up to avoid blockers and nab ball carrier for scant yardage (PTH photo)

To go for 6, or go for 3?

So it was decision time.  Take the chip-shot three, and be down only by 11?  Or play like you came in to win.  The latter call was made as Wiley faked play action, rolled left and threw to an open McCaffery.

The reader at this point may protest:  Wait.  You are being inconsistent here.  You’d strongly suggested that Rice’s button-down style of play is a losing strategy, especially against teams with any measure of superior talent.

Now, though, you’re saying: “take the points – keep it close.”  Which should it be?  Play  with pants on fire to try to win the game, or just play to keep it close and hope to get lucky?

Nope, we’re applauding Coach Bloom’s hard-nosed approach here. We’re wishing for pants-on-fire play, every game, every down.  We’re just trying to figure out how to win with the kind of talent – and brain power – that Rice is going to be able to get.  That’s all.

Back to the game, and disaster.

Alas, the ball caromed off the Rice receiver’s hands, and right into the mitts of SC’s Calen Bullock, who had pretty much  clear sailing down the home sideline culminating in a 93 yard pick six. So instead of 21-10 or perhaps 21-14,  the Owls were down 28-7.

“You’ve got to be able to throw and catch,” Coach Bloomgren lamented afterwards. “We’re playing college football.”

And to make matters worse, seconds later Wiley Green was seen trudging toward the locker room, holding one wrist by the other as two trainers walked astride, not to return to the game. Medical condition?  Unknown at this time.

That was tough. Mighty tough. For on the Owls’   three out of four first-half possessions,   they moved the damn football, showing success both on the ground and in the air. And they wound up having precious little to show for it.

MOB put on a good show; not as loud as USC band, but not nearlly as monotonous, either (David Speed Elder photo)

Trojans never stopped moving the football

USC had taken the kickoff and driven methodically for the opening score.  The back-breaker was a 43-yard gainer when Caleb Williams found Tahj Washingon wide open in the middle with three Owl secondary men yards away.

Then on third and three at the Rice 5, Williams found Jordan Addison in the flat and he jetted around a Rice defender for the score.

The Owls responded with a gut-check, 16-play drive that covered 75 yards.  Luke McCaffery caught passes of 10, 12, 19 and three yards on that opening possession, finding a way to get open every time.  Owl runners accounted for only 12 of those 75 yards, though.  But hand it to Ari Broussard, who picked up four yards on Rice’s initial offensive play of the game, and then slashed over the goal line on fourth and one to tie the score.

Next SC possession, the Trojans mixed the pass and run to travel  84 yards in ten plays, easy-peasy.

Now, a minute deep into the second quarter, Juma Otoviano returned the deep kickoff as far as the Owl 33, but this time, the Flock went three and out, and USC came roaring back once again. Williams’ four straight successful passing efforts covered 25, 33, 13 and 14 yards and just like that it was 21-7.

We’ve already told you how the Trojans picked up their next TD, so we’ll move right along to the Owls second and final touchdown of the game.

With T. J. McMahon once again at the helm, the Flock traveled 75 yards in twelve plays This time it was punch, punch, punch on the ground in a way that bodes well for future drives in future games against lesser opponents this season.

Dean Connors, Cam Montgomery, Ari Broussard and T.J. each rushed for short yardage.  The single passing attempt on this drive went for 16 yards, T.J. to Cam Montgomery on the sideline.  For one brief shining moment, it was smash-mouth football, and the Owls had done the smashing. 

Ari Broussard once again slashed across the goal from two yards out, and it was 28-14, SC, with 1:35 left in the half.

The Trojans handled clock management with aplomb, but the Owl provided stiff resistance.  Four pass breakups by Owls defenders kept SC at bay, and they had to settle for a 25-yard Denis Lynch field goal to close out the half.

TAKE THAT -- Dean Connors wards off would-be tackler with stiff arm, breaks free for additional yardage (PTH photo)

Second half?  Never mind

Not much to be said about the second half of the game. 

Opening possession, first set of downs, on third and four T.J. McMahon’s pass was intercepted by Shane Lee at the Rice and he took it to the house, making it 38-14, and if the rout were not on already, it certainly was now.

Next Rice possession, same chapter and verse.  This time, SC’s Ralen Goforth did the honors, making the pick of an errant T.J. pass on third and 9 and waltzing in for the score from 31 yards out.

That made it 45-14 with 12:45 left in the third quarter, with the visitors’ starting QB out with an injury, by most yardsticks thus making it ‘save the equipment’ time with ample PT for the second and third stringers.

But oh, no, that’s not Lincoln Riley’s style at all.  This is Hollywood, after all, and a runaway romp would sit well with SC fans, who consider themselves coming out of the desert of six years with Clay Helton.

Now it was showtime, so Coach Riley kept his dazzling staringt quarterback in for three more unnecessary scores, much to the delight of Trojans fans.

As mentioned earlier, seven USC offensive possessions resulted in six TDs and a field goal.  So it wasn’t until early in the fourth quarter when Caleb Williams finally took a bow and took a seat.

Pretty impressive fellow, no doubt about it. 

And the Owls?  Despite big show put on by a USC team with huge physical talent,  the squad knows it has talent on level with most of the remaining teams on the schedule.  It’s a question of execution.  Leave the offensive philosophy quibbles to the alumni.  “This is a tough pill to swallow,” defensive leader George Nyakwol told press post-game. “This is just a good wake-up call for us to prepare us for the rest of the season.”

“There’s four plays that really led to this game going the way it did into a lopsided manner, and that’s really those four interceptions, and certainly the three that were pick-sixes," Coach Bloom summed up. “I mean, that’s something that’s really hard to deal with. I’m just proud that our kids did keep fighting."