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Western Kentucky 45, Rice 10

BOWLING GREEN, KY (Nov. 13) – So that’s one down, two to go in the Rice Owls’ quest to obtain a legitimate bowl invitation to cap the 2022 season.

This time, the elements and fate were both stacked agains the Boys from South Main, as numerous injuries plus a practically team-wide succumbing to flu (not the COVID kind) severely hampered the local boys’ possibilities going into the game. 

Just run through the Owls main stalwarts on both sides of the ball.  QB JT McMahon played like a guy who should’a stood in bed, finally taken out of the game in the second quarter by a WKU swarm blitz that separated him from the ball as well as the remainder of his sensibilities in Rice’s third turnover on three straight possessions; this time leading to a goon squad scoop n’ score which basically took the Owls out of the game for the duration.

Others appeared to be hampered by the bug similarly.  Sean Fresch and Luke McCaffery never saw action. George Enechukwu was not himself.  Neither was Bradley Rozner. The Rice secondary was a patchwork collection of second stringers, scout teamers and walkons, collectively whom were hard-pressed to match the "Tops" receiver corps.

Still, one reckons, even Rice’s best efforts on this miserably cold contest in the middle of nowhere likely would not have been enough to score enough to pull out the game.

Former Owl coach Ray Alborn had a saying, relating to games in which the gods, the personnel and damned fate all lined up to make a game virtually unwinnable.  Then it was time to “save the equipment,” Ray was known to say.

All things considered, after those three consecutive first-half turnovers, Saturday’s game against WKU was a “save the equipment” kind of game.

It didn’t have to unfold that way, but the way those turnovers just came coming in the first half, each one was a knife thrust, the third one right in the gut.

After giving up an opening kickoff touchdown drive that was much too easy for Western Kentucky, the Owls came back and twice in a row controlled the ball and the clock  exactly the way they wanted to.

On the ensuing possession, they moved 55 yards in 10 plays before, on second and 10 from the WKU 20, TJ McMahon’s pass was intercepted in the end zone. Tilt.

Behind the adroit quarterbacking of Austin Reed, as expected, the Hilltoppers moved the ball again, but Owl reserve secondary man Lamont Narcisse played centerfield to pick off a Reed pass at the Rice four, returning it back out to the 20.

Once again, the Owls rolled on the ground ,  this time more ponderously than before. In possession the last five and a half minutes of the first quarter, whence they had only reached midfield by the time the first quarter ended, but that was just the kind of pace that Owl offensive coaches were looking for.

Four plays later, Rice had reached the WKU 32 yard line, when TJ went for broke in the end zone, and in a bizarre sequence,  Hilltopper defender Kaleb Oliver wound up with the ball.

Here’s the thing, though. Oliver’s interception at the two yard line didn’t end there, as his momentum carried him into the end zone. Rather than downing the ball or taking a knee, he sort of swiveled and held the ball out as if it were a trophy.  No whistle, live ball,  and an alert Owl plowed into him, pryng the ball loose and falling on top of it. Now where we come from, that’s a Rice touchdown.

But no, the striped shirts somehow concluded that it was an interception with the ball going over to WKU at their own two yard line. In fact, that was the one interpretation that absolutely had to be incorrect. The obvious call was that it was a touchdown, although there could’ve been two or three variables to that, all of them wrong --  but the least of which would’ve been awarding the ball to WKU at the two. But that’s what the Conference USA gendarmerie came up with, and instead of 7- 7, it was WKU’s ball at the two, still 7-0.

From there, behind the quarterbacking of Austin Reed, the Hilltoppers took several plays to eke the ball out to their own 38. At that point, the Rice defensive secondary blew a tire, and Reed hit his man Daewood Davis on a down-an- in about 15 yards downfield, but from there the receiver juked and threaded his way through several missed tackles, 62 yards in all for the touchdown  to give the Hilltoppers a 14-0 lead. Tilt.

The worst of it was that on the Owls’ next possession after that 62 yard TD pass-and-run, facing second and 8 at his own 27, TJ took a deep drop – or it was going to be a deep drop -- but WKU brought the student body, smothered him under a horde of red jerseys, separated the ball, knocked him up the side of his head, and the whole sordid event was capped by the Hilltoppers’ Jaquith Evans scooping up the pill and trotting in 14 yards into the end zone that made it 21-0 just like that. Tilt, tilt and tilt.

Let’s just imagine that the touchdown-that-wasn’t rightfully had been allowed and that the WKU scoop-and-score hadn’t happened, so that the Owls’ ensuing 75-yard, 13-play drive right before the half would’ve knotted the score at 14 going into the halftime locker room.

The drive did provide significant encouragement, because it was when the Rice rushing corps really got up and going. Behind the quarterbacking of redshirt freshman Shawqi Itraice, subbing in for the injured McMahon, the Owls rolled down the field via infantry,  Juma Otoviano getting hard runs of 13 and 9 yards, Cameron Montgomery adding another 12 yarder as  the Owls marched the ball down the field getting five or six yards at least on first down running plays.

So the Owls made it 21-7 with 32 seconds left in the half. But they scored too soon. Facing the patchwork Rice defensive secondary occasioned by injured and sick frontliners, WKU was able to spread the ball over the field quickly gashing receptions of 26 and 38 yards, so that a chip shot field goal on the last play the half made it 24-7.  At that juncture, one reasonably might have thought:  how typically Rice.

As is  usually the case with these blowout losses, not much to report in in regard to second-half action. Commendably, Shawqi Itraish, the redshirt freshman quarterback subbing in for the banged up TJ McMahon, moved the Rice offense on the opening possession of the second half,  getting as far as the Hilltopper eight yard line before bogging down. From there, Christian VanSickle chipped in a 25 yard field goal, and it was 24-10, still a ball game.

But after those three-in-a-row first-half turnovers,  Owl generosity continued in the second stanza, handing over to WKU three more, for a total of six, thus obviating the possibility of  making it a viable contest the remainder of the game. It was 31-10 at the end of the third quarter, and WKU  took advantage of more turnovers and tacked on 14 more style points in the final stanza for the resulting 45-10 final.

“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren glumly concluded at game’s end. “You just can’t win football games like that.”