This is familiar territory for the Owls who have dropped 3 consecutive games in similar fashion. Rice should be glad the SWC broke up and they went to another conference because the last 3 weeks have been rough on the Owls. Injuries are mounting and C-USA play starts in 10 days. So where do the Owls sit after 4 games? Here are some thoughts...
Nobody in the Owl flock wanted to be, nor thought they would be 0-4 at this point in the season. Most were hoping for an optimistic 2-2, or a more realistic 1-3 at minimum. Instead the Owls have had to search for positives this season, measuring what little has gone right in terms of progress, rather than "wins".
Here are a few observations from Saturday night and some thoughts on the season thus far.
Let's be honest, even the most optimistic of Owls knew that short of an outbreak of food poisoning on the Horns team Mack Brown's team was going to win Saturday night. I said here recently that I thought the Owls matched up a little better with the Horns than perhaps teams like Texas Tech. After watching Saturday night I'm reconsidering. I think much of that opinion was formed upon the fact that the Horns have not looked dominant this year – until Saturday night that is. The Owls looked competitive for all of about 5 minutes in the first quarter. The Owl defense was hitting harder than I've seen all year. And while they never gave up, staying on the field all night against the Horns depth is something not many Top 20 teams could do, much less a team like the Owls who are trying to find their footing.
The Owls offense wasn't entirely without punch – Chase Clement was able to find his receivers 23 times out of 38 attempts. He completed passes to 10 different receivers. But the Horns were willing to give the short route underneath nad that was about all the Owls could get. The running game was a big zero – actually a big -11(you want progress – we were -12 last year). The offensive line, try as they did, can't be held totally at fault though – the Horns have recruited defensive linemen as well as anybody in the nation the past 5 years. So in summary – the Horns just have too much talent for a lot of teams to compete against, much less win. I believe ESPN Analyst Gary Reasons summed it up pretty well, "the Horns don't really recruit anymore – they select the players they want." Combine the Horns superior talent with an Owl team that was already beat up coming into the game and you expect what happened. The score could have been much worse than the trampling the Owls got. Oh and I'd be remiss if not mentioning some of the worst Homer the Horn officiating I've ever seen. Two examples are Exhibit A - Brandon King's interception/interference call; and Exhibit B courtesy of the Houston Chronicle - Jarett Dillard being blatantly held AND face guarded by a Texas DB, with of course no call.
Now that the Owls have taken their annual non conference beating (who would have preferred (Vanderbilt and Duke to Tech and Texas?) they must look at salvaging their record via conference play. Southern Miss waits, followed by Houston. The Owls realistically have a chance to win their remaining games but will have to do several things much better to win even half.
No Time to Grow Up
Unfortunately a lot of the positives coming from the Owl's are from freshmen. Good news - Bad news I guess. Some of them have been forced to play as a result of injury; some have been just too good to keep off the field. On defense, any conversation has to start with Scott Solomon. He's been playing beyond his years since he stepped foot on campus. If the first four games mean anything he has a chance to be a multiple All-C-USA player before he's done at Rice. Solomon plays with the"high motor" that coach's love. Saturday night he could be seen 20 yards downfield pursuing Jamaal Charles on more than one occasion. He also has an uncanny nose for the ball and although the stats don't show it he gives the Owl defense a much need pass rush. While we're discussing DEs add Cheta Ozougwu. He's been playing extensively the past two games and might be starting against Southern Miss depending on the condition of Dietrich Davis. Cameron Thompson is another freshman defensive lineman that has logged extensive minutes in recent games. He's very active and has shown the quickness that made him a coveted recruit. Defensive backs Joseph Leary and Chris Jones have also spent time as starters – a tough task considering the receivers the Owls have been facing. Aaron Williams saw action last night as did Brandon Tolbert. Tanner Shuck would surely be playing if not for injury. The Owls have simply not had enough to depth to red shirt these players. On offense, the Owls biggest contributor, literally, has been James Casey. He's not your typical freshman of course. In fact he's probably the most muscled QB I've ever seen. He caught a pass last night and is regularly used in the short yardage goal line offense. Tom Herman is finding more ways to get him the ball – which I like. Early on it looked like Justin Hill would be the only back not to red shirt this year - four games into the season and Taylor Dupree and Tyler Smith are playing too. Hill has shown flashes of being the Owls running back of the future, and Smith pressed into action last night will likely be returning kicks the rest of the season. Wil Norris has seen regular work on special teams. Scott Mitchell, the late addition from Canada at offensive tackle saw playing time last night too. The Owls need all the help they can get on the offensive line so Mitchell has an opportunity if he can prove to Offensive Line Coach Blake Miller that he's ready to start.
Not New, but Still Young
A handful of other Owls have done well with the opportunities they've been given. Patrick Randolph looks like he's found a home at Wide Receiver. Randolph has a somewhat slight build for defensive back so I'm happy the coaches have found a way to get him on the field. Most fans forget that he was a standout track and field athlete back in high school in Tuscaloosa. Randolph, Pierre Beasley, and Chance Talbert all had catches last night. John Thomas Shepherd silenced a lot of critics last night, looking very adept at running the offense in route to completing all 5 of passes for 69 yards. John Welch made a nifty catch near the sideline last night. I'm not sure why he hasn't been a bigger part of the offense. On defense, Willie Garley has become a regular starter and plays with a high level of physicality. Linebacker Robert Calhoun has looked good in spots. The Owls are missing the absence of Terrance Garmon.
On offense, Chase Clement has been just about the Owls have had in terms of offense. The running game has struggled. Jarett Dillard has seen bracket coverage for most of the season. Toren Dixon is becoming the steady go to guy the Owls need if Dillard is to ever see man coverage the rest of the year.
Coaches Not Sitting Still
The coaches have been criticized heartily this season. To their credit they have accepted responsibility and come back with new wrinkles in each game. To be clear they have done that because it's their job – not because someone on the internet has suggested it. In any case, their use of red shirt freshmen show me that they are shuffling personnel in every attempt to put a winning product on the field, which will happen…..eventually.