Led by 517 passing yards from junior quarterback Mike White, reigning Conference USA champion Western Kentucky University torched the Rice football team 46-14 in the opening game of the season for both teams.
The Owls gave up points almost as soon as the game began. After receiving the opening kickoff, Rice was forced to punt. Unfortunately, however, the kick never happened. On fourth down, the snap sailed over sophomore punter Jack Fox’s head, resulting in a safety and a 2-0 Hilltoppers lead. While the Owls were able to force a turnover and a punt on the next two defensive possessions, Western Kentucky’s passing game awoke over the next few drives. The Hilltoppers scored two touchdowns in each of the first two quarters and took a 30-7 lead into halftime.
There were many issues that plagued the Owls in this game. For instance, the team committed seven pre-snap penalties and had a total of six dropped passes, both of which hindered their offense. Defensively, the team did not tackle particularly well in the secondary and had a difficult time covering some of Western Kentucky’s receivers. Both of these issues were exacerbated by an inability to get to the quarterback.
While Rice has much respect for Western Kentucky, a common theme amongst most players was the belief that they beat themselves in this contest. Senior quarterback Tyler Stehling said the offensive penalties were too much for the team to overcome.
“We had a penalty, we had a false start, we kept shooting ourselves in the foot and we can’t win that way,” Stehling said.
Redshirt senior cornerback J.T. Blasingame listed several things that his team, specifically the defense, needed to work on heading into the week.
“[That’s] not how we wanted to start as a defense,” Blasingame said. “From the secondary, we lost eye discipline, didn’t tackle like we wanted to and we have to fix a lot of things. We beat ourselves on a lot of those coverages.”
What had to be very disappointing for the Owls was just how similar this performance looked to so many of the ones from their disappointing season last year. Like last year, the Owls ran an offense predicated on running the ball, stretching the field horizontally, and gaining yards after the catch. Unfortunately, the running game mustered only 3.2 yards per carry over 33 attempts. The team’s playmakers failed to make plays with the ball in space as the team gained just 4.9 yards per passing attempt. Last year, the Owls had a defense that showed promise in small stretches but was susceptible to giving up game-changing plays. That again was the case in this game, as Western Kentucky had six different players with receptions of 20 yards or more.
After the game, head coach David Bailiff said he was frustrated with the way the team performed.
“I’m disappointed in how we played this evening,” Bailiff said. “We didn’t get into any rhythm offensively. Even defensively, we played hard, but when you don’t play with the technique or the fundamentals we work on in practice, things happen to you. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We don’t have that toughness that I like to have as a football team.”
Moving forward, the team will face off against the United States Military Academy, which won its opening game against Temple 28-13. Stylistically, the Black Knights could not be any more different of an opponent from Western Kentucky: While the Hilltoppers ran a spread offense and beat the Owls throwing the ball down the field, Army runs a triple option offense in which they will rarely throw the ball at all.
According to Bailiff, Army’s offense will be difficult to stop and the Owls will have to play well to earn a victory.
“It takes great discipline and it takes great energy to stop the triple option,” Bailiff said.
When the two teams matched up last year, they produced an epic matchup in which the Owls pulled out a 38-31 victory, with the game-winning touchdown pass coming with just 24 seconds on the clock. With any luck, this year’s game will be equally compelling.
The Owls will look for their first win of the season on Saturday, Sept. 10 against the Army Black Knights in West Point, New York.