Led by 407 passing yards and five passing touchdowns by senior quarterback Tyler Stehling in the best performance of his career, the Rice University football team topped Prairie View A&M University 65-44 on Saturday.
In desperate need of a win to restore some confidence, the Owls quickly took the ball down the field to start the game. Stehling capped off a 65-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore running back Austin Walter. The Panthers, however, responded immediately, as junior wide receiver Joshua Simmons returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7. Rice, however, steadied itself, scoring 35 unanswered points and ultimately going into halftime with a 45-14 lead.
The second half, however, proved to be an entirely different story. The Panthers had six offensive possessions in the second half and scored four touchdowns. Prairie View A&M also put points on the board by blocking an extra point attempt by sophomore kicker Hayden Tobola and returning it for a defensive 2-point conversion. The Owls, however, tacked on three touchdowns of their own throughout the second half.
That said, critical eyes examined not the 65 points that Rice put on the board against the Panthers, but rather to the 44 points that they allowed against a team that was shut out by the only other Football Bowl Subdivision opponent it faced this season, Texas A&M University. As such, while the team will be happy to celebrate its first victory this season, it cannot be satisfied with its defensive and special teams performances this game, particularly when the strength of the opponent is considered. It is therefore understandable why the reaction of many — particularly the team’s defensive players — to the win was somewhat subdued.
Head coach David Bailiff said he was pleased with the team’s offensive effort in the game, but recognized the need for improvement on the other side of the ball.
“For us, it was a win we obviously needed — we needed it bad,” Bailiff said. “I am so proud of the offense, and proud of the way Tyler Stehling directed that offense tonight. I wasn’t really thrilled with [the defense in] the second half. We gave up too many big plays.”
Senior linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee said despite the win, he was unhappy with the way the defense played.
"I guess this is a bittersweet victory for us,” Ellerbee said. “Sweet in the fact that we did get a win — it's obviously nice to get a win in the column — but it's bitter because we gave up 44 points. We didn't even give up 44 points to Baylor, so for us to give up 44 points is hard to wrap my mind around.”
This type of defensive performance, unfortunately, falls in line with what we have seen from the Owls this season. Despite a strong effort last week against UTSA, the team ranks third-to-last in Division I in both total and passing yards allowed per game, as well as 11th to last in points allowed per game. Those statistics are alarming on their own, but the fact that these performances were replicated against a non-FBS school is embarrassing. Considering these types of warning signs, this game may represent little, if any, progress for the team’s defense and its coaching staff.
The Owls do, however, have much more to build on when looking at the other side of the ball. With his performance, Stehling became the fourth quarterback in Rice football history to eclipse 400 passing yards in a game, while junior wide receiver Temi Alaka and sophomore running back Samuel Stewart both topped 100 yards in the game. The team executed better offensively against the Panthers than they have at other times in the season, as they only had three drives (save for the end of the game) that did not end in points. As such, this game represented some positive signs for Rice. Considering that they continued to make heavy use of a horizontal passing game and that the offensive gameplan this week did not differ much from the unsuccessful ones of past weeks, however, the legitimacy of these signs cannot be confirmed until more games are played.
It was far from a perfect performance for the Owls — in several ways, it was even an alarming one — but there is obvious emotional value in winning football games. This lift is something the team can hope to build on in the weeks to come. Stehling said he was relieved to finally earn a victory.
"We got to sing our little song we do when we win, but we haven't been able to do it all year,” Stehling said. “To be honest, losing takes a lot out of you, because you put in all the work and all the effort. But to finally win, it feels good to relish it."
Up next for the Owls is a matchup with perennial Conference USA powerhouse Louisiana Tech University. The Bulldogs always boast an impressive collection of talent that excels at the collegiate level and often times matures into NFL talent: just last season, Louisiana Tech produced a first-round draft selection in defensive tackle Vernon Butler, while quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon were also drafted. This year, senior safety Xavier Woods and senior wide receiver Trent Taylor are players that are seen as having a good chance of making the leap to the professional level. As a program that consistently churns out strong talent, it is no surprise that the Bulldogs (5-3) are currently riding a four-game winning streak and sit atop the C-USA West Division. Rice has not defeated Louisiana Tech since 2013, a stretch that includes a 76-31 defeat in 2014 when both teams were playing for a trip to the C-USA title game against Marshall. The Owls are currently a 24.5-point underdog in the game.
Despite the long odds, the Owls hope that their win will spark a strong finish as they progress to the latter half of the season. Starting roles next season and the jobs of the coaching staff likely will depend on it.
"I feel we've been talking about getting this win and start rolling and see what can happen,” Alaka said.
The Owls (1-6 (0-4)) will look for their second win of the season in a road game on Saturday, Oct. 29 against Louisiana Tech at 6 p.m.