Down 21-0 in the first half to the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, it looked like the Rice University football team was headed to yet another blowout loss. This time, though, the Owls rallied. Rice scored the final 22 points of the game to claim a 22-21 victory over Charlotte for its first Conference USA win of the season.
After a Rice punt in the first quarter, Charlotte got on the board first with a 71-yard touchdown drive sparked by three runs of 10 yards or more. Off the ensuing kickoff, the Owls again punted and the 49ers put together another touchdown drive to go up 14-0, this time relying on the pass.
The score remained at a standstill until midway through the second quarter. On its second drive of the period, Rice faced second and six from its own 37. Freshman J.T. Granato, playing quarterback, threw a short pass that was intercepted by Charlotte senior defensive back Terrance Winchester. He returned the pick 41 yards for the 49ers’ third touchdown of the game.
Down three scores, the Rice offense finally awoke. On the next drive, senior quarterback Tyler Stehling found senior tight end Connor Cella for a 20-yard gain to set the Owls up on the Charlotte nine yard line. The Owls settled for a field goal, bringing the score to 21-3. A quick defensive stop and a short punt set Rice up at Charlotte’s 46 yard line to begin its next drive, and the Owls took advantage by scoring their first touchdown.
Despite the momentum, Rice trailed 21-10 at halftime. According to Head Coach David Bailiff, the team still believed it could win despite the deficit.
“If you were standing on the sidelines or in the locker room at halftime, it wasn’t a ‘Woe is us’ mentality,” Bailiff said. “It was, ‘Let’s go get this thing done.’ We just maintained a great attitude and had a will-to-win.”
In the second half, Rice continued to chip away at the 49ers’ lead. The Owls recovered a Charlotte fumble on a punt return, and Stehling immediately converted the turnover into a touchdown on a 17-yard run. A failed two-point conversion kept the score at 21-16 Charlotte.
The teams combined to punt on the next five drive before Rice took over with just over seven minutes remaining in the game. The Owls put together a 13-play drive, highlighted by two Stehling one yard runs to first convert on fourth down and then score the go-ahead touchdown. The Owls’ defense preserved the win with a stop on fourth and nine on Charlotte’s ensuing possession.
According to Bailiff, the team was thrilled to earn the win.
“The locker room was one of joy,” Bailiff said. “There was sheer energy, sheer jubilation to get that win.”
Stehling earned a nomination for the Player of the Week Award from American Sports Net for his performance in the game. He led the Owls with 279 yards passing and one touchdown. Bailiff said he was proud of how Stehling performed in the win.
“That was Tyler Stehling’s most complete performance this season,” Bailiff said. “He played with so much grit.”
The Owls return home this week for their final home contest of the season against the University of Texas, El Paso. The teams will play at 11 a.m. at Rice Stadium.