It wasn’t a blowout. But it was still a loss. For the third time in four games, Rice football could not come up with a win, this time falling 13-7 to conference rival Florida International University. The Owls are now 1-3 on the season and 1-1 in Conference USA.
Rice had an opportunity to win the game in the final two minutes when it drove down to the FIU 9-yard line. The Owls then got no gain on a rush, lost two yards on an outside run and had no gain on a quarterback scramble. On fourth and goal from the 11-yard line, sophomore quarterback Jackson Tyner rolled to his right and threw the ball up to freshman wide receiver Aaron Cephus with the pass rush approaching. The ball sailed over Cephus’ outstretched arms, giving the Panthers the win. According to head coach David Bailiff, the tight loss was especially painful.
“It was really a tough loss tonight when you give yourself an opportunity at the end of it to win and can’t seize that moment,” Bailiff said.
Rice was without key players to start the game due to injury including starting redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Glaesmann and junior running back Samuel Stewart. During the game, sophomore running back Nahshon Ellerbe exited, forcing Stewart to re-enter. Despite missing players, Rice kept the game close. Down 7-0 in the second quarter, Tyner flipped the ball to senior wide receiver Parker Smith, who then threw a 17-yard pass back to Tyner to get to the 3-yard line. On the next play, Tyner dodged defenders and rushed for three yards to score Rice’s first touchdown of the night to tie the game. Tyner’s rushing touchdown would be the only score of the game for Rice.
FIU took the lead for good with a quick field goal drive to end the first half. The Panthers drove 63 yards in 49 seconds to get from their own 10-yard line into field goal range. Senior defensive end Brian Womac said he was upset to end the half by giving up points.
“They got that field goal which obviously, I was not happy about,” Womac said. “I’m sure nobody on the defense was happy about that. We’re gonna go back and watch some film and see what we can learn from that drive.”
FIU added a field goal in the third quarter to go up 13-7. That was the final score of the game as both defenses took control late in the second half.
Tyner threw for 131 yards with a rushing touchdown and one interception in the game as the Owls gave themselves an opportunity to win the game on the last drive. Rice’s offensive production was similar to FIU’s offensive production as Rice had 248 total yards while FIU amassed 271 total yards. Tyner said he was upset with the offense’s performance.
“Anytime your defense plays for you like that, you have to piggyback off of that,” Tyner said. “Scoring seven points is pretty unacceptable as an offense.”
Moving forward, both he and Bailiff acknowledged the offense will need to adjust. Rice has averaged just 12 points per game through its first four games. In their three losses, the Owls have combined for just 17 points. After the game, Bailiff said the offense did not perform adequately.
“We’ve gotta make plays,” Bailiff said. “Offensively, we’ve been absolutely anemic. We’ve gotta get the coaches looking at what we’re doing.”
However, Bailiff had high praise for the defense as it only allowed 13 points and 271 total yards in the game. He said the defense was extremely impressive outside of the one drive at the end of the first half.
“Defensively, I thought we played absolutely outstanding,” Bailiff said. “I didn’t like right before halftime giving them [those] extra point[s]. But the [defensive] line really did a good job of keeping their offense contained.”
The defense had five sacks, including two from Womac. Senior linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee led the defense with eight tackles in the game, and sophomore cornerback Justin Bickham caught the Owls’ first interception of the season. Since the 62-7 loss to Stanford University to open the year, the unit has allowed just under 22 points per game. Womac said he was very pleased with how his teammates on the defensive side of the ball played.
“We went out there and played hard,” Womac said. “I’m proud of the defensive players as a whole. I saw a lot of great effort out there tonight.”
The Owls will look to end their two-game losing streak next weekend as they face the University of Pittsburgh on the road on Sept. 30 at 11 a.m. Central Standard Time.