I truly thought there was a chance.
Sure, Rice was going up against the University of Houston football team, a team that received votes for the top-25. And yeah, the Owls looked terrible in their 62-7 loss to Stanford.
But Rice was coming off its best performance in a long time. The Owls dominated the University of Texas, El Paso in every sense of the word. It looked like Rice had turned a corner. And UH looked bad last week. The Cougars’ defense performed well, but their offense was anemic. If Rice’s defense could have played as well as it did against UTEP and if UH’s offense could have been as bad as it was against Arizona, I really thought the Owls could have kept the game close. With Rice riding high in its first game in Houston after Harvey, anything seemed possible.
Those dreams died in a three-minute, two-second span in the first quarter. A brief recap: Touchdown, UH. Not that surprising. Fumble, Rice. Uh oh. Field goal, UH. Not yet a disaster, but close. Interception, Rice. Dear Lord. Another TD, UH. Good game.
The game went from 0-0 to 17-0 in just 3:02. The mood changed from “Rice has a chance to pull off a huge win” to “I can’t believe I have to watch the rest of this game” in that brief span of time.
The Bayou Bucket was billed as a unifying event for the city of Houston. It was anything but unifying on the football field. All this game did was highlight the gaping chasm that has grown between Rice football and UH football over the four years since the rivalry was last played.
There was UH, in its glitzy new stadium and in front of a near-sellout crowd, dominating an overmatched Owls team. Sophomore defensive lineman Ed Oliver, a five-star recruit, was pummeling Rice players left and right. And head coach Major Applewhite explained in his postgame press conference that the Cougars treat all of their opponents the same – even if that opponent is lowly Rice.
Then there was Rice. Owls fans filled up just one section of the stadium despite the university’s proximity to UH. The player of the game for Rice was the punter. And the Owls’ best play was a fourth and goal stop when they were already down by 38 points. I don’t fault the players for celebrating the stop, but it’s tough not to feel some pity when a team does that while trailing by six scores.
It was just seven years ago that Rice beat UH 34-31. Four years ago, the Owls lost by one possession. This time, it was 38-3, and it truly should have been a lot worse. The score was 38-0 at halftime; if UH had needed to score more in the second half, it probably would have.
Sure, Rice has taken beatings in the Bayou Bucket before. In 2009, the score was even more lopsided – Houston won 73-14. But at the time, both schools were on a similar level in recruiting because they were both in Conference USA. Since then, both Rice football’s reputation and C-USA’s reputation have tanked while UH’s reputation and the American Athletic Conference’s reputation have soared. Past blowouts have been signs of bad years. This blowout was a sign of a downward trend.
The former C-USA rivals are rivals no more. It’s impossible to call it a rivalry because, well, what about Rice football is better than UH football? That its head coach sticks around, maybe? That’s about it. The Bayou Bucket would’ve meant everything to Rice if it had won. It could’ve been one of the signature wins of head coach David Bailiff’s tenure. To Houston, it was just a victory in a warm-up game in preparation for more talented, higher profile opponents.
There will be another Bayou Bucket next year, and again in 2020 and 2021. Both Bailiff and Applewhite expressed interest in scheduling the matchup to open every season, so there will most likely be more meetings down the road. I’m wondering when Rice will next win the Bayou Bucket. UH might as well build a trophy case for it on campus. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
If John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice Stadium today, he could easily replace “Why does Rice play Texas?” with “Why does Rice play Houston?” The gap is that big. But hey, we made it to the moon. So maybe Rice did have a chance. All I know is if it did, Rice football’s moonshot crashed and burned.