Owls fall behind early, unable to come back
The Rice Owls football team opened its season in a dramatic, albeit disappointing fashion last night, losing a hard-fought contest to the University of California, Los Angeles, at Rice Stadium by a final score of 49-24.
The game, televised nationally on CBS Sports Network and attended by a surprisingly large home crowd, was characterized by ups and downs for an Owls squad that is still developing its identity as a team.
Despite the lopsided final score, the Owls displayed offensive prowess and flashes of stellar defensive play marred by an occasionally porous rushing defense and propensity to allow big plays.
The first 6:30 of the game could not have been more disastrous for the Owls. The offense stalled to the tune of 12 total plays for a combined 30 yards in its first three drives, including consecutive three-and-outs.
The defense faced struggles of its own, allowing three UCLA touchdowns on its first five plays.
The Bruins scored on their very first snap of the game courtesy of a 72-yard touchdown run by freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, on his first NCAA snap no less, and piled on three plays later with a 74-yard touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Franklin; the Bruins were ahead 19-0 after only having had possession for a little over three minutes.
The lone bright spot for the Owls in this stretch was junior linebacker Cameron Nwosu, who blocked the first two extra point attempts by the Bruins and a third later in the first half.
However, just as the game appeared to be spiraling out of the control for the Owls, they were able to battle back with a crisp 75-yard touchdown drive that spanned six plays and slightly over two minutes.
While the drive opened with the Owls snapping the ball directly to running back Jeremy Eddington, quarterback Taylor McHargue quickly resumed control of the offense and directed the drive masterfully, leading the Owls to their first score; the effort was followed shortly by a 53-yard Chris Boswell field goal to make the score 19-10.
On the other side of the ball, a revitalized Owls defense clamped down on the Bruins, forcing them to two consecutive three-andouts, followed by senior defensive end Jared Williams recovering a muffed punt by UCLA senior Dalton Hilliard to end the first quarter.
The second quarter saw the two offenses really start to light it up, as the teams combined for 30 points, including 14 from the Owls in a performance that supported the preseason hype surrounding the retooled offense. The scoring was truly explosive, characterized more by big plays than consistent drives.
For the Owls, most of the damage was done by quarterback Taylor McHargue in a virtuoso performance in which he accounted for 237 yards of total offense in the half, aswell as all three of Rice's touchdowns. McHargue also displayed impressive chemistry with senior slot receiver Sam McGuffie, as the pair connected on a two-yard touchdown near the end of the quarter to make the score 29-24 in UCLA's favor.
Unfortunately, the second quarter also saw the Owls once again fall prey the big play, as Franklin was able to rip off a 78-yard touchdown run with 3:36 left in the half to give the Bruins a 29-17 advantage.
Franklin had 169 yards in the first half on just 8 carries, including two plays of longer than 70 yards. The 169 yards gave Franklin his 11th career 100-yard rushing game, placing him seventh all-time in UCLA history.
The Bruins' second touchdown of the quarter came in a disastrous turn of events with just 17 seconds left in the half.
With McHargue on the sideline tending to an injury, backup quarterback Driphus Jackson fumbled the ball and Damien Holmes returned it for a UCLA touchdown, putting the Bruins ahead 35-24 going into halftime.
Sam McGuffie led the Owls in receiving over the first two quarters by contributing six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.
McHargue formed the heart of the Owls' offense in the first half, battling through big hits and spotty pass protection to lead the team in both rushing and passing to keep the Owls in the game.
The half also saw Nwosu tie an NCAA re-cord for three blocked kicks in a half after he blocked his third extra point attempt of the night.
The third quarter saw both teams regress offensively, with the defenses tightening up and not allowing a single point in the period. However, the Bruins started driving as the quarter came to an end, scoring with 12:50 left in the contest to go up 41-24 after a failed 2-point conversion attempt.
The Bruins then scored again with 8:37 left in the game, this time successfully converting the 2-point attempt, taking the lead 49-24 and effectively ending the Owls' night.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora, having failed in his bid to maintain an NFL coaching job, concluded his first game with the team by aggressively attempting to drive up the score even after amassing a 25 point lead.
Despite the disappointing result, there were several positive takeaways from the game for the Owls.
The defense, despite showing a disturbing proclivity for allowing big plays, looked encouraging at various points in the game, rendering the Bruins offense helpless for stretches in the first and third quarters.
However, the issue for the defense was inconsistency, which is to be expected with the team transitioning to a new 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond.
Williams was also every bit the force he was expected to be, recovering a fumble andadding a sack for good measure. Nwosu was also extremely active on defense and special teams.Still, big plays are called so for a reason, as despite having possession for 35 of the 60 minutes of the game and holding a 52-27 advantage in total plays through three quarters, the Owls never led in the game thanks to the huge plays the Bruins were able to convert.
Additionally, McHargue looked extremely impressive passing and running, especially in the first half, and flashed some impressive chemistry with McGuffie, a connection the two will look to build upon as the year continues.
A potential concern for the Owls could be the play of the offensive line, which at times
Overall, it was an inconsistent start to the season for the Owls, and the team will need to learn from its mistakes last night while maintaining focus on the positives in order to prepare for next week's game against Kansas.
While this season still has the potential to mark the end of the rebuilding period that has lasted the past three seasons, the team still has work to do going forward.The potential of the squad is still formidable, as shown by the excellent stretches of play it put together against UCLA, but the group must still come together as a unit to truly tap into its potential, and the next few weeks will go a long way toward doing so.
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