Owls falter early, unable to overcome deficit
Rice University has been playing well in the fourth quarter so far. The Owls have moved the ball down the field, found big defensive stops and made game-changing plays. The Owls look like a team that could win football games - if you only watch the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Rice, that comes with the team typically down a couple of touchdowns and hoping to mount an improbable comeback. To the Owls' credit, they pulled it off against the University of Kansas. In their only win so far this season, the Owls were down nine headed into the fourth. The team has been outscored 50-13 in the first quarter this year - not a recipe for football success.
Last week, against Louisiana Tech University, the Owls ended up down 21-0 before fans even had a chance to turn on the television, putting themselves in a hole they simply could not escape. Once the offense started stringing drives together, Rice scored consistently, but it was not enough to make up for the early deficit. The Owls ended up losing 56-37.
"We're obviously coming off a game where offensively we had some production," Offensive Coordinator John Reagan said. "But obviously not as much as we needed."
Kicker Chris Boswell had another strong game, however, breaking the school record for most career field goals while also tying the school record for the longest field goal, booting a 57-yarder that had a few extra yards in it.
"It was a great hold, snap, and he did get through the ball," Assistant Head Coach Darrell Patterson said. "Our kicking game has been consistent for the most part."
This was also Boswell's seventh field goal of more than 50 yards, another school record, and a total that places him in a tie for first in the country from 50 or more yards.
Fortunately for the Owls, their opponent this week - the Marshall University Thundering Herd - has not exactly been earth-shattering in the first quarter of this season. With only 17 points in the three first quarters of this season, the Marshall offense has also taken some time to acclimate to the game - something in which Rice fans can potentially take solace. However, the team has scored abundantly once they got going, averaging just over 27 points per game on the year.
"If we continue to work on starting fast and continue to keep doing what we're doing, we'll be able to get better and continue to progress throughout the year," junior running back Charles Ross said. "As a team, even though we lost, I feel like we'll be able to bounce back this week."
Marshall, coming off a 20-10 win in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl against Florida International University last season, is one of the favorites to make the Conference USA championship this season. This game should be another shootout for Marshall, which has one of the best offenses in the conference.
Marshall began the year with a prime-time 69-34 loss to West Virginia University, which is ranked eighth in the country. Marshall, however, showed its depth and scored 34 points on a strong team.
The Herd followed up the defeat with an impressive 52-24 victory against Western Carolina University before being losing to Ohio University 27-24.
The Thundering Herd currently ranks first in the nation in passing yards per game, with sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato throwing for over 1,200 yards in three games. After a streaky freshman year, he looks like the leader Marshall always suspected he could be. Look for Marshall to take advantage of a banged-up Rice secondary by going deep early and often.
The running game for Marshall has been more sporadic, with four different running backs all getting more than 10 touches this season.
Marshall's defense has struggled at times and will most likely give the Owls scoring opportunities. Whether or not Rice can capitalize on Marshall's young defensive line and backfield will be one of the deciding factors of the game. Without former star Vinny Curry, who is now playing on Sundays, the Marshall defense looks drastically different than it did last year.
"I'm so glad that Vinny Curry isn't playing against us. He had the game of his life against us," Reagan said. "He may have gotten drafted based on his game against us last year."
The Thundering Herd does have some difficulties lining up against Rice and its wealth of offensive weapons. It will be difficult for them to stop the combined running attack of Ross, averaging over seven yards per carry this season, and junior Turner Petersen. In addition, every team is worried about quarterback Taylor McHargue, who looks much improved in his junior season.
"We have our work cut out for us and have to have a great week of preparation," Marshall Head Coach Doc Holliday said at his Monday press conference. "It starts with the quarterback with Rice. He can beat you with his feet. He has rushed for over 200 yards, and he can throw it. He created issues for us a year ago with the different options and types of plays he runs. We will have to do an extremely good job on defense to contain him."
This is a winnable game for the Owls, which is crucial before the Bayou Bucket rivalry game against the University of Houston the following week at Reliant Stadium. The game could very well be won in the first quarter, by whichever team starts off with an early lead and does not lose momentum.
"We want to be able to make a bowl game this year," Ross said. "Starting off conference strong would be a big help, so hopefully we can come out with a win."