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JT Daniels injured as Rice drops AAC opener to USF 42-29

Courtesy Christopher Henry — Rice Athletics Redshirt junior wide receiver Luke McCaffrey runs with the ball on Saturday against USF. The Owls fell to the Bulls 42-29 in their AAC season opener to fall to 2-2 on the season.

By Andersen Pickard     9/27/23 12:16am

Coming off wins against cross-town rivals University of Houston and Texas Southern University, Rice Football was unable to keep up against the University of South Florida, losing 42-29. The Owls’ loss in their first game against an American Athletic Conference opponent dropped them to 2-2 on the season.

The Owls and Bulls exchanged punts to open the game before USF took an early lead on a field goal. Rice answered with a methodical 10-play, 70-yard drive that brought the Owls near the goal line. On fourth-and-one, head coach Mike Bloomgren dialed up a play-action pass. Graduate transfer quarterback JT Daniels threw to freshman running back Daelen Alexander for a touchdown, giving Rice a 7-3 lead toward the end of the first quarter. It was Alexander’s sixth touchdown in three games. 

The USF offense operated quickly in the first quarter and did not slow down, averaging just 23.6 seconds per play compared to Rice’s 27.8 seconds. To open the second quarter, the Bulls found themselves in the red zone, courtesy of a 29-yard run from their quarterback. USF ultimately settled for a field goal to pull within one point. 

Possession returned to the Owls, who converted a third down as Daniels found freshman receiver Landon Ransom-Goelz for a 31-yard gain to move the chains. Rice closed in on the goal line, lost yards on back-to-back plays and attempted a field goal. Redshirt junior kicker Tim Horn hooked his kick left, missing from 30 yards out. After forcing a quick USF three-and-out, the Owls got the ball back in USF territory but Horn missed another kick, this time from 40 yards out.

USF took advantage, quickly moving into Rice territory on a 53-yard pass before taking the lead on a 26-yard rushing touchdown. Rice’s deficit was short-lived, though. With just 90 seconds left in the half, Daniels led a scoring drive that resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. Junior receiver Luke McCaffrey totaled 35 yards on the drive while junior running back Dean Conners was responsible for the score, giving Rice a slight 14-13 advantage at halftime.

After the game, McCaffrey commented on how much he enjoyed moving down the field with the rest of the offense in the first half.

“It was a lot of fun,” McCaffrey. “Our offense has a lot of good chemistry right now.”

The Bulls wasted no time delivering a quick blow in the second half, picking up 51 yards on the drive’s first play. They found the end zone to cap off a series that lasted just one minute and six seconds, putting the Bulls up 20-14. On their next possession, USF once again moved into the red zone thanks to a 59-yard completion and a costly defensive penalty against the Owls, but Rice got the ball back on a fumble. One play later, Daniels found Connors for an 80-yard touchdown strike to take a 21-20 lead. A back-and-forth affair to this point, the Owls’ defense returned to the field and held strong, forcing a fourth down, but the ensuing punt took a USF bounce to the five-yard line. 

Armed with the ball once again, Rice was unable to score. To make matters worse for the Owls, Daniels suffered an apparent leg injury on a sack. He was helped off the field by the medical staff and relieved on the next drive by redshirt freshman quarterback A.J. Padgett. 

Daniels, prior to his injury, had completed 27 passes on 40 attempts, passing for a total of 432 passing yards and three touchdowns. He is also currently ninth in the nation in total passing yards. 

After the game, Bloomgren said that Daniels suffered a lower-body injury.

“[Daniels] just told us in the locker room he’s going to be okay,” Bloomgren said. “[We] tried to get him ready to go back in the game and it just didn’t work out for today. I’m confident we’ll have him back sooner than later.”

The Bulls, meanwhile, struck for a 49-yard touchdown and brought a 27-21 lead into the fourth quarter after Rice failed to answer.

Eager to build on his team’s lead, the USF quarterback completed a 52-yard pass in the first minute of the final quarter, then followed this big gain with an eight-yard touchdown pass. Suddenly, momentum had swung back in the favor of USF, who led 34-21. Rice went three-and-out on its next drive, and upon getting the ball back, the Bulls struck for their fifth touchdown of the contest. They had gone on a 21-0 run over the course of just 12 minutes, putting the Owls in a three-score deficit. Padgett managed to lead a scoring drive on the next possession, finding redshirt freshman receiver Rawson MacNeill for the touchdown.

McCaffrey was optimistic about what he saw from the backup quarterback after he was thrust into action.

“A.J. has done what he’s done all year,” McCaffrey said. “I think he had a few mistakes early, just getting excited and getting into the first set of action for him this year. We have confidence in him as a team and whatever happens in the future, with whatever this week is looking like, we’re excited for him.”

Padgett’s touchdown pass helped soften the blow, but it was too little, too late as Rice ultimately lost 42-29. The defeat was Rice’s first at the hands of USF, as well as its first in AAC play. Bloomgren admitted that the Owls struggled in all three phases of the game and let it slip away after halftime.

“We know what we’re capable of as a football team and it’s certainly a lot better than that performance we put out there in the second half,” Bloomgren said. 

The Owls hope to use Saturday’s game as a learning experience, reviewing their gameplay to find ways to continue improving as a team.

“We’re going to watch this film, we’re going to learn and then we’re going to move forward, “ Bloomgren said. “This is going to sting, but it can’t be any different [than coming out of a win]. Our process has to be our process.”

The aforementioned process will be put to the test when the Owls face East Carolina University Saturday, Sept. 30 at 6 p.m for Rice’s first home AAC game. The Owls own an all-time 2-2 record against East Carolina, winning twice at home and losing twice on the road. When the two teams last met in 2010, Rice won 62-38.

“I don’t think next Saturday can come soon enough,” McCaffrey said.

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