Upset loss ushers in bye week for Rice Football
Turnovers foiled Rice Football’s attempt to win their fourth consecutive home game. A previously winless University of Connecticut Huskies squad stormed into Rice Stadium, capitalized on the Owls’ miscues and left the home team stunned. Rice’s late fourth-quarter surge wasn’t enough as they lost to UConn 38-28 on Saturday, Oct. 7.
Both teams failed to score on their opening drives as Rice punted and UConn missed a field goal. The Owls went pass-heavy for most of the first quarter, but it was a pair of running plays that put them on the board: senior running back Juma Otoviano’s two early rushing touchdowns put Rice ahead 14-0.
Head coach Mike Bloomgren lauded Otoviano for his contributions early in the contest and was reminded of the running back’s knack for finding holes in the defense.
“He looked like the old Juma,” Bloomgren said. “That’s the Juma we can win with.”
The Owls’ first drive of the second quarter took a turn for the worse when UConn’s defensive end sacked Rice graduate transfer quarterback JT Daniels, forcing a fumble. The Huskies recovered at the two-yard line and scored a touchdown two plays later, though their extra-point attempt was blocked by Owls redshirt sophomore safety Peyton Stevenson. Minutes later, UConn added more points off a Rice turnover as Daniels’ backwards lateral was recovered and returned by the Huskies for a 50-yard touchdown.
The Owls advanced only five yards on their next drive before a short punt of 26 yards. The Huskies capitalized on this momentum and took a 20-14 lead on a 41-yard touchdown pass.
The Owls moved down the field near the end of the first half, relying heavily on the ground game. Running backs ultimately accounted for 41 of Rice’s 54 yards from scrimmage on this drive. However, the Owls were not able to capitalize from the drive as junior kicker Tim Horn missed a 29-yard field goal.
Between senior Conor Hunt’s short punt and Horn’s missed field goals, Bloomgren was frustrated with Rice’s performance on special teams. He mentioned the possibility of making a change at punter and kicker in future weeks.
“It was a disastrous day on special teams,” Bloomgren said. “Personnel decisions of our specialists are going to be real conversations.”
UConn opened the second half with a three-and-out, but their ensuing punt sparked disaster for Rice. The Owls committed a penalty for running into the kicker, then fumbled the return. UConn recovered the loose ball, declined the penalty and took over at Rice’s 41-yard line. For the third time Saturday, the Huskies converted a turnover into points when UConn’s running back found the end zone from one yard out and the Huskies added a two-point conversion to take a 28-14 lead.
A penalty flag on the ensuing kickoff cost Rice 20 yards, but they ultimately overcame the infraction. Down 14, the Owls moved with urgency on this drive. Daniels took the offense over midfield with a 38-yard completion to redshirt freshman receiver Rawson MacNeill, manufactured a key fourth-down conversion on another pass to MacNeill and ultimately pulled Rice within seven points as he found junior receiver Luke McCaffrey for a diving catch in the end zone. However, the Huskies responded with a field goal to extend their lead to 31-21.
Rice tacked on seven more points courtesy of an 80-yard drive that concluded with Daniels’ 30-yard touchdown pass to McCaffrey. However, Rice’s one-possession deficit was short-lived as the Huskies struck for a 59-yard touchdown, reclaiming their 10-point lead.
Daniels was intercepted on the next drive. His third turnover dug a deeper and decisive hole for the Owls, who would muster just three more points on a Horn field goal. Daniels finished the game 33-for-49 with 362 passing yards, two touchdowns, two fumbles lost and one interception. It was his first game with more turnovers than touchdowns since the season opener at the University of Texas.
Bloomgren blamed the loss on Rice’s four turnovers.
“I knew that for this [upset] to transpire, it would have to be events done by the Rice Owls to allow it,” Bloomgren said. “That’s what you don’t want to give a team like that. You don’t want to give them any kind of belief. You want to be able to step on their throat and end the game.”
The 38-31 defeat dropped Rice to 3-3 on the year, including 3-1 at home and 2-2 in non-conference play. Meanwhile, the Huskies, who entered Rice Stadium 0-5, emerged with their first victory of the 2023 campaign.
“I don’t think this [loss] is the story of our team this year, but it definitely is a wake-up call to show what we need to fix,” redshirt junior linebacker Myron Morrison said.
After the loss to UConn, Rice entered its bye week. They next face Tulsa on the road Thursday, Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. The contest will air live on ESPN2. All-time, Rice is 8-10-1 against Tulsa and won their last meeting in 2013.
When asked about the bye week and preparing for Tulsa, McCaffrey emphasized growth and progress.
“Hopefully, as you get to the later games in the season, you can grow every week,” McCaffrey said. “That’s what our aim is.”
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