Column: Rice can stop the Pony Express
Saturday’s game against Southern Methodist University will be Rice Football’s final game against old Southwest Conference foes in 2023. The Owls will take the field with a 4-4 record, not having won at home since September, while the Mustangs seek to extend their four-game win streak and improve to 7-2 on the season.
A glance at the series record, 48-41-1 in favor of SMU, does not offer an accurate understanding of how the rivalry has ebbed and flowed over its 107 year history, with the two programs swapping decade-long periods of dominance.
The Owls are 17-7 against SMU since 1987, when the Mustangs’ football program was shut down for two years over recruiting violations. The Mustangs had lost only 3 of 22 games to the Owls from 1965 to the suspension, showing just how excellent SMU was in the preceding years and just how devastating that punishment was. This period of Pony supremacy rose out of over thirty years of competitive play, with neither school winning more than twice in a row from 1932 to 1953.
The rivalry’s beginning, however, belonged solidly to Owl dominance: In 1916, Rice won its first ever game against SMU 146-3.
If Rice wants this new era of enmity in the AAC to be more like those beginning years, they will have to learn from Oct. 28’s down-to-the-wire loss to No. 21 Tulane University. The Owls’ offense has not scored fewer than 24 points since the season opener against the No. 7 University of Texas at Austin, and the 21-point second half against Tulane was yet another demonstration of the team’s capacity for explosive play. Rice’s offense is not what lost to Tulane, and likely not what could cost them against SMU.
On Saturday, Rice’s defense forced only a single Tulane punt and allowed two fourth-down conversions on three attempts. The Green Wave outrushed the Owls by 112 yards. Rice faced similar difficulties in the air, permitting 15 passing first downs and giving up 8.8 yards per pass attempt. These deficiencies were apparent in the eight-minute, six-second, 54-yard fourth-quarter time-sucking drive that cemented Tulane’s win.
The Owls have to tighten up in these areas to beat SMU and continue their overall upward trajectory. The Mustangs have averaged 4.5 rushing yards per carry and 8.5 yards per pass attempt. They have generated 1,458 more yards than their opponents, while the Owls lead their opponents by only 13 yards. Even though quarterback JT Daniels is averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt and running back Dean Connors 5.8 yards per carry, the Owls can’t win if the defense is allowing 20 first downs, 28 points and 393 yards per game, as they are on average in 2023.
SMU has a slightly less solid, slightly less proven offense than Tulane, which offers the Owls an opportunity to demonstrate some hidden defensive ability. Whatever else happens, Rice cannot keep getting beat on defense if they want to achieve consistent success; just because the firefight that ensued on Sep. 9 against the University of Houston came out in the Owls’ favor doesn’t mean that all of them will, as proven against Tulane and the University of Connecticut. For every high profile game to come down to such inconsistent circumstances is not conducive to long term, dynastic winning. To win regularly, it has to be a priority not just to score a lot, but to stop the other guys from scoring, too.
The contest at Rice Stadium Nov. 4 at 6:30 pm will be the first between the schools since SMU left Conference USA after the 2012 season. It will be Rice’s 103rd Homecoming game, a series in which they are 47-52-3.
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