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Mustangs trample Owls Saturday as Daniels leaves early

A promising 3-2 start to the season has gradually slipped away from Rice Football, who fell to the Southern Methodist University Mustangs 36-31 Saturday, Nov. 4 at Rice Stadium. The Owls have now suffered back-to-back losses in conference games at home while their status as bowl game contenders hangs in the balance. Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Andersen Pickard     11/7/23 11:40pm

A promising 3-2 start to the season has gradually slipped away from Rice Football, who fell to the Southern Methodist University Mustangs 36-31 Saturday, Nov. 4 at Rice Stadium. The Owls have now suffered back-to-back losses in conference games at home while their status as bowl game contenders hangs in the balance.

Graduate quarterback JT Daniels left the game at halftime with concussion symptoms. Head coach Mike Bloomgren said Tuesday afternoon that Daniels is doubtful for Saturday’s game against the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Despite facing a strong SMU offense, the Owls’ defense took the field with energy. On the opening drive, redshirt freshman safety Tyson Flowers broke up a pass to force fourth down and the Mustangs’ fake punt attempt failed, giving Rice the ball at their own 44-yard line. 

The offense was unable to match the defense’s early surge of vigor. Daniels was sacked twice as Rice went three-and-out on its first possession.

SMU’s early punting woes continued on their next attempt, which was blocked by redshirt sophomore safety Peyton Stevenson and returned for a touchdown by redshirt senior safety Chike Anigbogu. It was the Owls’ first touchdown off a blocked punt since Oct. 20, 2012. Head coach Mike Bloomgren celebrated the play and said he hoped it could swing the momentum in Rice’s favor.

“For special teams to get that blocked punt and turn it into a touchdown, you’re sitting in a pretty good place where you give your offense a chance to regroup,” Bloomgren said.

The Mustangs answered with a seven-play touchdown drive, then got the ball back by intercepting Daniels. Within moments, SMU scored again to take a 14-7 lead.

Daniels fumbled on the next series and finished the first quarter with just two completions, three sacks, one interception and one fumble lost.

“We can’t go three-and-out on our first possession [and] throw a pick on the first play of our second one,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve got to start faster if we want to have success against a great team.”

Flowers’ third-pass breakup of the first quarter returned possession to a Rice offense that eventually found momentum, moving down the field and adding seven points on a four-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to junior wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. However, SMU soon pulled ahead with a field goal and a 30-yard touchdown, giving the Mustangs a 24-14 lead halfway through the second quarter.

Rice threatened to score near the end of the half after a 44-yard kickoff return, 15-yard penalty and 20-yard rush put them in the red zone. Daniels then found junior running back Dean Connors for a 14-yard touchdown. The game went into halftime with SMU leading 24-21.

SMU added six points on their first drive of the second half, but the main story was developing off the field. Daniels stayed in the locker room after halftime for further evaluation after he exhibited concussion symptoms, including memory loss. Bloomgren said Daniels couldn’t remember the drive or the score.

Daniels suffered the injury after an SMU player delivered a head-to-head hit in the second quarter. The play initially drew a foul for targeting, but the officiating crew reviewed the play and overturned the penalty, much to Bloomgren’s frustration.

“All we talk about is player safety in this game,” Bloomgren said. “The defender turned his helmet into [Daniels], and to me, that is a very clear definition [of targeting].”

Daniels was ruled out for the remainder of the game, but he returned to the sideline to coach and mentor his replacement, freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins.

“He has so much experience,” Jenkins said of Daniels. “Whenever I’m in the game, I always go to him for advice. He has a lot to offer [and] he’s always been there with a helping hand, just easy and accessible.”

The Owls initially stalled with Jenkins under center, failing to cross midfield on either of their first two drives coming out of the locker room. However, in the waning minutes of the third quarter, he led an eight-play series that saw Connors deliver a one-yard touchdown run, making the score 33-28. 

The tides continued to turn in Rice’s favor as the defense forced a fumble on the opening play of the fourth quarter. Then, Jenkins dumped the ball off to Connor who appeared to have a 55-yard touchdown, but a holding penalty nullified the big play. This infraction squandered the Owls’ momentum; they would ultimately punt.

The Rice defense made another stop, and after a 57-yard gain from Connors, junior kicker Tim Horn added a field goal, cutting the deficit to two points. SMU attempted to burn the clock but had to settle for a field goal of their own after Flowers made a key open-field tackle to force fourth down.

With less than three minutes to play, Jenkins and the Owls took over on offense, needing a touchdown to take the lead. However, the Owls’ comeback bid was cut short when Jenkins threw deep downfield and was intercepted, giving the ball back to SMU. The Mustangs ended the game with a pair of kneel-downs, maintaining their undefeated conference record.

Jenkins finished the game 10-for-16 passing with one interception, 85 yards through the air and 14 yards on the ground. The offense ran through Connors, who tallied 77 rushing yards, 33 receiving yards and two total touchdowns. 

“[Connors] is great,” Jenkins said. “Anytime he’s in the game, something big is going to happen.”

On defense, Flowers anchored the unit with a team-leading eight solo tackles and three pass break-ups. His defensive impact earned the praise of several teammates.

“How he stepped up for us tonight, it was huge,” junior cornerback Sean Fresch said.

Rice’s 36-31 loss dropped them to 4-5 this year, including 2-3 in conference play. The defeat creates another obstacle in the Owls’ quest to play in a bowl game, which would require winning two of their next three games. That uphill battle continues on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. when Rice travels to face the University of Texas at San Antonio, who are currently 5-0 in conference play. The Owls’ next game will air on ESPNU, their fourth consecutive contest on national television.

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