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COLUMN: Offensive woes interfering with Rice’s quest for bowl status

Ashley Zhang / Thresher

By Andersen Pickard     11/14/23 11:13pm

After falling to 4-6 following an ugly 34-14 loss to the University of Texas at San Antonio on Saturday, Rice Football finds itself in a tough situation. The Owls must win their remaining two games in order to qualify for a bowl game. But after a shaky few weeks, there are real doubts about the capabilities of Rice, specifically on offense.

Rice has lost three consecutive games, earning an ESPN Football Power Index of -4.9, which indicates that they are a slightly below-average team. ESPN Analytics still gives Rice a fairly generous 40.7% chance of winning out and qualifying for a bowl game.

Success over the next two weeks is possible, especially as Rice prepares for two teams with worse records than them. However, it’s not going to be easy. The program needs to improve in the back half of November in order to qualify for their second bowl game in as many years.

The Owls run a pro-style offense, something that head coach Mike Bloomgren installed following his arrival. As the name suggests, this playing style mimics a traditional NFL approach rather than the typical high-flying shootout style of play in college football. In a pro-style offense, teams are expected to deploy a balance of run and pass plays, control the time of possession and win battles at the line of scrimmage.

But “balanced” is the last word an observer would use to describe the Rice offense. In fact, the Owls have passed on 61.3% of plays, sixth-highest among 133 FBS teams. It’s also the second-highest mark in the conference behind last-place Temple University. Even with a rare talent like graduate quarterback JT Daniels under center, running the ball is imperative, especially considering how well running backs Juma Otoviano and Dean Connors have played recently.

Another indicator of a team relying too heavily on the pass: The Owls are averaging a 27:24 time of possession over their last three games, which is the 27th-lowest mark in FBS during that span. This can be corrected by running the ball more, something the Owls need to do after totaling three interceptions over their last two home games. 

The offensive line remains a letdown. While not something that can be fixed through one week of practice, the bottom line is that a pro-style approach requires offensive linemen to win battles against defenders. Rice has the ninth-worst pass block and 15th-worst run block grade in FBS, according to Pro Football Focus

Re-tooling the offensive plan will be key for Rice going forward; they need to get the running game more involved, especially early in drives. Changes don’t have to be drastic — Rice can keep bits and pieces without dismantling the entire system, and there’s admittedly only so much you can do with a below-average offensive line — but if Bloomgren can find ways to improve his offense amidst widespread struggles, it might save the Owls’ season.

Despite the offense’s flaws, Rice’s biggest liability is special teams. Redshirt junior kicker Tim Horn is just 5-for-9 on field goals, the 13th-lowest among the 140 FBS kickers with a minimum of five attempts. Meanwhile, senior punter Conor Hunt is averaging just 35.6 net yards per punt (16th-worst among 154 FBS punters) and has launched seven punts out of bounds (15th-worst). Special teams woes are costing the Owls key field position. 

The unit reached an all-time low in the loss to the University of Connecticut when Horn missed a 29-yard field goal and Hunt had punts of 23 and 26 yards. After that game, Bloomgren floated the idea of personnel changes on special teams. It was the perfect time for it, fresh off a historically poor performance with a bye week on deck. Yet, Bloomgren opted not to make a change.

One saving grace for Rice has been their defense, specifically the secondary. Redshirt junior cornerback Tre’Shon Devones leads the unit with a 77.3 PFF coverage grade, adding one interception and eight pass breakups while surrendering just one touchdown. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman safety Tyson Flowers has developed into an equally talented ballhawk, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 53.3 percent completion rate when targeted. His best game came against Southern Methodist University when he notched three pass breakups in the first quarter.

To its credit, the offense has found sporadic success. Daniels’ leadership and pocket presence are unrivaled in program history. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Luke McCaffrey continues to help his NFL draft stock with a big season. Through 10 contests, he has 51 catches for 768 yards and 10 touchdowns, seventh-most in FBS. His 79.9 PFF receiving grade ranks 43rd among 819 FBS receivers. 

The bottom line, however, is that Rice needs to play better. Fans know it, players understand it and Bloomgren has admitted it. This team can’t afford to lose another game in November, but time is running out on their opportunity to right the ship. All eyes will be on the Owls when they travel to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte next Saturday.

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