Owls dig too deep of a hole to es­cape skid

Los­ing streak hits 9 af­ter Min­ers build early 27-point lead

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Glynn A. Hill glynn.hill@chron.com twit­ter.com/glyn­n_hill

With 3:36 re­main­ing in its game against UTEP, Rice re­ceived the ball down by eight points with an op­por­tu­nity to draw even.

But for a team that has strug­gled to close games, the Owls’ fi­nal full drive tran­spired about as poorly as it could have for an of­fense guided by fresh­man quar­ter­back Wi­ley Green.

Green was sacked on first down be­fore al­most throw­ing an in­ter­cep­tion on the next play. On thir­dand-long, Green was sacked again. UTEP in­ter­cepted him on fourth-and-20 to ef­fec­tively end Satur­day’s game as the Min­ers pre­vailed 34-26 at Rice Sta­dium to end their 20-game los­ing streak.

“Those last four plays were tough. We felt like we had a lot of mo­men­tum, we felt like we had a lot go­ing for us,” Green said. “I came out there just try­ing to sling the ball as best I could and at the end of the day I need to make sure to pro­tect it more of­ten.”

Green threw for 312 yards and a pair of fourth-quar­ter touch­downs and in­ter­cep­tions. But his turnovers were hardly the only rea­son Rice lost its ninth in a row.

Fast start for Wadley

The Min­ers (1-8, 1-4 in Con­fer­ence USA) be­gan chip­ping away at the Owls (1-9, 0-6) al­most as soon as the game started.

On the first drive, UTEP went 75 yards in six plays be­fore run­ning back Quardraiz Wadley capped the se­ries with a 12-yard touch­down run.

From the open­ing snap of the sec­ond quar­ter, the Min­ers con­tin­ued to dig in. It only took a sec­ond for Kai Lock­sley to break the goal line on a quar­ter­back sneak for a touch­down.

Five min­utes later, Wadley per­formed his best im­pres­sion of Moses. The ju­nior run­ning back took a pitch in the back­field and veered right be­fore part­ing his own path­way to the end zone by blast­ing through a posse of de­fend­ers and nearly drag­ging an­other with him.

“They started the game with a big play and from that point on it was like all the wind came out of our sails,” Rice coach Mike Bloom­gren said. “We’re try­ing to re­set the space be­tween their ears and make them re­al­ize that each play is a sep­a­rate life­time.”

On vir­tu­ally the same play that he be­gan the quar­ter, Lock­sley punched his way across the goal line again to es­tab­lish a 27-0 lead with 17 sec­onds re­main­ing in the half.

But that still left enough time for the Owls to drive up field for points.

Green hit run­ning back Austin Wal­ter on back-to-back throws to­tal­ing 50 yards, pulling Rice within range for a 43-yard Haden Tobola field goal as the fi­nal two sec­onds on the clock ex­pired.

Rice sought to shift the tone of the con­test on its open­ing drive of the sec­ond half.

Green hit re­ceiver Aaron Ce­phus for a 20-yard gain and then found As­ton Wal­ter, who went for 37 yards, two plays later. But 10 yards away from a touch­down, the Owls failed to con­vert a fourth-down at­tempt, com­ing up empty.

A se­ries later, as the Owls sought to re­gain pos­ses­sion fol­low­ing a UTEP punt, Austin Tram­mell muffed the ball, hand­ing it over to the Min­ers just 25 yards away from an­other score. UTEP run­ning back Treyvon Hughes cap­i­tal­ized shortly af­ter, gal­lop­ing into the end zone from 19 yards out.

23 unan­swered points

Rice put its first touch­down on the board on the fol­low­ing se­ries when Em­manuel Esukpa ran the ball in for his first touch­down since Sept. 8. It was the first of 23 unan­swered points by the Owls, whose de­fense forced a pair of take­aways to help re­duce the deficit.

“This has been very dif­fi­cult,” Bloom­gren said. “I’ve been on teams where you felt like they weren’t giv­ing you ev­ery­thing they could, but I don’t think that’s the case be­cause you look at the way the first half went, you could’ve eas­ily seen this game end­ing 70-3.”

Rice even­tu­ally cap­i­tal­ized in the fourth quar­ter; first on a 20yard scor­ing throw from Green to Tram­mell, be­fore the duo linked up on a 53-yard strike with more than eight min­utes re­main­ing to trim the mar­gin to eight points.

Rice be­gan its fi­nal full drive from its own 20, but UTEP pushed the Owls back to the 10 be­fore the game-seal­ing pick.

“It’s like two com­pletely dif­fer­ent ball­games, two com­pletely dif­fer­ent teams when you look at that first half and that sec­ond half,” Bloom­gren said. “We’re past the point of mo­ral vic­to­ries. Love that they fight, (but) we’ve got to win games.”

Karen War­ren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

UTEP wide re­ceiver Erik Brown, right, catches a pass in the first half as Rice cor­ner­back Justin Bick­ham can do noth­ing but look on Satur­day at Rice Sta­dium.

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