'I want to win games': Rice football not pleased with strong early returns

By Hoss McBain

HOUSTON -- Mike Bloomgren is at the podium in the Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center after a performance against Wake Forest that almost anyone who watched would refer to as a resounding success. 

Bloomgren’s Rice squad lost its starting quarterback in the first quarter to a head injury, but pulled the game to a 14-14 tie after one quarter. At the half, the deficit against a solid Power Five opponent was a very manageable 24-14. 

Then, Wake Forest’s 6-foot-5 wide receiver Scott Washington broke a tackle and its freshman running back Kenneth Walker III caused a man to miss. The score ballooned out to the 41-21 final that it ended up being. Regardless, there’s no question that anyone watching the game had to feel encouraged by the effort. Except Bloomgren. 

“I almost hate hearing how much better we are than last year right now,” Bloomgren told reporters with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “I want to win games. I want to feel what it’s like in the locker room. I want to be somebody who ‘should win.’”

He’s tired of hearing it, but it’s the truth. Oh what a difference a year makes. Last season against Wake Forest, receiver Austin Trammel posted 29 yards receiving. That number jumped to 67 yards and a touchdown this year. Linebacker Austin Ekpe went from four tackles to nine. Blaze Allredge went from four tackles to eight with a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. 

The Owls were down 42-3 against Wake Forest after just one half of play last season. Rice trailed their opponents collectively 267-113 in the first half of games, and even trailed FCS opponent Prairie View A&M at the half in the opener. It was obvious how much more comfortable Rice looked right out of the gate in 2019 against Wake Forest. 

“There is clearly a blueprint they are using to build a program,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “If you look a their roster, they played some young kids last year that they really liked. All these kids are now a year older, a year better and are more productive.”

Perhaps the most important factor that Clawson didn’t mention is the attitude that is starting to take hold in the building. You feel it when the team walked out for the game. You feel it when they line up for the kickoff. You feel it even when the final whistle sounded. 

Rice football isn’t just here to grow and have nice performance to attract some attention. The program is 3-24 since the beginning of the 2017 season. The program has not posted a winning record since 2014. Bad teams lose their focus and resign themselves to losing. But even after years of troubles, Rice football continues to stand tall. 

“I know it. I see it. I see it in the locker room after this game that everyone is still holding their head high,” Ekpe said. “We’re confident. I’m confident in this team and I know what we’re capable of.” 

Bloomgren is building his program through freshman recruiting, but with a few upperclassmen who he feels can contribute to the culture. Center Brian Chaffin and fullback Reagan Williams both played under Bloomgren at Stanford. Quarterback Tom Stewart and running back Charlie Booker joined the program from Harvard. Two other offensive linemen transferred in after earning national accolades at the sub-FBS level. All of the players fit exactly what Bloomgren wants: tough, physical and intelligent. Intellectual Brutality, if you will. 

Stewart only arrived this summer. Already, the team has made an impression on him. 

“Everyone definitely cares,” Stewart said. “There is a culture here to where we have the expectation of winning. Every single guy in that locker room believes that every game. I don’t know if that’s always been the case. I’ve been part of locker rooms where not everyone cared that much. I’m excited because these guys really care."

Against Army in the opener, that culture shone through. The Owls were all knotted up with the Black Knights at halftime. It took a late touchdown in the fourth quarter for Army, a team that won 11 games last year, to escape Rice at home. 

In case there were any questions about how impressive that kind of performance was, Army took No. 7 Michigan to double-overtime at the Big House. Many programs would have been happy to post a good performance. Bloomgren was devastated that Rice couldn’t yet finish the job. 

“[Bloomgren] has done a great job in changing that team around from a year or so until now,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “He said leading up to the game that they were going to be a team that was willing to go toe-to-toe with us, and they sure did.”

Back at the podium in the Rice football complex after the Wake Forest game, Bloomgren is still visibly disappointed. He feels like his team let opportunities slide. Rice football will be better for playing these games, eventually. They’re foundational. I asked him how he moves past these games, knowing that there are so many more difficult ones on the horizon. He thinks. 

“I’m not sure that I’m ready to answer that question because I’m pretty down on myself right now,” Bloomgren said. “We’ll watch the film and get ready for the Longhorns.” 

The battles don’t get any easier. Next week, Rice faces off against the Texas Longhorns at NRG Stadium. One week later, Baylor comes to Rice Stadium. Chances are, the Owls will be 0-4 when the brutal nonconference schedule finishes. The team better be motivated for the start of conference play; the Owls open against perennial conference contender Louisiana Tech. 

“I want to work them harder than they ever have because I think they’re ready to do it,” Bloomgren said. “I want to find a way to win games.

“Just keep fighting. Just keep fighting.” 

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