2020 marks the 70th anniversary season of Rice Stadium, the monument to the Jess Neely/Froggy Williams/Weldon Humble/Joe Watson era of Owls football greatness.
While somewhat down at mouth in places, the gently curved seating bowl remains a great place to watch a game outlined against the twin skylines of downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.
Under any circumstances, this was going to be a season to ponder past, present and future. With the COVID-19 shutdown that has placed the season’s start in jeopardy, it’s an apt backdrop to consider the arc of the Mike Bloomgren era of Rice football.
Rice was 2-11 in 2018 and 3-9 last fall, but all three wins came at season’s end. That finish, plus the good fortune of an early start to spring practice that allowed nine workouts before the shutdown, offers hope for better days in these times when hope of any stripe is welcome.
“I think we’re in a great place,” Bloomgren said. “We have some unproven people at a couple of spots. But I’m excited about their potential.
“Our consistency and productivity at quarterback has been poor, but we have enough dudes where we can find somebody to get the job done. We as coaches have to get them there, but if we can, along with our defense, we can start to close the gap and win ballgames.
“We don’t need luck. We have enough.”
Rice’s hopes will rest on its defense, which returns 20 of 22 from last year’s two-deep. All-conference linebacker Blaze Alldredge is the focal point, but Bloomgren also thinks he has a future star in defensive back Gabe Taylor, the younger brother of the late NFL standout Sean Taylor.
The offense, however, is a work in progress. Rice brought seven quarterbacks to spring practice, and Bloomgren hopes that redshirt freshman JoVoni Johnson or TCU graduate transfer Mike Collins, who fared best this spring, will emerge this summer as the starter.
The Owls last year had seven hundred-yard rushers, but three grad transfers who manned the offensive line are gone. If Bloomgren is to remake Rice in the mold of Stanford, his former employer, the line at some point has to gel in a fashion it has yet to achieve.
Receivers Austin Trammell and Bradley Rozner and halfback Juma Otoviano are proven and productive, given health. Kicker Collin Riccitelli, a grad transfer from Stanford, and incoming freshman Sean Fresch of Austin LBJ, an all-district kick returner, bolster special teams.
The schedule, however, is a beast once again. Rice last year went 0-4 against Army, Wake Forest, Texas and Baylor, and an overtime loss against Louisiana Tech was the first of five Conference USA losses before closing wins over Middle Tennessee, North Texas and winless UTEP.
“Our coaches did a great job keeping things together last year, and the players kept coming to work, kept listening and kept trusting,” Bloomgren said. “We held Army to 14 points and Baylor to 21, so it wasn’t shocking later in the year when the defense put the clamps on people.”
Rice opens with a Thursday night, Sept. 3, game at Houston’s TDECU Stadium. Army visits Rice Stadium on Sept. 12, and the Owls play defending national champion LSU on Sept. 19 at NRG Stadium.
“We get to play on national TV to open the season, and we get Army coming here at a time when it’s going to be Houston hot,” Bloomgren said.
“Then we have a team from Louisiana that’s supposed to be difficult, but those things are big for our kids. We welcome an opportunity to bring a team like LSU into a pro stadium and have our guys test their mettle.”
Much remains uncertain, of course, from whether the season starts on time to the mindset of players who scattered across the country after Rice shut down on-campus classes in mid-March to grad transfer additions that were placed on hold by this spring’s uncertainty.
Bloomgren hoped to have group workouts via the Zoom mobile app before the NCAA, in its wisdom, ruled that each athlete would be required to have a trainer with a defibrillator on hand. Group meetings were allowed to continue, though, and Bloomgren said he saw leaders emerge and team camaraderie improve during the enforced break.
Under any circumstance, then, 2020 indeed will be a season like no other at Rice Stadium.
“I like something that one of our recruits told me,” Bloomgren said. “What we do in the dark is going to come out under the lights this fall.”
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