Brandon Doughty threw for 409 yards and four touchdowns and C-USA preseason favorite Western Kentucky looked every bit the part in a 49-10 win at Rice Stadium in front of a crowd of 20,124 on Saturday.
The first-ever meeting between the two schools in football was also a meeting of the early 2015 leaders in C-USA’s divisions and the Hilltoppers took control early, scoring three times in the first and twice more in the second to take 35-10 lead at halftime.
"We didn't play very good today, and that's on me,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said. “I didn't have those guys ready to go. I'm the head football coach, it's my job to make sure the offense is ready, the defense is ready and the special teams are ready."
The Owls, who came into the game as the conference’s top rushing unit at 225 yards per game, were held to just 85 on the ground against a unit that was giving up just under 200 per game. The offense was also stymied by six turnovers, their highest total since they turned the ball over seven times vs. UTEP in 2007.
Those six turnovers resulted in 21 points, including a pair of scores in the first half.
"We have more turnovers already this year than all of last season,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said. “We've got to stop that. We have to tackle defensively. We've had more missed tackles in the last two games than the first three. You just can't win football games that way.”
After forcing a three and out on Western’s first possession, Rice drove 50 yards to take the early lead on a 27-yard field goal by walk-on freshman Hayden Tobola. But the Owls’ lone lead of the day lasted just 39 seconds as Doughty led WKU 75 yard on three plays, the last a 10-yard scoring strike to Taywan Taylor.
They followed that with an 84-yard scoring drive to go up 14-3 and then took advantage of Rice fumble to strike quickly to increase the lead to 21-3.
Tyler Stehling came on in relief of Driphus Jackson after the senior tossed an interception in the second quarter and the junior from Spring sparked a 74 yard scoring drive that was capped off when Luke Turner bulled his way in from the three on fourth down to close to 28-10.
Jackson was 5-10 for 87 yards and one interception in the first half. Stehling finished with career-bests by completing 11 of 19 for 150 yards and one interception. Bailiff said the move was made to try and put a spark into the Owls, but Jackson’s status as the starter was not in jeopardy.
“I was just trying to stimulate the offense,” Bailiff said. “Driphus is our starter. He'll be right back here Monday as our starting quarterback.”
Neither team scored in the third quarter and the Hilltoppers added a pair of late touchdowns, one of them set up by the Owls’ final turnover of the game.
Bailiff stressed to the team after the game that their destiny remains in their own hands and they have the opportunity to create a potential rematch with WKU in the C-USA Championship game. But he also noted that after the results of the past two weeks, there may be some alterations to the Owls approach as they prepare for a road contest with FAU next Saturday in Boca Raton, Florida.
"It's one of those games where we have to evaluate what we're doing. We have to look at everything.
"The formula for success has always been: take care of the football, get points at the end of drives offensively – we're not doing that,” Bailiff noted. “The past three years we played really good defense and been able to stop the runner and get a tackle in space. This season we haven't done that.
“We have great seniors in here and we have some great leaders on this team. We're not going to let it go the wrong way. It's not going to happen. There's nobody left on our schedule that we can't beat. We thought we were going to win this one. We're going to expect winning, and it's what's going to get done" Bailiff stated.
The Owls look to snap their two-game losing streak next Saturday when they make their lone regular-season trip outside the state of Texas to face FAU. Kickoff is set for 1:30 with the game being broadcast nationally by Fox College Sports.