The Rice Owls are a famous punching bag of the football world. When president John F Kennedy sought to explain the magnitude of the task of propelling a man from the Earth to the Moon, he asked the American public, “Why does Rice play Texas?” This, we were to understand, is something that is not easy; rather, it is hard. Rice has not chosen to go to the moon, yet they have chosen to host Leland Stanford Junior University in Sydney, Australia, a 19 hour flight that crosses 8500 miles. This is absurd. But it’s football. Here’s how it shook out in the first half.
Stanford Receive. Immediately things take a turn for the strange; the ball bounces oddly in the front of the endzone and is awkwardly controlled by a secondary return-man who seems worried he might be committing a safety.
The first play from scrimmage is an enormous run for Stanford. Bryce Love shows patience and explodes through the hole for 63 yards.
First and 10 roundabout the 12; Keller Chryst throws a pass that gets batted harmlessly.
2nd and 10- Chryst throws a fade route, which never work unless they do, and in this case it does. Touchdown Stanford, three plays in from scrimmage. This does not bode well for the Rice Owls.
The Aussies, we are told, are enamored with the kicking of the ball, and thus have great appreciation for the extra point try. This game is taking place in Allianz stadium, which holds 45,500. It is… not full.
With 14:08 left in the first Stanford kicks off to Rice, who take the ball out of the endzone just past the 10.
Rice begin their first possession of the season with a false start, to put them roughly at their own 5. Their next move is to commit a delay-of-game penalty, which puts them on the 3. Finally a play erupts from the Rice line of scrimmage, and it is snuffed out in the backfield. Rice is now on its own 2 yard line. Faced with the enormous weight of American football ambassadorship, the Rice right guard commits another false start. Rice is on its 1 yard line.
On second and 19, Rice runs the ball up the gut, gaining back 1 yard. It is now third and 18, and redshirt freshman quarterback Glaesmann hands it off once again. Nothing of note occurs, and now Rice must quick-punt out of its own endzone.
Rice composes itself on its second defensive series, applying pressure on Keller Chryst in the backfield, but Bryce Love’s supreme patience gains him fifteen yards as he allows his blockers to set their blocks on the overmatched Rice defenders. Leveon-Bell-esque, some might call this running style, as Bell revolutionized the NFL world last season when he invented running slowly, then quickly.
Keller Chryst throws two more incompletions, including a deep fade that obviously doesn’t work (they never do), before finding a receiver in soft zone at the yard to gain. Stanford has done remarkably little of note on this drive, yet they’re already knocking on Rice’s door yet again. Stanford burst into the 21st century of football with a play-action screen throw to put them into stone-age shoving range- touchdown Stanford.
This time, Rice takes the touchback, which immediately puts them 25 yards ahead of where they left off.
We have an Australian correspondent who informs us that, like in American football, Rugby Union players are also different shapes and sizes.
Rice continues to run the football, and Stanford continues to reflexively shrug them off. Glaesmann gets to attempt a pass that sails out of bounds- Rice are punting yet again.
Chryst seems to have found a rhythm throwing to a variety of tight ends. Bryce Love is handed the ball, and yet again breaks a first down run. David Shaw is running out of excuses to not hand the ball to Bryce Love every down. Keller Chryst throws a pass to Scooter Harrington, the most Stanford sounding person perhaps ever.
One of the beautiful bits of translation of the game to other contexts is the accoutrement- all of the tidbits of the game that go beyond the 22 players, the 120 yards, and the refereeing crew. In this case, it’s an announcer, who, at the conclusion of a play, yells into the PA “We’re done, men! We’re done!”. Bryce Love runs the ball into the endzone, it is 21-0 with two and a half minutes left in the quarter. Bryce Love is approaching single-game-rushing-record pace.
Incredibly, a Stanford kickoff sails out of bounds and Rice catches a break. With good starting position, Glaesmann finds an open receiver to bring the Owls their first first down. They seem to have finally found their footing; runs to the outside bring them another first down, and they’re now well on their way to reaching scoring position.
Rice, faced with fourth down in no-man’s-land, end the first quarter with a scrambling Glaesmann failing to make it back to the line of scrimmage, and the ball returns to Stanford, Rice having traveled all this way—to Sydney, Australia, to the Moon, or to the Stanford 30, all equally improbable—with nothing to show for it. Perhaps they should attempted the field goal; at least then they might have endeared themselves to their kick-happy hosts.
Four drives in and Christian Mccaffrey’s replacements have enamoured themselves to me. Bryce Love runs with a delightful combination of power and poise, and his counterpart Cameron Scarlett seems an equally worthy successor to the man who single handedly obliterated Iowa in the Rose Bowl two years ago. How I long to see them play competition worthy of their ability, as Rice slips to 28-0.
Rice runs a jet sweep and receives accolades from the booth for “a positive play”. Heroically they soldier on, running the WHEEL ROUTE, UNSTOPPABLE PLAY OF DESTINY, for a first down. Glaesmann, unable to control the power of destiny, fumbles the ball on a bad throw and has to dive on it. Rice are again stymied. This is getting rough.
Did you know that, during the height of the Cold War, there were proposals from within the US military to nuke the moon as a show of force? I suspect David Shaw knows that, since he seems to be attempting something similar here: unleashing total annihilation on an unsuspecting landscape far from home.
Finally, Stanford commits a procedural penalty in the form of a delay-of-game and I get to make a “body clocks” joke. A tight end (This one’s insufferably Stanfordian name is Colby Parkinson) catches a pass downfield, but then Rice finally have success coming off the edge and bring Keller Chryst down. Chryst falls on a mistimed snap, and Bryce Love is able to recover nearly all of the lost yardage to give Stanford 4th and 2. Rice knows David Shaw. David Shaw punts. David Shaw always punts. Stanford is going for it, and Rice has to call a timeout.
I am fascinated by David Shaw, a coach who, as far as I can tell, is never wrong. His drives always last exactly as long as he intends them to; if he punts, it’s always the right move, even if you don’t understand why. In this instance, it is not his call that’s wrong, but his players that let him down. Kaden Smith, a (you guessed it) tight end, gets the ball dislodged from his hands, and once again Rice are handed a chance at good field position.
Rice seem to have an issue related to direction of motion. So far their limited success has come when they make outside runs or horizontal throws. The sheer weight of Stanford is too much to press against, like a gravitic force emanating from their own end zone, and it’s holding the Owls in orbit.
Stanford have taken Rice’s orbital motion and weaponized it ruthlessly, running a WHEEL ROUTE to Scarlett with the velocity of a space probe flung by a gravitic slingshot. It is not long until Cameron Scarlett walks unopposed into the end zone, the bodies of Rice’s defenders strewn about him, overpowered by the Stanford push. It is thirty-five to nothing.
We now return to the sideline for a comparison between types of ball between American and Australian games. The Australian correspondent suggests that you could kick these balls “to the Moon”, because he’d rather be writing this column right now.
As the first half comes to a close, David Shaw burns a timeout under mysterious circumstances. Presumably, for reasons discussed earlier, this is the right call. Chryst throws a pair of incomplete passes, then the Australian public get what they came for, a forty-yard field goal to finish the half. It is thirty-eight to nothing.
At the end of the half, I find myself feeling like a Saturn V rocket has just winked out of sight into the great beyond. The absurd force of Stanford football, in comparison to their competition, seems comparable to that gargantuan rocket that fulfilled Kennedy’s promise to the public gathered on Rice’s campus that September afternoon some fifty-five years ago. Rice has risen to do The Hard Things today, but David Shaw’s unflappable Stanford Cardinal have met them with the bleak hostility of the void. This game is half-done; this game was finished an hour ago.