COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The first half looked promising for Rice.
No Johnny Manziel for two quarters Saturday thanks to a suspension, and the Owls trailed No. 7 Texas A&M by only a touchdown, 28-21.
But turnovers and the return of the Heisman Trophy winner, who tossed three TDs, helped the Aggies pull away in the second half for a 52-31 win.
"I thought the whole first half we moved the effectively," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue, who threw interceptions on the first two drives in the third quarter. "Then the second half, I have to play better than that. I think, besides the few mistakes, we played very well. We need to clean up the mental errors in the second half."
Rice jumped out to a 7-0 lead after a 1-yard run by running back Charles Ross in the first quarter. That drive was helped by a career-long 57-yard run by McHargue. With Manziel watching from the sidelines, A&M evened it up when Ben Malena scored on a 4-yard run.
The Owls took a 14-7 lead when McHargue found Ross again, this time on a 19-yard pass with seven minutes left in the first quarter.
A&M's first lead came on a 71-yard catch and run by freshman Ricky Seals-Jones that made it 21-14. Tra Carson pushed the lead to 28-14 with his second score on a 2-yard run. Jordan Taylor's 5-yard TD reception from McHargue on a ball deflected by A&M made it 28-21 at the half.
"I'm really pleased with how this football game started," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "I thought we lost focus in the second quarter."
And the third quarter? That's when Johnny Football went to work.
Manziel was sitting out because of what the school called an "inadvertent" violation of NCAA rules involving signing autographs.
His first touchdown came on a 23-yard pass to Mike Evans on A&M's second drive of the half.
Shortly before that, he got into it with a Rice defender, appearing to mimic signing an autograph while getting up from a tackle. He ended his day by getting yanked following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pointing at the scoreboard after a TD pass in the fourth quarter.
Manziel was replaced on the last drive by starter Matt Joeckel, who ended the day with 190 yards and a touchdown.
The Owls thought that Manziel's return got A&M going emotionally.
"I think it set a fire to Texas A&M in the second half," Rice defensive tackle Christian Covington said. "It is a challenge getting to him. We knew he was going to make some plays. We wanted to limit the big plays."
Manziel's penalty followed an investigation for allegedly accepting money for autographs from memorabilia brokers, a violation of NCAA rules that could have led to a much longer suspension.
Instead, the first freshman to win the Heisman only had to sit out the first half to start a season that followed a very special one: Not only did he win the Heisman, but he set numerous school and Southeastern Conference records while leading the Aggies to an 11-2 mark and a victory over No. 1 Alabama.
Manziel's first play of the season was a 12-yard run and he also scrambled on the second one, going 7 yards. He was sacked on third down and the Aggies settled for a 44-yard field goal.
Manziel extended A&M's lead to 38-21 with the touchdown pass to Evans.
Ben Malena grabbed an 18-yard pass from Manziel early in the fourth quarter to make it 45-28.
Rice failed to convert on fourth down on its next drive and Manziel took advantage of the short field two plays later when he hit a wide-open Evans in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. Then he got a flag.
Asked afterward if he was ready to pull Manziel at that point, before the penalty, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said: "Nope."
For Rice, McHargue finished with 180 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions; Ross ended up with three TDs after getting Rice within 10 points on a 1-yard run seconds into the fourth quarter.
Besides not having Manziel, the Aggies' struggles in the first half likely were due to the suspensions of five defensive starters: Cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, tackle Kirby Ennis, end Gavin Stansbury and linebacker Steven Jenkins. Backup safety Floyd Raven also was suspended.
The two-game penalties for Harris, Stansbury, Jenkins and receiver Edward Pope were announced just minutes before kickoff, meaning their first game action will be against top-ranked Alabama on Sept. 14.
Everett's suspension was for a half. He started on defense after the break but was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting.
The Aggies wore special helmet stickers to remember defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu, who was killed in a New Mexico car crash along with two others late last month. The sticker is black and white and features his No. 90 with designs in the number that were inspired by his Tongan heritage.