Owls seek to sustain
DALLAS (Nov. 9) -- The Rice Owls continue their annual tour as Everyone's Favorite Homecoming Opponent when they take on the Southern Methodist University Mustangs on the Hilltop here, with an un-televised kickoff at 2:00 p.m. Saturday.
Indeed, the Pony Nation has designated this weekend as Homecoming, which one would surmise is still a big deal on Fraternity Row here, with people putting on dress duds and electing a Homecoming Queen which isn't some kind of inanimate object, as has been the wont of our fellow Rice weanies for many years.
To top it off, the Owls are going in to play SMU at their place in front of a lame-duck head coach, as long-suffering Mustang mentor Phil Bennett was handed his pink slip a couple of weeks ago, though notified he was being expected to serve out the remainder of this season's sentence.
"They (his players) realize it's homecoming, and they've still got a lot to play for," Coach Bennett said at his Monday press conference. "Obviously (with his firing) it's a bittersweet situation, but as I tell them, 'That's why you play, that's why I coach. You get a chance to go out and compete again on Saturday.'"
Now, the last time the Institute came in to Dallas to play a just-fired SMU coach was 2001, when the Good Guys sported an 8-3 record going into the game. The fired-up Ponies parlayed a 20-7 halftime deficit into a 37-20 upset that knocked the Owls from bowl consideration, even with their resulting 8-4 season record.
And, speaking of bowls, if one wishes to continue adding up reasons why SMU has extra incentive to strap one on the Owls this Saturday, there could be mentioned the result of last season's game in Houston, when both teams entered into their last contest of the year with identical 6-5 records, vying, it turned out, for the same bowl berth.
Sans quarterback Chase Clement, who'd been sidelined the week before with a then top-secret cracked collarbone, the Owls nonetheless refused to lose and hauled off with a 31-27 Rice Stadium victory that propelled them directly into the New Orleans Bowl.
SMU, meantime, limped home at 6-and-6, pondering what might have been, while Pony fans assured themselves that Next Year Would be Different, and it would be the Ponies who'd go bowling in '07, what with returning a solid core of offensive and defensive regulars, including semi-sensational young quarterback Justin Willis.
SMU has been league's biggest disappointment this year
Only that hasn't happened. To put it bluntly, the Ponies have barely done squat all season, bringing a 1-8 record into this game, with their only win having coming at home against North Texas. Quarterback Willis, although he sports almost identical statistical numbers as does Rice man under Chase Clement, has been up and down like a yo-yo all year -- sometimes even in the same game.
To wit: Willis coughed up the pill three times in the first half of last Sunday night's nationally televised battle against the University of Houston, en route to a 31-14 halftime deficit. The 6-1, 210 sophomore from Denton righted the ship in the second half, and the Ponies pulled to within 31-28 before fading in the stretch to lose, 38-28.
So a big part of the equation for Saturday's edge lies in the question: which Justin Willis is going to show up on the floor of Gerald C. Ford Stadium Saturday afternoon -- the undisciplined, loosely ball-handling first half Willis, or the talented, evasive, spark-plug second half Willis.
One thing's for sure -- protecting the ball or not, the kid can definitely throw the football. Here, before the end of his second season at the helm of the Mustangs, he already has 43 passing TDs for his career, which is the SMU record, surpassing 40 tossed by Chuck Hixson, a pretty fair country quarterback in his day, which was from 1968 through 1970.
In the loss to Houston, Willis finished with 351 passing yards for his third 300-plus game of the season. And the soph phenom also leads the Mustangs in rushing, with 478 yards thus far on the season, an average of 53-plus yards per game. (As a team, the Mustangs have averaged 145 yards per game rushing this year -- not very gaudy, but still better than that demonstrated collectively by Owl ball carriers.)
Willis doesn't get a chance to throw to a spectacular receiver such as Rice's Jarett Dillard, but he does have three very competent wideouts in Emmanuel Sanders, Columbus Givens and Zach Sledge. Sanders leads the team in receptions and total yardage, thus far hauling in 57 catches for 728 yards and five touchdowns. But Sledge, with total yardage receiving of 550 on the season, edges out Sanders in the touchdown category, have garnered six TD receptions.
Coach Bennett talks of injuries on defense
Defensively, SMU Coach Phil Bennett is playing the poor-mouth card. "We've got an injury problem on defense, and we're trying to get some people back," Coach Bennett said in his Monday press conference. "We've got bruised legs, we've got hamstring strains, we've got shoulders extremely bruised. With our depth concerns, the injuries not only affect our offense and defense, but they also affect our special teams."
The extent of defensive personnel sidelined for injury during the '07 campaign has shown up glaringly in SMU's defensive stats -- just as it has for Rice.
The Mustangs are 10th in C-USA in scoring and total defense, allowing 36.7 points and 490.67 yards per game. (By comparison, the Owls are dead last in the league.) SMU allowed 552 yards of total offense in last week's loss to the Cougars -- although, hey, that's a couple hundred less than the Owls gave up at Robertson Stadium.
With the air likely to be filled with footballs, eyes will be cast on a newcomer to the SMU secondary, Tyler Jones. Injuries forced the redshirt freshman from Emory Rains into the starting lineup the past two weeks, and the neophyte has responded well, leading the Mustangs in tackles both weeks. Against Houston, he recorded 15 tackles, with six solo stops, two tackles for losses, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
Coach Bennett won't divulge information regarding any other starters that may be back from the red-cross team, but SMU may have safeties Bryce Hudman and De'Von Bailey back from injuries, although neither one of them played against the Coogs.
Rice head coach David Bailiff appeared to feel strongly that his teams near-fanatical, four-touchdown comeback victory against UTEP last Saturday was a character-builder that just might reap visible benefits the remainder of the season -- starting with the Mustangs on Saturday.
"SMU is a good football team," he cautioned Monday. "Their quarterback is really amazing. They've got a lot of seniors on offense. And just the athleticism. Those kids are still playing hard they aren't going to quit."
"I think this is going to be one of the weeks where these guys come over here and they know what we're capable of," the Rice head man added. "Even the young players on defense now, they're not young players anymore. Even the two freshmen defensive ends played 80 snaps a piece last game. The week before they played 72 snaps. Those guys have turned into hardened defensive players. I think they're finally seeing that when we do things together anything is possible. I think we've played hard every week, but sometimes when we've made mistakes you see guys worrying about the next play and they're still down. I think we have the ability now and the maturity to get past that."
For the Owls, in addition to that bit of added confidence and experience Coach was talking about, the formula for success Saturday likely would have to include another outstanding performance by quarterback Chase Clement, who with his performance against UTEP appears to have reached the peak stride Owl fans saw him exhibit in the seven games he was able to start in the '06 season.
Defensively, one may expect the Owls to give up their share of yards. But the question is, will that aggressive, opportunistic, tenacious defense that forced seven three-and-outs and put up a gorgeous goal line stand against UTEP last week be ready to come out and do the same on Saturday?--P.T.H.