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'11 Marshall week
Marshall 24, Rice 20
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The Owls' Denzel Wells breaks up pass intended for Marshall's Antavious Wilson (Photo by Marcus Constantino)

Determined second-half rally fails to win the day as early ill-preparedness, sloppy play yield unwarranted deficit; late fumble, injury allow Marshall back in the door

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The "X Man" Xavier Webb puts heat on Marshall QB (Marcus Constantino photo)

HUNTINGTON, W. Va. (Oct. 16) – It would have been easy enough to chalk up Rice's painful, 24-20 loss here Saturday to a single play, that being the strip of the football out of the hands of the Owls' Sam McGuffie by Marshall's all-everything defender Vinnie Curry.

It would have been obvious, as well, to ascribe the Flock's inability to overcome the late deficit with a score of their own due to a day-ending slap on the side of the helmet to Owl quarterback Taylor McHargue, who, alternating with Wild Owl Turner Petersen, brought back Rice from a 14-0 deficit to a 20-17 lead.

But mistakes are made, and injuries happen, and this Rice loss, its 14th out of its last 15 games on the road, had its genesis in events occurring much earlier in the game, and well before the kickoff, for that matter.

The Owls came out sloppy on offense and ill-prepared on defense, as the one-dimensional Herd quarterback, first-time starter A. J. Graham, befuddled the Rice defenders with the same simple running play over and over again, garnering 94 yards rushing in the first half as the West Virginians stormed out to a 14-0 early lead.

Meanwhile, Rice's typical offensive nemeses reared their ugly heads as usual, with basic offensive line fails resulting in drive-killing false start penalties and stifled running plays, while the red zone – or more like the Kryptonite Zone – yielded but a pair of first half field goals after long Owl drives bogged down within a stone's throw of the goal line.

And then there's the typical soft Owl "prevent" defense which allowed a Marshall offense under the rookie quarterback Graham, basically impotent when it came to the hurry-up, downfield -passing game, nevertheless to march smartly down in the field in the last minute of the second quarter to cop a 45-yard field goal on the last play of the half. It turned a one-possession, 14-6 game into a 17-6 halftime deficit, and the slight bit of oomph it provided the home team proved just enough coal in the tender for the Herd to stave off a determined Rice second-half effort.

Rice moved ball at start, but then OL gaffes reared up

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Taylor McHargue scooches for additional yardage in the fourth quarter of the Rice-Marshall game (Marcus Constantino photo)

Rice started the game seemingly prepared to move the football. Jeremy Eddington took the opening kickoff and roared out to the Marshall 35. First play, Taylor McHargue hit Tyler Smith coming out of the backfield for 13 yards and a first down. Next play, TMac kept for 12 more and the Owls had a first and ten at the Marshall 40.

Then TMac hit Tyler Smith for six more, and it was second and four at the MU 34 yard line. But a screen pass attempt on second down was poorly set up and failed to develop. And then two straight line jumps set the Owls back to third and a bunch. Backed out of field goal range, the Owls wound up punting.

That's when the Rice offense went in to sleep mode. After their first four possessions, the Owls had collected all of three first downs and 39 yards total offense. And four punts, of course.

Meanwhile, Marshall ground out two long touchdown drives to take the 14-0 lead.

Their first drive covered 69 yards in 11 plays. The majority of it was lugged on the ground by Graham and running back Tron Martinez, who took whatever the defense gave them on the zone read. However, key yardage was added when Cameron Nwosu racked QB Graham and separated him from the ball. Five Owl defenders surrounded the pill as it bounced crazily downfield; a couple got their hands on it. But Marshall's Troy Evans wound up with the recovery, and the result was a net gain of 13.

Graham scrambled for the last 15 himself, and with that, the Herd's first rushing touchdown since the SMU game last season, Marshall was up and running, 7-0.

Next possession, Kyle Martens pinned MU back to their own 13, but the Herd ground out another long drive, primarily by playing ‘we're gonna run it til you stop it.' This time Travon Van held the running back position and alternated with Graham for consistent rushing yardage.

But 32 key yards were gained on a downfield, ruptured-duck heave down the sideline by Graham to Andre Booker on third and four from the Marshall 44.

Once again Graham took it over himself on first and goal from the Rice 5, and two minutes into the second quarter, the Owls were down by two touchdowns.

Owl defense seemed ill-prepared for MU offensive set

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Turner Petersen slams through the line and into the secondary for big yardage in third quarter of Rice-Marshall game (Marcus Constantino photo)

The announcement that the running-oriented quarterback A. J. Graham was going to start in place of previous starter and passing specialist Rakim Cato was made last Monday. But it appeared, in fact it appeared very much, that the Rice defensive coaching staff didn’t quite somehow get the memo.

"Yeah, coming into it, we heard number one was going to start, and he's a different style of quarterback than twelve," Rice linebacker Justin Allen said postgame. "He is a little more mobile, but were able to come back (in the second half) and put more pressure on him, like getting more tackles in the backfield."

The zone reads that continually bedeviled the Owls in the first half did not come as a surprise to the Rice defense, Justin added.

"It's something we have worked all year," he said. "It's not new and we work it every week. The quarterback made some good plays in the beginning , and once we calmed down and got our wits about us, we were able to lock down on it and ultimately shut it down."

But not in the first half. Still, credit the Rice offense, because after yet one more three-and-out, they eventually got up off the mat and commenced to battling.

Starting at the Rice 39, it was Turner Petersen who defibrillated th Owl offense to life. And yes, his first play from scrimmage was a passing play, a six-yard completion to Tyler Smith.

His next two plays were a 22-yarder and a 14-yard run up the gut, and suddenly the Owls found themselves in the Marshall red zone with a first and ten at the 19.

But the offensive masterminds shifted gears from there, reverted to the base offense, and went nowhere. Well, actually they went one yard in three plays, from where Chris Boswell easily nailed a 35-yard field goal to get the Owls on the board.

When Scott Solomon and Jared Williams combined to sack Marshall's Graham for a loss of four on third and six, the Herd was three and out and the Owls got the ball back.

This time, sparked by a 23-yard gainer from Sam McGuffie, the Owls moved as far as a first and ten at the Marshall 11. Tyler Smith, McHargue, Petersen and Sam all got touches on that drive.

This time, TPete came in to sub for TMac on the next play. Perfect time for a pop pass, right? Nope, straight handoff for loss on first down, then Peterson for four up the middle on second.. Back in came Taylor McHargue, and he lobbed a rather anemic-looking fade to Vance McDonald, and the ball was knocked away by 5-9 defender Rashad Jackson.

Still, with the ensuing Chris Boswell chip shot field goal, the Owls were back to within a score, and would go into the halftime locker run down only 14-6, right?

Wrong.

Starting at their own 18 yard line, with one time out left, and 1:12 remaining on the clock, the Herd marched as far as the Owl 28, mostly on the strength of 10-yards-plus running plays. From there, with no time left on the scoreboard clock, and after the Owls attempted to ice him with two consecutive timeouts, MU's Tyler Warner equaled his career long with a 45-yard field goal.

Stop imperative on MU's opening second-half possession

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Vance McDonald stretches back for the ball on fade pattern in the end zone, second quarter -- not quite  (Marcus Constantino photo)

Figure a scoring drive by the Herd to start the third quarter, and the Owls would be cooked. A stop was imperative. And a stop was delivered by the Rice defense.

Paul Porras and Cam Nwosu got consecutive heavy rushes on MU quarterback Graham, and the ensuing punt pinned the Owls back to their 14. But with TPete and TMac alternating taking snaps, the Flock moved the ball to midfield on the ground. Then McHargue rolled out and found an open Vance McDonald across the middle, and 49 yards later, the Owls had their first TD of the day, and were back to within 17-13.

Jared Williams and Paul Porras both had excellent defensive plays to stop the Herd cold on their next possession, and the Owls once again were able to set up shop, this time at their 21.

This time, Taylor McHargue went to the air, hitting Mario Hull for two key completions of 17 and 27 yards, the second, an acrobatic leaper that came down at the Marshall 13. From there, it took Sam McGuffie only a couple of carries to take it in for six more, and the Owls had a 20-17 lead with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter. Sam, in fact, ran the ball four times for a total of 33 yards on that Owl scoring possession.

The tandem of TMac and TPete alternating at the snap-taking position appeared to have discombobulated the Herd. In fact, however, it was combined with great precision by the entire Rice offensive unit, with Rice’s third quarter being clearly it’s finest offensive effort of the season thus far.

"We played really well with it, as it seemed very effective," Turner Petersen said post-game. "We would put great possessions together – and if the defense makes them go three-and-out every time, it should make it pretty easy for us to run away with the game. But we couldn't capitalize in the end."

Marshall moved the football on its next possession, but on the last play of the third quarter, Michael Smith rose up to stop MU's Tron Martinez for no gain on fourth-and-one and the Rice 31. Among the Owl faithful following the game on radio and Owlvision, plus the few who physically braved the trek up to Huntington, the feeling welled up in the chest that this one might just be that elusive road win the Owls were seeking.

Get that boy some Stickum'

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Paul Porras comes up with what at the time looked like a game-saving interception in the fourth quarter (Marcus Constantino photo)

The feeling was enhanced as Turner Petersen next guided the Owls as far as the Marshall 45. This time, however, the quarterback-and-formation switch appeared to hinder, rather than help, the Owl cause, as TMac came in and lost his grip while attempting to pass – give the boy a functional pair of gloves, coych – and was chased by players from both teams as it bounded back toward the Rice goal. In the scramble, MU's Vinnie Curry – who else -- fell on the ball at the Rice 25-yard line, 29 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

But the ball bounded away from Curry, as he appeared to engage in a bit of premature celebration. In the ensuing second scramble, the Owls' Vance McDonald came up with the ball. But the striped-shirt boys seemed clueless as to what actually had transpired. With Curry vehemently lobbying for his cause, MU coach Doc Holliday challenged the call and won.

So Marshall had the ball at the Rice 25 – for exactly one play, that is. For A. J. Graham's pass was picked off by the ball-hawking Paul Porras at the Rice 8, and the incipient threat was immediately snuffed.

At that point, just over 11 minutes remained in the game.

And the Owls offense was in gear. First, Tyler Smith ran for 16 to the Rice 24. Then, TMac connected with Vance McDonald for 17 more. And the clock was running.  But on a big third and eight from the Rice 43, Taylor McHargue was sacked for a loss of 13 by – who else – MU's Vinnie Curry, and the Owls had to give up the ball.

MU managed one first down in response, but the Justin Allen came in to sack McDonald for a loss of three on third and 11, and once again, as the clock ticked down, Marshall had no choice but to punt it away.

Mario Hull fair caught at the Rice 11.  On second and nine, TMac was sandwiched by Marshall's Devin Arrington and Kellen Harris and had to leave the game. Nick Fanuzzi came in cold and failed to move the team, and the Owls had to punt again.

This time, Marshall had great field position at the Rice 49, as Kyle Martens' punt was partially blocked under heavy pressure. Still it carried for 33 yards. And Justin Allen once again came to the rescue with a key sniff-out of a screen pass,dropping MU's Tron Martinez for a loss of five back into Marshall territory. Once again, the Herd had to give up the football. And things were looking better and better  for the Owls.

Rice coaches opened up offense on ill-fated possession

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Denzel Wells successfully defends against the pass (Marcus Constantino photo)

Coach Bailiff and his staff,  to their credit, eschewed the dive into the middle of the line. Instead, they opened the throttle. "We ran an outside play and told Sam to stay in bounds," he said afterwards. "Sam didn't have one turnover a year ago. He's one of the most sure handed players on our team."

Starting at his own 11, on first down, Sam McGuffie took the quick pitch, headed wide, cut seven or eight yards downfield, and appeared to have more real estate ahead of him, but to keep going he had to leap a Marshall lineman who was lying flat on his back. As he completed his leap, MU’s Vinnie Curry dived to make contact, and managed to get his left hand on the Sam’s upper arm, while his right hand appeared to be able to punch the ball from Sam's grasp.

Marshall’s Monterius Lovett was there for the recovery at the Rice 23-yard line, and five plays later, Tron Martinez dived in from from the four for the margin of victory.

Soph quarterback/running back Turner Petersen was sanguine over the revolting turn of events.

"Sam is a leader on this team, arguably the best player on the team. It's very uncharacteristic of him to have a fumble like that," he said. "Ball security is a premium, but something like that can happen. Unfortunately it was him and unfortunately it happened, but those things happen sometimes. He just needs to keep his head up and remain confident."

Coach Bailiff reflected upon the frankly brutal defeat afterwards.

"That was a hard loss," he said. "When you have the ball late in the fourth quarter and you talk about grinding it out and run the time off the clock, coming into town and trying to get out with a win.... The fumble the very next snap, with time on the clock for them to score deep in the red zone – that's not a best case scenario on the road."

"The other turnover in the second half too, when there was a misfire on the pass where they take the ball over deep in your own red zone, and the defense gets an interception the next play – that was sure what we needed to have on this last one."

"We started slow, but we really had worked our way back into the football game with high yardage and points in the third quarter. Our offense and defense were both playing well, but you need to take care of the football. You need to stay on track and move the chains when need be and we didn't do that."

The Owls’ Justin Allen summed it up perhaps very succinctly. "It's tough to lose a game that you had won," he said. "Obviously we can't make the costly mistakes we had. It's going to hurt you. We didn't win the turnover battle today and its stuff like that that is going to keep us from being a winning football team."

--P.T.H.

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Owls attempt to break road hex, even record at Marshall


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Jarrett Dillard had a big day in Huntington in '07; the Owls nearly overcame a 24-0 third quarter deficit only to miss out on a last-minute onsides kick and fall, 27-21 (PTH photo)

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (Oct. 13) -- The Rice Owls, winners of exactly one out of their last 14 road games, travel to the hollers of West Virginia this weekend in an attempt to break a vicious circle that has dogged them since the beginning of the 2009 season.

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Whether this is a good place to cut the knot  of road loss after road loss is an open question. Huntington is perhaps the least accessible of all the Owls’ road destinations, what with at least one changeover flight to Charleston, WV, and then a 70 mile trip down the interstate. The Owls lost here in their only previous sojourn, that being a 2007 visit by a Chase Clement and James Casey-paced team.

But matters appear to be a bit in a state of flux surrounding the Marshall eleven. First off, it seems there’s a quarterback controversy brewing in Huntington. Quarterback Rakeem Cato, who started the first six games of the season, will step aside in favor of redshirt sophomore A.J. Graham, MU head coach Doc Holliday announced Tuesday.

"We've got certain standards and expectations that we expect every player to live up to and if they don't they sit and watch with me and the other guys play," Coach Holliday told local news media. "A.J. will start Saturday."

"Everyone went in and talked to us one at a time and told us what was going on and what we needed to correct, pretty much what is expected of me in this upcoming week and I think I'm ready for what's ahead," Graham said.

Previously, Cato had beaten out Graham for the starting job after August two-a-days, and in his six starts had completed 97-of-176 passes for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns, while also tossing seven interceptions.

Cato probably sealed his fate by throwing for only 87 yards in MU’s 16-6 loss in the rain against Central Florida in Orlando last Saturday.

And then there’s the matter of Vinny Curry. Curry is the Herd’s acknowledged leader of a rugged defensive unit that has been the cornerstone of this season’s team. He ranks second in the nation with 13 tackles for loss and is tied for fourth with 6 total sacks. Curry, who’s a near-unanimous all-league choice and who’s gained considerable All-American mid-season mention, won National Player of the Week honors for his work in the Herd’s season-opening 26-20 win over USM.

But it’s frankly just a very bad time, personally, for the standout senior team captain, who had to quickly return to his home in Neptune, N.J., after the death of his mother this past weekend.

When asked at his weekly presser, Coach Holliday said Vinnie’s status for the Rice game is up in the air.

"I can't say if he will play or not at this point," Holliday said on Tuesday.. "I know that they are making arrangements right now for the funeral.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Vinny. We are going to support Vinny in whatever he decides to do."

"He lost his mom; that's tough," Holliday added. "We’ve got things set up where we can get him back here afterwards and we'll see what happens. That's up to Vinny."

Owl fans can only extend sincere condolences and wish the young man the best during a very difficult time.

During his press conference, Coach Holliday added a lament regarding his team’s lack of offensive productivity so far this year. Having played a similarly difficult early-season schedule, much like the Owls, the results are hard to gauge.

The Herd’s on-field results have looked downright schizophrenic. They own that 26-20 season opener win against Southern Miss, and also took a 17-13 decision over a talented Louisville team. And they played both West Viriginia and Virginia Tech to within three touchdowns, much as the Owls did against Texas.

But the Herd was smoked, 44-7, by a less than awe-inspiring University of Ohio team. That’s Ohio U., not Ohio State, one may note.

And, one might add, the Herdsmen were the beneficiary of six turnovers in the win over Southern Miss. The kind of reminds one of the USM's seven-turnover performance against the Owls in a 31-29 Rice win in Hattiesburg in 2007, just a week or two before Rice's trip to Huntington.

"I'm not happy at all where our offense is," Doc said. "I'm not. We have to get better. Defensively, four of the six teams we've played are in the top 18 in the country. Not in the conference, in the country. It's not an excuse. We simply have to get better. We have to make plays and yes we've lined up against some good teams just like Rice has. Unfortunately, we're both where we are and we both have to win football games."

Rice head coac David Bailiff certainly could agree with that assessment.

"They're a good football team," he coachified at Monday’s press luncheon. "They've played a very challenging schedule. They beat Southern Miss, who we struggled against, and we're going to have to bring an `A' game there. Their defense is really doing some nice things. They put up 26 points per game and have only given-up 13. I think a lot of that is the schedule. They're a good football team and they're at home. We have to go in there and start fast. We can't have any of the let-ups that we've had in the past."

"We just have to continue to get reps and get better," DB concluded. "If you've done it a million times then you've got to do it a million-and-one. You have to keep working to get the improvement that we need to win football."

Oh, by the way, playing in the State of Texas, the Thundering Herd is winless, standing 0-for-7, including a 35-10 loss to the Owls at Rice Stadium in 2008.

But their record against Texas teams playing at home in Huntington? Against pretty much the same bunch they played in Texas, they’re undefeated – 7-and-0.
--P.T.H.

 

The heart of Sam McGuffie

10unto51tdrun1vx45.jpg (21763 bytes) TULSA (Nov. 6) -- Rice's Michigan transfer and youtube sensation Sam McGuffie appeared to have turned a corner with his collegiate personal best 178 yards rushing against Tulsa Saturday. But personal exploits and accomplishments turn out to be the farthest thing from his mind.

Within that broad chest and between those tatooieo'ed biceps beats a heart so huge that it threatens to overwhelm his emotions even to the point of diminishing his effectiveness. Rice coaches have been aware of that fact since the day Sam first matriculated on South Main, and have sheltered him from the prying lenses and microphones of the news hounds.

Sam McGuffie spoke to media for the first time after Saturday's loss to Tulsa. It was clear: the lad cares so much, it's as if he almost cares too much. In so doing, he also offers a ready lesson to any jaded sophisticate Rice grad two or three times his age.

"It's about being a family," he said of his Rice experience, an observation that can be applied equally as well both on the football field and in the colleges. "It's about coming out and giving everything you have, and don't be worrying about what comes next."

"This is all we have. These are the memories you're going to look back on for the rest of your life."

"College football is only a four year or five year span, that's it. And some of it's shortened, when you have injuries or whatever. So I just think the time we have here is so valuable, that we've got to make the most of it. That's all you can do."

Sam McGuffie clearly gets it. It's just that he gets it so intensely; he would gladly push his heart to bursting, could he hoist the entire fortunes of Rice football on his back and carry it alone to glory.

Thus in his toils, without specifically intending to, he goes about defending the value of each Rice diploma to a greater extent than many others who wear the blue and gray team colors, or for that matter, the Rice ring.

When he finally speaks, again inadvertently, he reveals experience beyond his years, expressed in a succinctness of language that anyone can aspire to.

"People don't remember great players, they remember the great teams," he insists. "And that's really what it all comes down to."

But what about playing for pride? With league crowns and bowl game opportunities having fallen by the wayside, surely there remains the appropriate response, to play in quest of personal achievement.

"You can play for whatever you want to play for," Sam responds, with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice. "Bottom line is, you've always got to play to win. That's it."

He shakes his head wearily, trudging back toward the locker room to pull off the pads.

-P.T.H.


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