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'06 New Orleans Bowl game page

Troy State 41, Rice 17
Clock strikes midnight
for Cinderella Owls

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TOO MUCH RUNNING GAME.  All-conference Rice DL Courtney Gordon swoops in to corral Trojan, but it was too little, too late as Owls gave up much too much yardage on the ground in 41-17 loss (PTH photo)

NEW ORLEANS (Dec. 23) -- Add it up. Five pass interceptions. Two failed onsides kick attempts. The resulting total was an Unlucky Seven for the Rice Owls, who fell short -- considerably short -- here Saturday as they rolled a gutter ball in the school's first attempt at bowling in 45 years, a 41-17 loss, it turned out, to a pumped-up and determined Troy State team.

The mojo, karma, magic, hot streak, fanatic intensity, fervent belief -- whatever it was that propelled this Owl team to six straight sudden-death victories so as to get them to a point where post-season play was a reality -- totally abandoned them like so many homeless waifs on the bereft streets of the storm-ravaged Ninth Ward.

The some 10,000 Rice alumni, students and fans who made the trip to the Big Easy for fun, food and winning football had to satisfy themselves with a couple of days of rain-soaked victuals, but nevertheless gave a rousing standing ovation to their defeated warriors as they left the field, post-game.

After all, they were just glad to be here.

The same could not be said on the part of the Institute Boys, who to a man decried their performance and promised better results in the future.

"We came to win a bowl game, not just play in a bowl game," Rice head coach Todd Graham repeatedly had told media types who followed his every move during the party-filled week of pre-game festivities.

Unfortunately, a team isn't going to win much of anything, much less a bowl game, when its most basic positive traits are left on the side of the road somewhere between Breaux Bridge and Donaldsonville.

"For whatever reason, we did a poor job of preparing," Coach Graham lamented. "We turned the ball over, made stupid penalties on offense just the kind of stuff we hadn't done all year long. If you turn the ball over and make stupid penalties, you're not going to score. That killed us."

Rice starting quarterback Joel Armstrong played his man-under position in a manner befitting the excellent wide receiver and gutsy, determined all-purpose player that he is, setting bowl records with 35 pass completions in 54 attempts for 304 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to his All-American battery-mate Jarett Dillard, one which being perhaps fraudulently nullified by the striped-shirt boys.

But then there were those five interceptions.

Armstrong quick -- perhaps too quick -- to shoulder blame

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Senior slotback Mike Falco posted one of his best performances in his last game as an Owl (PTH photo)

"As a quarterback the main thing you have to do is take care of the ball, and I did a horrible job of that, and I let my teammates down. I stepped outside of our system and was trying to make too many places; forced the ball and just had too many turnovers. I just had a very bad night," a glum Joel Armstrong said, rating his performance for the media, post-game.

A hoarse-throated Todd Graham was quick to jump to Joel's defense, pointing out that the junior utility man's previous experience at quarterback came running the wishbone.

"In fairness to Joel, he's done a tremendous job; he's the most unselfish player I've ever coached," Coach Graham told reporters.  "For a starting wide receiver who's moved over and had to play quarterback; I can guarantee you he had a great preparation coming into this game. You've got to give Troy some credit, but no blame goes against Joel. He got out there and competed and did the best he could, and we're proud of him."

It was technically true that Chase Clement, the crafty, accurate sophomore quarterback who was the true heart of the Rice offense this season, was cleared by medics after suffering a cracked collarbone in the East Carolina game. He could've played. But it wouldn't have been the right thing to do, to just throw him out there, Coach Graham emphasized.

"There's certain decisions you make sometimes as a coach; I try to coach these kids like they were my own," Todd said. "If Chase Clement were my son, I wouldn't have played him tonight because I didn't think he could protect himself."

"He was cleared; he did not practice, and we felt Joel gave us the best chance to win. And it's really important, but it had to do with his safety.  I don't think he was physically ready to play. He was available."

Failing grades in 'ball security' and 'administrative penalties'

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Rice QB Joel Armstrong tries to turn the corner against Troy defender (PTH photo)

The Owls’ problems were not limited to what offensive coordinator Major Applewhite dubs "poor ball security." They also suffered from an uncharacteristically large number of what Major likewise denominates  "administrative penalties."

"We had a lot of confusion," Coach Graham said afterwards. "For whatever reason, we did a very poor job preparing our kids. We couldn't get a pass rush, and we gave up the big play."

And on the other side of the ball, the Owls couldn’t seem to make the big play either – starting with their opening possession.

Senior slotback Mike Falco took the opening kickoff and ran right into an open-field tackle at the Rice 15 when somebody missed a block. Then, coming out of the blocks, the Owls went nowhere, fast.

First play, Joel Armstrong and Quinton Smith appeared both to want to grasp the ball on the read, and the resulting slowdown of play development made a potential 10-yard gain only a pickup of three. The next  play was an option, but Troy defenders were in the backfield and on the outside to turn in the attempt, and the Owls were three-and-out.

Troy immediately took advantage of their ensuing field position by connecting on a 40-yard pass from Omar Haugabook to Terry Mykeal. The reception was ruled out-of-bounds on the field, but the press box reviewers overruled the call, and that put Troy sitting pretty with first and goal at the Rice one.

To the credit of the Owl defense, they stuffed two consecutive running attempts, courtesy Andray Downs and Terrance Garmon, but on third and goal, Haugabook managed to propel his rather ample frame into the end zone, and the Owls were down 7-0.

Rice took a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, and on the  first play from scrimmage, Joel attempted a pass into the flat which was picked off by TSU’s Boris Lee, who appeared to have smooth sailing for a 19-yard interception return TD but was knocked out of bounds by Joel Armstrong himself, this time at the Rice one-foot line.

Once again, the Owl defense held for two plays, but on third and goal Haugabook found Gary Banks for a quick slant across the middle. Banks scooped up the pass just inches about the turf, but it counted for another six points, and Rice suddenly was down, 14-0.

Owls responded quickly to 14-0 deficit

The Rice offense responded with determination, staging a 76-yard drive that went the distance in nine plays to bring the Owls back to within seven.

Joel Armstrong completed seven straight passes on that drive, the key one going for 37 yards to Jarett Dillard on third and seven from the Troy 48. Three plays later, Joel hit Mike Falco in the end zone from 11 yards out for the score.

Things were beginning to look up when the Rice defense held Troy to a three-and-out on the next series.  And when the Owls got the ball back, they immediately began to march down the field again.

However, this time the proceedings were brought to a halt on a crucial third-down play in which Joel threw to Q for 12 yards and a first down at midfield. But the gendarmes flagged Rolf Krueger for a holding call – and, hey, that guy is probably the least-holding offensive lineman in Conference USA. But he took the hit, and it bailed out the Trojans, for the Owls were unable to convert on third and 15, and had to punt the ball back to TSU.

Just like that, Troy QB Haugabook hit a wide-open Terry Mykeal for 56 yards and a touchdown, on a play that appeared to feature massive defensive breakdowns in the Rice secondary. Presto, instant cheap score, and the Owls were down, 21-7, at the end of the first quarter.

The Owl offense responded with a quality drive that carried 54 yards before bogging down. However, it was alarming at the time that the Flock was getting absolutely nowhere on the ground. The Troy defensive strategy obviously was to stop the Rice running game first, and that strategy was working, big-time,  for them.

When Rice stalled at the TSU 26, Clark Fangmeier came in and kicked a 43-yard field goal that was hardly a thing of beauty – it nestled just over the crossbar like a ruptured duck – but that kick was the longest of the freshman’s young career and brought the Owls back to within 21-10.

Onsides kick was executed perfectly, just not recovered

Rice followed with an onside kick which by all indications should’ve worked. Troy was unprepared for it, Luke Juist’s kick was dead-on, and the ball caromed into the shoulder pad of an Owl kick teamer just before going out of bounds at the Rice 49. Should have been Rice’s ball, but it wasn’t.

Troy took advantage of the short field by traveling the distance in seven plays, including a key scramble by QB Haugabook on third and six at the Rice 34 that carried to the Rice 11 yard line.

Down 28-10, the Rice defense stood firm, but the Owl offense wasn’t going very far either. Twice, the Rice defenders held Troy to a three-and-out on consecutive possessions, the key play of which was a ten-yard sack of Haugabook by Bio Benibo on third down.

The Owls got the ball back with a chance for a quick strike just before the half, and on third and 18 from the Rice 48, a scrambling Joel Armstrong hit a wide-open Jarett Dillard down the middle for 52 yards and the score. But the play was called back as the result of a holding call on Robbie Heos.

Examination of the game video revealed that (1) Robbie was far away from the play action when the alleged infraction occurred, and (2) that the call, if it indeed were holding – well, you could make that call on just about every play, every game.

But as a result, Rice went into the halftime locker room down a formidable 28-10 instead of a more surmountable 28-17.

And let’s digress briefly to see what brought the Institute Boys to that point.

  • Troy’s first touchdown came as the result of a controversial call on an out-of-bounds pass that went in the favor of Rice on the field, but was overturned in the press box.
  • Troy’s second TD was another gimme after a 19-yard interception return on a quarterback’s - nightmare pass interception that should’ve never been thrown, and likely won’t happen again, as long as Todd Graham is coaching the Owls.
  • Troy’s third touchdown came on a 56-yard bomb that was a piece of cake after a major, let’s say, communications breakdown in the Rice secondary. Though often porous, the Owl DBs haven’t given up that kind of cheap long-ball all season. But they did this night.
  • Troy’s fourth TD came as the result of a short field after a failed onsides-kick attempt that was flawlessly executed, but just not seized upon by the Rice special teams.
  • And then to top it off, Jarett Dillard had a touchdown catch nullified by a highly questionable, if not totally phantom, holding call.

Rice went into the dressing room, as a result, actually ahead on the stat sheet, but behind on the scoreboard just too far to come back against a Troy defense that had been stingy all year.

Byrd interception fueled Owl hopes, third quarter

There appeared to be hope for the Owls in the third quarter, after Lance Byrd stymied a Troy drive with an over-the-shoulder interception in the Rice end zone.

The Rice offensive immediately responded with a 72-yard drive that carried from the Owl 20 to the TSU 8 before Joel, once again, was picked off in the end zone by Troy’s Elbert Mack. Joel had expertly used Corbin Smiter, Quinton Smith, Taylor Wardlow (who rumbled for a 30-yarder) and Mike Falco on that series of downs, leaving Jarett Dillard as a decoy. But he just put the ball in the air at the wrong place on second and goal from the eight yard line.

The Owl defenders managed to hold Troy to only a pair of field goals, the duration of the second half, but at the same time, Rice could muster only a single touchdown drive, itself. With the clock ticking down, the Owls drove the ball 88 yards in 13 plays, the scoring strike coming on the fade pattern, Joel Armstrong to Jarett Dillard, on fourth and goal at the one.

So at least Jarett kept his consecutive-games touchdown reception streak alive with that catch, but it was too little, too late for the Owls, in affecting the outcome of the game, what with all that bad ju-ju having taken place in the first half.

Troy rubbed a bit of salt in the Rice wounds by putting the ball in the air for six after Rice failed to convert on the inevitable onsides kick that followed the Dillard touchdown. With the clock ticking down to under two minutes, Haugabook threw for the score, connecting with his Toris Rutledge from five yards out.

Rice faced a similar situation earlier in the season, at Army, and in fact did score late – but did so keeping the ball on the ground all the way.

Even that final Troy score, however, was the result of some mighty inconsistent defensive play on the Rice side. The Owls’ lackluster defensive effort throughout the game was a critical factor in the loss, Coach Graham said afterwards.

"That was the key to the whole game," he said glumly. "When you play defense like that the whole night, you're not going to have a chance to win. We did a poor job getting ready, and we had not done that. We had been playing well."

Joel Armstrong chimed in along the same note. "Everything that we saw out there is what we saw in practice," he stressed. "We just didn't execute," he added.

Still, though a bitter ending to a storybook year, the game did not nullify the inspired, and inspiring play that took the Owls from an 0-4 start to go 7-1 in their final eight games, in fact missing out on the C-USA western division crown by virtue, merely, of their one-point loss to the University of Houston, the first game of the season.

"What these kids have done this year is remarkable. This game doesn't take away from that," TG insisted. "It's just unfortunate that we didn't have everybody we needed tonight."

--Paul T. Hlavinka

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A glum Joel Armstrong (L) and reflective Jarett Dillard face media after Rice's 41-17 loss to Troy
State Friday (PTH photo)

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'THE TRUCK' is at the Dome -- and ready to roll...
Now legendary Rice football equipment truck lies parked at the New Orleans Superdome loading
docks while Owls work out inside Thursday evening (PTH photo)  More practice photos...

As rain continues unabated, 
Owls say they'll save parade
for game time in Superdome

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Army defender seems to levitate in vain attempt to keep Rice's Jarett Dillard from scoring (PTH photo)


NEW ORLEANS (Dec. 21) -- It's said that every cloud has its silver lining, and, to that extent, the omnipresent rain clouds which have covered and soaked the Crescent City for the past two days appear not to have hurt a bit in keeping the Rice Owls focused on the subject at hand, with time to reflect and ponder their task.

Thursday's parade and street party were unceremoniously called off by the New Orleans Bowl Committee when steady rain failed to lift in the early afternoon. That left the Owls with only three main agenda items on the day: first, attend the bowl luncheon with local, Rice and Troy supporters at the Sheraton; second, run through a brisk, get-acquainted practice at the Superdome before dinner; and third, hunker down and concentrate on getting focused and playing their best in tomorrow's upcoming tilt with Troy.

As the clock ticks down to game time, the Institute Boys have given the strong impression of being relaxed, yet honed in. Sure, New Orleans has been fun, but the greyness of the weather has helped keep one's mind on the game.

"It's a business trip, you know," Rice running back C. J. Ugokwe quipped. "We know what we've come to do; we came out here to be bowl champions."

Offensive lineman Jimmy Miller echoed those sentiments. "Yeah, we're down here as a business trip, obviously," he said. "We going there to have a good time and enjoy the week, but once about Thursday comes around, it's time to get focused on the game, and get our mindset."

OK, well then, Thursday -- that's today.

Extra time for study, review said well-spent

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Jarett Dillard gets one more chance to rumble this season when the Owls tee it up in the Superdome Dec. 22 (MA photo)

working against the scout team exhibition of Troy's offensive and defensive tendencies has been well taken, if not, at least after a while, getting to be a bit monotonous.

"We're feeling well prepared for Troy," Jimmy noted. "We've seen them for the past four weeks, now. I think we're anxious to get out there and play. We're tired of looking at them on file and then playing against our Scout Team; we're ready to get out there and play them on the field."

Reserve quarterback John Shepherd was even more blunt about it. "I'm just ready to get it on, man," he said. "We've been practicing a long time; we're just ready to get on with this game."

And there's no question but that the Owls, to a man, hold a healthy respect for their bowl opponent, despite its lack of a marquee name.

"They're their conference champions," Jimmy Miller insisted. "So we know they're going to be a good team, and we're expecting them to come in well-prepared. So we've just got to come out at least as well-prepared, and focused, and ready to win."

John Thomas observed similarities in the progression of the teams' respective seasons. "We expect to be facing a team that's hungry, like we are," he said. "Their team is on a roll right now; they started off kind of slowly, like we did. Then they ended strong. They're a very athletic team. We feel we match up well against them, but they really have team speed. We'll neutralize that by playing smart.

"Some times you might catch them out of position, or, with an aggressive team like that, you just have to watch film on them and study them. If we're to have the upper hand, that's where it is being smart, good film students."

On defense, the task is the same as always

All-league linebacker Brian Raines reflected similar sentiments from the defensive side of the ball.

"We've had a lot of time to prepare, so our defense is confident in what we've got going on for Troy," he said.

"Just like against any other team, we're going to have to stop the zone, stop the run and control the pass. That's the same game plan that we've had all year, and that's our main objective right now stop the zone; stop the 'read' zone, and control the pass."

"We expect a game with a lot of energy; it's going to be a really physical game. It's going to come down to who makes plays and who doesn't."

"And we expect to make those plays."

Slotback Mike Falco appeared to speak for Rice's 13 graduating seniors who will be putting on the blue and the grey for the last time Friday night.

"We haven't missed a beat since the last game of the season," he said pointely. "We haven't had much time off; we've just been working, and working on our game plan and watching film on Troy. So to say the very least, we'll be well-prepared."

"We feel it's on us to bring home a victory for the last 45 teams that haven't had an opportunity to go to a bowl. To go out a winner would mean the world to me and the rest of these seniors; I know that much. We just want to make sure we finish the job and to take our pads off a winner this last game."

--By Mark Anderson and Paul T. Hlavinka

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Ol' Sammy's set to pull a fast one on his country-boy opponent

'We've got to play our brand of football'
Formula for bowl
success lies within

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Quinton Smith can't resist adding a little flourish to his touchdown run against Central Florida (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Dec. 15) -- Compared to the run of college football behemoths the Rice Owls and first-year head coach Todd Graham were compelled to face in September, the upcoming matchup with Troy University in the New Orleans Bowl may be one where the Owls are closer to playing the role of Goliath than they are the part of David -- a role reversal if there ever was one.

But if Troy is to be cast as the little guy in this matchup, Coach Graham is well aware that the Trojans, historically, have played the part of giant-killer quite well enough to where they'll show little apprehension at the thought of having to take on the recently also-ran Institute.

Though a relative newcomer to Division 1A -- the Trojans made the step up in 2001-- Troy has been willing to face the Big Boys in order to gain credence and cash. This year, the non- conference schedule included Florida State, Georgia Tech and Nebraska, all on the road, naturally.

With such a schedule, Troy, like Rice, started off the season slowly, but came on fast as November rolled around, winning six of their last seven games to force a tie with Middle Tennessee State for the championship of the Sun Belt Conference and earning the crown and the right to go bowling in New Orleans with a 21-20 win over the Blue Raiders.

A look at common opponents yields only what Rice AD Chris DelConte likes to call a 'head-scratcher.' That's because the Owls' worst defeat of the season was suffered at the hands of Florida State in Tallahassee, while a couple of weeks earlier this self-same Troy team traveled to FSU and actually led the Seminoles, 17-10, late in the third quarter before the Bobby Bowden-coached team came back to pull it out, 24-17.

It's by now clear that in the Rice-FSU game, Todd Graham kept his best cards in the hole and held the rest as close to the vest as his competitive bent could possibly allow him, while Florida State, on the other hand, pulled out all the stops to run up the score in the attempt to salvage the offensive coordinator position for one of Bobby's numerous offspring.

Then, one can take a look at the only other common opponent these two teams had, and notice that UAB defeated Troy handily, refusing to allow the Trojans a TD in a 21-3 thrashing in September. That's the same UAB team that the Owls edged, 34-33, at Rice Stadium, a couple weeks later.

Those numbers simply don't add up, but one common thread sticks out, in all of those aforementioned games for each one of them involving Troy wound up being relatively low-scoring affairs. And that's because those guys know how to play defense, Coach Graham avers.

'They're going to play solid defense'

"How they've won football games is that they've played great defense," the Rice head man told us earlier this week. "They run to the ball; they're very athletic, naturally. They're going to play solid defense, week in and week out. So we're going to have to focus on the things that help us to win games defensively."

"Allowing a bunch of points and then outscoring them is not going to get it done for us. They're too solid, fundamentally, on defense," Coach Graham said. "I think the keys to this game is, one, we've got take care of the football on offense, and no stupid penalties. If we do that, we're going to score. We've got the players to do that. But the next key is not turning the football over. That's what hurt us, last game, against SMU."

"Another big key for us in this game," he added, "is we're going to have to play great special teams in addition to having to play great defense We're not going to be able to go out there and give up, you know, 28, 30 points and be successful."

"We've got to get turnovers. We've got to make 'em earn it -- no cheap ones."

"Special teams-wise, we've got to set up scores, dominate the kicking game, and re-establish field position."

Reviewing the Troy offensive weaponry, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Trojans are not lighting up the scoreboard more often than they have.

The superlatives start with the coaching staff, led by 59-year-old Larry Blakeney, who's been head man at Troy three times longer than the southeastern Alabama school has been in NCAA Divison 1A. Blakeney was a quarterback for Auburn during his own playing days, and now, after 16 years at the Troy helm, sports a cumulative won-loss record of 126-65-1 -- which is said by Troy tub-thumpers to be a better record than any college football program in Alabama during that span.

Is that true? Better than'Bama? Auburn? Somebody go to the record book and check that out.

'Their quarterback is a special player'

The old college quarterback has mentored a quality apprentice this year in junior-college transfer Omar Haugabook. The junior quarterback, a relatively big fellow at 6-2, 220, was named the Sun Belt Conference's Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and first-team all-Sun Belt quarterback.

Haugabook led his league in total offense, completions (227), completion percentage (62.2%), yards passing (2,184) and touchdowns (17). However, he also led the Sun Belt Conference in interceptions with 16.

"You know, their quarterback is a special player," Coach Graham insisted. "I think he's a lot like the quarterback from SMU (frosh sensation Justin Willis), a real athletic guy. He's the MVP of their league, offensively. He's won just about every award in the Sun Belt."

Junior Gary Banks (6-1, 196) is Troy's leading receiver with 66 receptions for 595 yards and seven touchdowns. Toris Rutledge, Mykeal Terry and Smokey Hampton round out the TSU receiving corps, each of whom has caught at least 24 passes this year and posted receptions of 58 yards or more.

"They've got four really good wide receivers, you know, 88 and 1-4 are really good receivers. I think that's a big strength of theirs," Coach Graham told us. "And offensive line-wise, they've got some big guys who are very athletic."

"Offensively, I think they're probably a lot like what SMU is. They give similar looks with their spread, no-huddle; a lot of four-wide stuff. And they throw a lot of screen passes," he added, somewhat ominously, for the screen has been one type of play that has bedeviled the ever-aggressive Rice defense this season.

"We're just going to have to concentrate on making the tackle in the open, of tackling in space," Todd concluded.

The other main offensive weapon for the Trojans would be running back Kenny ("The Moose") Cattouse (5-10, 207), who rushed for 774 yards and four touchdowns on 156 carries, and averaged 99.2 yards in the final six games after averaging 35.8 yards in the first five."

Not bad, but if we asked for a show of hands as to how many Owlbackers would ever be willing to trade Chase Clement and Quinton Smith for Haugaboom and The Moose, bet we wouldn't see a one.

First year in spread for Troy, they give up 29 turnovers

Having noted all that, one might also observe that this is the first year in which the veteran Coach Blakeney has utilized the spread offense, and his team has been more than somewhat prone to shoot itself in the foot while on offense, suffering a total of 29 turnovers during the regular season. That, it turns out, has proven to be the Achilles Heel for Troy, garbling a little Greek mythology there. Anyway, it stands as a good reason why the Trojans haven't been putting up gaudy point totals on the scoreboard against SBC foes.

Really, in fact, defense is the Troy forte. "They excel defensively," Coach Graham said. "They've got a lot of speed; a lot of athleticism on defense. They run to the ball well."

"We didn't have a lot of things go great for us early on this season," Troy University head coach Larry Blakeney said.

"We struggled some, and that (56-0) loss to Nebraska crushed us, but we rebuilt and improved over the course of the season, and when the chips were all down, our guys on defense got it done."

After getting bombed and shut out in Lincoln, the Trojans thereafter were able to keep their opponents' weekly point total down, but nevertheless continued to give up an average of 341 yards total offense per game against Sun Belt competition.

That Trojan defense -- one might refer to it as being of the 'bend but don't break' variety -- is keyed by DL Franklin Lloyd, who, at 6-0, 283 pounds leads Troy with 12 1/2 tackles for losses. The Trojans' leading tackler on the season is DB Brandon Condren, with 91 total.

Todd Graham, nevertheless, seems convinced that the only thing that can put the kibosh on Rice's offense, when it's clicking, is, well, its own self. "We'll have a specific game plan to take advantage of what they do on offense," he said. "But our deal is us. You know, we win football games because we're the least penalized team in the league, and we turn the ball over less than anybody else in the league."

And on the other side of the ball, the Owls get turnovers, TG noted. "I think we're second in the country in getting fumbles, and seventh in the country in turnover ratio. So those are the things that we're focusing on and continuing to enhance."

It's clear that, while the Rice staff is burning the midnight oil studying Troy game tapes, they remain convinced that whether the Owls can pull out a bowl championship depends, to a large degree, on how they prepare for this game in practice, how focused they are able to remain -- and whether or not they are able to continue to improve, even if just a smidgen, over the effort that took them past SMU for win number seven on the season.

"We've got to play our brand of football --- very disciplined, no mental mistakes, no stupid penalties, and take care of the ball," Todd concluded. "That's our formula for success."


'We will be very businesslike in our approach'
Owl staff, squad get down to brass tacks

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Rice's literal 'pick' of this Tulsa topsy-turvy reception was a major turning point of the season (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Dec. 13) – As the countdown to bowl kickoff approaches, the chatter among several thousand Rice alumni and fans involves their putting together a game plan for an event they’ve not been in the habit of attending. The delicious luxury of leisure-time decision-making is unfamiliar in the context of a Rice bowl game, except to certain of those Owls whose steps no longer might be all that sturdy.

How many tickets to buy? Where to go – Galatoires or Commanders Palace? Where to stay – Sheraton or the good old Monteleone? Do we have time for a visit at the D-Day museum? Is it really kosher to make a drive through the Ninth Ward?

Meanwhile, in connection with that same party weekend, the Rice coaching staff has a set of decisions to make that are much more familiar to them. That’s so, first because the task of setting up a bowl game plan really isn’t all that different from the regular season. And it’s true, second, because this staff has been through it all before.

"In getting ready for a bowl game, in my experience doing it, you really do focus on fundamentals," Rice head coach Todd Graham told us Tuesday evening. "You don’t overdo it. But we’re a very specific game-plan type of team, anyway."

Then it’s not a question of necessarily putting in some new wrinkles (and if the Owls were, would we really be talking about it?)  Rather, Coach Graham insisted, it’s just a matter of honing in on what one does best.

"Every week we have a specific game plan for the opponent,’ Todd said, "and it’ll be the same type deal for this game. We’ll have things that we can do against what they like to do, and naturally try to take advantage of what they’re going to be teaching their players about us."

The practice routine over the past two weeks has reverted to near-replication of what goes on in spring drills – especially with the younger, less-experienced players. That’s one of the reasons a bowl game is considered a substantial leg up for practice time.

Owls to begin game plan installation Wednesday

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Jonathan Cary, Vernon James celebrate another Owl forced turnover, this time against UCF (PTH photo)

But today, things turn just a bit more intensive. Wednesday is the day the Owls are planning on installing their game plan. "We’ve already had three or four practices on their basic stuff that they do, and then we’ll get really specific tomorrow," Coach noted. "That will give us basically a two-week cycle, looking at them."

"It’s been a little tougher, as coaches," he added, "because we’ve been basically on the road recruiting Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and then getting back here and beginning the practice week Wednesday. Naturally because we’re gone those days, the staff is having to work until really, really late during the week on the nights when we’re here."

"So it’s been double duty for the coaches but we’ve had a little bit more time for the players. They’ve had time to focus on their finals, and then they come in here and watch 45 minutes or so a day of film."

"We encourage them to do that – which they do. These kids volunteer to come in all the time."

The team plane to New Orleans takes off at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, which, it turns out, is a day later than the Troy team. Is that an indication that this Rice team is headed to the Big Easy not to have a lot of fun, but rather to focus on taking care of business? The answer involves a little of both, Coach Graham says.

"I think our team has matured quite a bit," he insisted. "You handle it like – a bowl game is to be a reward. And we will have things for them to do; the bowl naturally has things set up for them to do; but we’ll stay as grounded as we can on our preparation. I’ve been there before, several times; so has our staff, and we pretty much know how to handle it. But it is a different week and you’ve just got to know how to handle it."

Strung-out finals keep Owls in Houston for an extra day

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Frosh DB Andrew Sendejo was a major surprise and a big contributor to the Rice cause this season  (PTH photo)

Final exams run relatively late this semester, it turns out. And that, primarily, is what is keeping the Owls grounded in Houston until Day Two of the bowl festivities. "After all, finals around here are a lot more important than they are at most other places. We have to really be conscious of that," Coach Graham noted.

The last day of finals is set for Monday, so theoretically at least a few Owls will be just to the point of signing their last blue books when the time comes to pack the bags and take off. "But most of them will be done by the latter part of this week," Coach noted.

The Rice staff have been giving the team off Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of this pre-bowl practice period. That’s not out of wanting to take it easy, however. Rather, it has to do with the aforementioned recruiting schedule that’s made incumbent upon the Rice coaching staff.

"That’s when most of the finals have been scheduled, anyway," Todd added. "It gives them time to work on their studies and then practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons, regular time, and also Saturday morning.

"Our flight will take off at nine o’clock Tuesday morning. They’ll be done then."

Practicing with conviction and intensity has been made easier by the Rice players’ understanding of the task at hand, Coach Graham was quick to say. "Success lies in the ability to stay focused," he added. "Our kids don’t seem too overwhelmed or emotional even though, you know, we understand what we represent.

'We know we carry the torch for those guys'

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Brandon King's late interception against UCF put the game away for the Owls (PTH photo)

"We know we represent the 2001 team that went 8-and-4 and did not get an opportunity to be in a bowl game; and should’ve been. We know we represent the teams in the ‘90s that won seven football games, quite a few of them."

"When people in the media say, 'well, it’s been 45 years since Rice has been to a bowl game,' it’s been because of conference affiliations. That’s what’s really hurt us."

"So we know we carry the torch for those guys, and back there on our wall, it says ‘Bowl Champions.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Go to a Bowl.’"

"I’ve told these guys that we have not won a championship. And our goal here is to be champions. And we want to be Bowl…Champions. "

"I really think our kids will maintain a great focus going into this thing, and that’s the key. To be there, enjoy yourself, enjoy the surroundings, all of that is important. But we will be very businesslike in our approach."

"And we need to really look and say, ‘we’re playing solid defense the last two games of the year. Hey, let’s make sure we keep doing what we’re doing; and let’s get better.’ The key is to get better every single day.

--P.T.H.                     Friday:  Coach Graham takes a look at Troy...

Owls aim to put final exams
behind them en route to bowl

'It's all fun'
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Rice offensive lineman Rolf Krueger, here shown leveling a block against East Carolin- ian, says even the drudgery is fun when you're going to a bowl game (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Dec. 9) -- Preparations proceed apace for the Rice Owls as they point toward their upcoming trip to New Orleans for their bowl matchup against Troy State Dec. 22. But the routine, made unfamiliar by a 45-year Rice bowl drought, continues to be somewhat altered by both the demands  of final exams and the imposition of the occasional post-season award-related obligation.

Rice head coach Todd Graham traveled to Orlando Thursday with Rice sophomore wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award finalist Jarett Dillard, for example. The trophy was presented Thursday night during ESPN's annual college football awards show.

Jarett lost out in the balloting to Georgia Tech wideout Calvin Johnson, despite owning superior stats. "But just being there and having that experience was enough," Jarett said afterwards.

The Biletnikoff Award is given annually to the athlete designated  best receiver in college football by the Tallahasee Touchdown Club.

Jarett did earn second team All-American honors on the teams named by both the Walter Camp Foundation and Sports Illustrated.

Meanwhile, the Owls work out daily but spend a relatively larger amount of time in the film room. Running back C. J. Ugokwe said the routine has been relatively tame, but nevertheless, the excitement is building as the departure date for the Big Easy nears.

06bowl44score35.jpg (84200 bytes)
Rice senior running back Quinton Smith, named first team all-conference by the Houston Chronicle, is here shown scoring first Owl touchdown against SMU (Mark Anderson photo)

"We're trying to work our way back in to the emotion of the season," C. J. said. "We're working hard, watching film, and getting prepared for the game."

"There's definitely a hype -- that's growing," place kicker Luke Juist noted. "We want to send these seniors out with a bowl win, and everyone's getting excited about it."

"Practices are so up-tempo," senior punter Jared Scruggs chimed in . "We've finished up classes and so now the focus is just on football. We're ready for it."

Friday night, the Owls knocked off early in order to gather for a reception given for them at the home of university president David Leebron and his wife, Ping.

Monday, Coach Graham will travel to New Orleans to meet up with Troy head coach Larry Blakeney to make a joint appearance before the local Touchdown Club at its pre-bowl luncheon. The team will remain in Houston for the coming week but will get a royal sendoff on Monday evening, Dec. 18, when the Extra Point Club holds a special dinner in honor of the bowl-bound Insititute Boys.

Tuesday morning, Dec. 19, then, it’s off to the Crescent City, where they’ll work out on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On the card for Wednesday, Dec. 20, is a visit to a children’s hospital, and then a big luncheon is scheduled Thursday at noon.

Events for traveling fans kick into high gear with the Fan Second Line Parade, starting out at the Sheraton on Canal Street at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, followed a Fulton Street Fan Party after the parade.

On game day, formal activities will commence with a Tailgate Party next to the Superdome on the Bridge Level, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Within that event is also scheduled a Battle of the Bands which will take place at five p.m., with the kickoff, of course, commencing at seven.

Never at a loss for words, senior offensive lineman Rolf Krueger summed up the entire experience – once the drudgery of finals is over, that is.

"It's all fun," he said.


Right out of Doc C's lesson plan
Buy-in plus hard work
led to sudden success

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Todd Graham:  'We don't just want to go to a bowl game'

HOUSTON (Dec. 2) -- The flush of excitement perhaps has ebbed somewhat in the week that has passed since the Rice Owls completed their regular season and earned a ticket to the postseason with a 31-27 win over SMU.

Allow oneself a bit of free association, and the mind easily might turn to the state of the Rice football program just one year ago. Or perhaps make that six months ago. What the heck, make that six weeks ago.

Rice's previously      -dwindling flock of hardcore supporters would have been deliriously happy to be greeted with the prospect of just going to a bowl game some time in the next three or four years -- never mind falling one point short of winning the C-USA Western Division, establishing the team's longest winning strike since before Eisenhower was president, and going to a bowl game, all in the very first year under the new coach and his staff.

Winning that bowl game would have been of lesser importance, merely the icing on the cake, especially after suffering through four straight losses to begin the season.

But, you see, that's where the mindset of the typical, long-suffering Rice fan and that of Todd Graham diverge. He's made it clear he has no intention of traveling to New Orleans week after next just to have a good time and maybe win, maybe lose. Rather, he's intent, determined, burning the midnight oil, to figure out a way to take home that bowl championship trophy.

"I'm focused on one thing," he insisted in response to a snide question by a Chronicle columnist after the SMU game. Stepping stone? " Mission accomplished" already, after one season?

"Let me explain something to you," Coach Graham responded. "We haven't accomplished anything that we've got written on that wall back there, other than we're the best academic team in Conference USA . We want to be bowl champions. We don't want to "go" to a bowl. We want to WIN a bowl."

"Then the other one back there is Conference USA Champions."

"We want to accomplish two of the three this year; get things rolling next year, and go win a conference championship. So there's a lot of work still to be done."

The sound of work -- and belief

Traverse the intersection of Greenbriar and Rice Boulevard at 6:30 p.m. just about any day last week and one could have seen the stadium lights burning. Crane the ear, and one could've heard the sound of pads a'popping. 

For while grateful alumni might revel in Elysian Fields, this Rice team is out on the field turf, working late in quest of yet another victory, this time at the New Orleans Bowl. And they don't plan on losing.

How suddenly and how vastly have the expectations been raised on the field.   How completely have the players subscribed to the New Way of Thinking, and striven to implement it through extreme toil.

"They have a cause," Coach Graham explains. "They're playing for Rice University. And what it stands for."

"People have said, 'coach, this has been pretty quick.' No it hasn't. Ask them about the 5:30 workouts. Ask them about 'Tour of Duty.' Ask them about the expectations, on and off the field. It's a strain; it's been a strain."

"Coach Graham didn't go through that. They did."

"Bottom line, the reason why we win, is because of the relationships that we have -- that our players have with each other; that the players have with the coaches."

"Tough people come out of tough times. And the way I would describe this team is with the word 'perseverance.' These guys persevered; they've suffered; they've been through a lot of adversity. Perseverance builds character, and this team's got great character."

Senior greybeard Andray Downs has been around the Rice football program as long as any active player. He's seen the bad times and now the good. And he's totally subscribed to all that his coach offers.

"Since Coach Graham came here, we've worked so hard, and have been through so much adversity, I don't even have the words to describe it," 'Dray noted.

Naow, peepul, the theory is very straightforward

Well, let's try this: does Doctor Cuthbertson still teach his theory of "Myth-Power-Values" in his political science classes? Surely he does.

Myth, in the broader sense, is equivalent to the step of "buying in" to Todd Graham's philosophy and system.

Biletnikoff finalist Jarett Dillard explained that such process was gone through in different ways, and at different times, for members of this Rice squad.

"I remember when I sat in that seat," Jarett said. "His first speech -- I guess it was January 8, don't remember the date exactly -- I sat right in the back, and was just listening, and just had to start smiling. A little smirk came on my face and I was asking myself, 'man, is this guy for real?'"

"But the day I bought in was when I woke up at 5:15 in the morning to come up here and work out the first time. Everything since, that coach has put us through yeah, we hated it when we were doing it, but now we're seeing all the rewards from it."

Once they "bought in" and began to apply the myth to process, then, this Owl team found out that they could extend their collective achievement, albeit incrementally.

"The kids, they had to buy in," Coach Graham said. "And with that, they're the ones who have made the incredible investment. And now we are, I think, the hardest working, most disciplined, best conditioned football team in the country."

"We've worked our butts off, day in and day out," senior Mike Falco added. "We stuck with our in- season lifting program. Practices have been grueling. But now, when game time comes, until you see the clock wind down to triple zero in the fourth quarter, we don't think we're out of it, ever."

Success bred success. Winning one close game gave the Owls the confidence that they could -- and would -- do so again. The successive march to seven victories in the last eight games, then, was nothing more and nothing less than a microcosmic demonstration of the Cuthbertsonian notion of Power.

And the steady exercise of that Power has led to the inculcation of Values to the team -- a currency that can be passed on from graduating seniors to incoming freshman, and so on.

Winning is now an expectation

Leave it to "eleven-foot-five" Jarett Dillard to spell it out. "I couldn't have imagined this kind of turnaround with the mindset that we had," he said, speaking of last year and before. "But with the new coaches coming in, and everything that we've done, it's expected."

"I mean, we actually should have won more games this season. Bowl? Expected. We all expected this. We've found out that everything we've done is all paying off. We're ready for this. We're ready for the bowl."

The suddenness, and thoroughness, of the arrival of such a completely altered value system has mystified and delighted many a long-time Rice fan. And beyond that, perhaps because of the David-and-Goliath qualities of the institution, it's recognized by its progenitor as something unique.

"I've won a lot of football games in a lot of places," Todd Graham said, "but there's something special going on at Rice right now. The student body, and our football team --  it's a coming together. I'm just very honored to be a part of it."

"I'm also very thankful for the guys. When I first got here, and we hadn't won a game, we were shooting off our mouths about what we were going to do, and that it could be done here -- that you could have excellence in academics, and excellence on the football field -- I appreciate them making this possible, starting before we'd even won a game. The credit goes one place -- it goes to the players."

"Forty-five years is way too long, and we've just begun."


Bowl Week I -- interviewswavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)
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Coach Graham, Andray Downs get to relax a bit while waiting to talk to newshounds after last-gasp win over East Carolina (PTH photo)

06bowldraytn1.jpg (18506 bytes) Andray Downs:   "You don't really know how much you can touch somebody, playing this game of football...."new.gif (908 bytes)
chriscdtn1.jpg (13961 bytes) Rice Athletic Director Chris DelConte: "What Todd Graham had told us -- 'we will win; we will go to a bowl game' -- how many of you believed that?"

Bowl officials said delighted over 'Cinderella Story' choice
Owls to make parliament in Big Easy
06nobowlheader.jpg (65714 bytes)

HOUSTON (Nov. 29) – The last time the Rice Owls left the city of Houston to play in a bowl game, their destination was the city of New Orleans.

Darned if it doesn’t look like they’re beginning to make that trip a habit. For a mere 46 years later, the Boys from the Institute have once again accepted an invitation to play a holiday bowl game in that fair but recently benighted city, as Rice sports officials put the big OK Tuesday on a formal invite to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, set for 7 p.m. Dec. 22 in the Superdome.

"I know our kids are excited about the opportunity of going to New Orleans, playing in the Superdome, and getting the opportunity to go compete in a bowl game," said Rice’s recently-crowned C-USA Coach of the Year, Todd Graham. "We would have been excited to go anywhere, but I think our kids are very excited about going out and spending a week in New Orleans."

The Owls, who sport a six-game winning streak – their longest since the Truman Administration – have have won seven of their last eight games, thus have earned their first bowl trip since the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl, a game played in Rice Stadium. The year before, the Owls had traveled to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl against Ole Miss before a crowd of 83,000.

In this year’s game, Rice will meet the champion of the Sun Belt Conference – a belt that can be worn by Troy University, of Alabama, if they’re able to triumph over a winless Florida International team on Saturday night. If Troy manages to stumble against FIU, then Middle Tennessee State will be the likely opponent, although Lousiana-Lafayette maintains faint hopes as well.

Coach Graham indicated he and his troops didn’t care which team they wound up playing, but that they have every intent of taking this ball game as seriously as any one on the regular schedule – perhaps moreso. Besides which, there’s another motive for wanting to get into a post-season matchup, he added.

"Right now we're playing our best football," Todd told press, "and to get an opportunity to get three more weeks of practice in and develop our young players and our program, that's how you do it," Graham said. "Bowl practice is such an incredible advantage and an incredible building block for the future of your program. "

"This is a team that persevered and suffered through a brutal first half of the year," Graham said. "But that built character, and character built hope. I can't tell you how proud I am of our staff, our players and our university."

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante said the group was extremely happy to be able to land Rice as a bowl participant, what with its college football Cinderella Story of the year.

"We're excited to have what we feel is the hottest team in (C-USA) right now," Mr. Ferrante said. "Rice's proximity to New Orleans, enthusiasm, and anticipation of its first bowl appearance in many years should translate into an electric atmosphere in New Orleans."

Tickets to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl are on sale now through the Rice University Ticket Office in one of three methods. Fans can purchase them online by going online at RiceOwls.com, , by calling 713-522-OWLS, or in person at the Ticket Office, which is open from 8:30-5:00, Monday through Friday.

However – and it’s big ‘however’ – Owl fans SHOULD buy their tickets through the Rice Ticket Office in order to be assured that Rice gets credit for their purchases among the total head count of team tickets purchased.

For further information, one may visit the RiceOwls.com website Bowl Central.

For shut -ins and those alums over 100 years of age, the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN-2.  Everybody else goes.


Owls hope to let the good times roll
(Houston Chronicle -- Nov. 29)

'It's a great day for Rice'
(New Orleans Times-Picayune -- Nov. 29)

Rice accepts invite to New Orleans Bowl
(RiceOwls.com -- Nov. 28)
It's official:  Owls heading to Big Easy
(Houston Chronicle <MK's blog> -- Nov. 28)

Rice accepts bid to play in New Orleans Bowl
(SBC Sportsline -- Nov . 28)

New Orleans Bowl will be Rice's first in 45 years
(ESPN.com -- Nov. 28)


Major:   I'm not going anywhere

HOUSTON (Dec. 4) -- Rice Offensive Coordinator Major Applewhite has asked me to release the following statement regarding a report about his considering to join the coaching staff at Iowa State.   He is on the road recruiting and is not available for further  interviews, but wanted to put an end to this speculation:

“There is absolutely no truth to the report that has surfaced that I have already accepted or I am considering an offer to join the staff at Iowa State. I have not been contacted by anyone and do not have any interest. My total focus right now is on preparing for our game against Troy in the New Orleans Bowl and on recruiting the types of players who will allow Rice to build upon the momentum of this great season.  My total commitment is to Rice and to our current and future players.“

--Chuck Pool, Rice S.I.D.




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