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'06 UAB week

Rice 34, UAB 33
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Owls refuse to accept last-minute loss
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Rice's Bencil Smith forces fumble in end zone that might have squelched UAB's go-ahead drive before it had chance to get off the ground (PTH photo)

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Lute Barber is Foul Owl on the Prowl as he espies loose football with seconds remaining in game -- his fumble recovery; Owls' ball; a win for Rice (Mark Anderson photo)

HOUSTON (Oct. 15) -- Fate and the UAB Blazers attempted to jam the script for another demoralizing loss down the collective throats of the Rice Owls here Saturday evening, but the Boys from the Institute spit it right back up and papered the Rice Stadium north end zone with the pages.

The Owls' will to win drove the team from their 20 to the lip of the goal in the waning seconds after falling behind, 33-28 with 3:55 left in the game, the victim of a bizarre, 98-yard drive by the Blazers that shouldn't have happened to begin with.

But the Bama boys committed a gaffe that shouldn't have been, either, fumbling away a potential game-clinching interception, and the Owls used it to breathe life back into their drive.

Facing the necessity of completing a long TD drive to earn the win, the Owls moved the ball 72 yards in 10 plays before Chase Clement's pass was intercepted by UAB's Kris Guyton at the eight yard line with 35 seconds left.

Inexplicably, rather than falling on the pill, Guyton, seeing nothing but green space ahead of him, lit out for the opposing goal line. But after he covered about ten yards, as he was trying to move the ball from right arm to left -- or perhaps trying to do a little premature strutting -- the spheroid simply slithered out of his hands, and Rice OL Lute Barber was right there to recover it at the UAB 18.

"When I saw the ball on the ground," Lute said, "my mind flashed back to those drills in fall camp when we practice recovering the ball. I was so glad that I got to it and held on."

Next, a quarterback scramble took the ball to the nine yard line. But there was time for only one more shot at that point, as a mere seven ticks were left on the game clock, and the Owls had just had to call their final time out.

One can imagine the theatrics that transpired in the huddle during that interlude. At first, it seems, the Rice coaching staff was inclined to avoid going to the well too often. Jarett Dillard had already picked up two TD receptions on the evening, and everybody in the stadium knew he'd be Chase's prime target.

But Jarett wasn't afraid to make a suggestion of his own. "Game on the line, who wants the ball?" Dillard asked.  "I went to coach Graham and told him they're double-covering me,  but I want the ball. Throw the fade. I told him I'm going to catch it, we're going to score; we're going to win the game."

And that's exactly what happened.

Double-teamed, Jarett made the winning grab, no problem

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Jarett Dillard is obviously interfered with, resulting in 15 yards and a first down on Owls' winning TD drive (PTH photo)

Double-teamed, Jarett circled out until he reached his favorite end zone sweet spot, camped up against the out-of-bounds line about three yards deep in the pay station. Chase made the quick drop, wheeled and threw a line drive scheduled to hit that sweet spot, about ten feet in the air, a split-second later. Jarett leaped high, fading only slightly, and snagged the ball with both hands at the top of his leap, sandwiched between two white-shirted defenders.

Blink your eyes, and you'd have missed it. But you wouldn't have missed just about the loudest roar that possibly can emanate from the partisan crowd that was announced as a shade over 10,000.

It was Jarett's third touchdown reception of the game, his eleventh of the season. It broke an all-time single season TD catch record that had stood for over 30 years, and, by golly, just like Jarett said, it won the game.

"It was meant for us to win," Rice head coach Todd Graham said, post-game. "That's just Conference USA for you. You're going to have a chance to win every game if you play every play to the end."

Right, coach. In this case, quite literally to the very end.

Rice impressively jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, but UAB kept flailing and chipping away until finally they took the lead with under four minutes remaining on a 49-yard sideline pass to Coach's son Steven Brown.

That play hit the Rice sideline like a kick in the stomach. "It was so frustrating," Coach Graham said, "because it felt like we'd outplayed them all night, but we kept on just giving cheap touchdowns."

Many a Rice team would've folded its tent right then and there, but not this new, improved 2006 version.

On the ensuing fateful, final drive, the Owls starting by accepting a touchback. Then on first down, it appeared Quinton Smith had running room, but he was separated from the ball after a four yard gain, only quickly to regain possession. Tick, tick, tick.

On second down, Chase faked to Q and lit out around end, picking up 19 yards and a first down at the Rice 43.

The Rice press box obviously was seeing a vulnerability, a consequence of UAB's 'prevent' defense, which suggested that Q test the line again. This time he got seven to midfield. From there, Chase dropped back in the pocket and found you know who camped out on the sideline 20 yards downfield, but this time two UAB defenders were going to make sure he didn't catch the ball, taking him to the ground before the pass arrived.

Rice continued its goalward drive

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Quinton Smith stretches for yardage in first half of Rice-UAB game (PTH photo)

The resulting pass interference call gave the Owls a first down at the UAB 35, and suddenly the crowd and the Rice bench (and one would presume the 11 Rice men on the field) seemed to figure it out, hey, we can just take this thing down the field and stick it in the end zone!

Again, the defensive alignment indicated a running play to Q, but two tries by the senior running back netted only six yards, and now time was really becoming a concern.   Tick, tick, tick.

On a huge third and four, Chase hit Jarett on a quick-out for nine yards and a first down. The field was getting shorter and shorter, and the UAB defenders began to stack the defensive front accordingly.

Chase next hit Toren Dixon for seven more, but now only 38 seconds shone on the scoreboard clock, so the Owls had to use one of their two remaining timeouts.

Chase scrambled for six more yards, and now the ball was on the UAB 14, with the first down giving the Owls a momentary stoppage of the clock.

Next, a quick hitter on the slant to Joel Armstrong almost did the trick, but was a bit low and outside for him to hold onto. But at least it stopped the clock with 19 seconds left.

Then came the bizarre interception-fumble-combination that dramatically set up the winning score for the Owls. Chase said the UAB defender just appeared to come out of nowhere on the pickoff. "He'd been making plays all day. I just went straight to the ground, I was at such a low right there," a tired but elated young man said afterwards. "Then I hear everybody get loud, and I look up and they're pointing 'our ball'."

When was the last time if ever that the Owls scored a touchdown on their first AND last plays from scrimmage in a single game? That's what happened at Rice Stadium Saturday, and it took both scores to provide the margin of victory.

To open the game, the Owls had good field position after a personal foul penalty tacked 15 on to a return the Chris Douglas brought out to the Owls 28.

On first and ten at the 43, Chase faked to Q in the middle of the line, and everybody for UAB but the bus driver bit on it. Quickly, the Owl quarterback circled wide to the far sideline. By the time he crossed the goal line, 57 yards away, nobody was within 15 yards of him.

Great way to start a ball game.

Rice made big stop on UAB's opening possession

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'Hey, I'm through with this for the time being.  What'da I do with it?' (PTH photo)

UAB moved the ball on the ensuing possession, but the Rice defensive unit rose to the occasion once the Blazers approached midfield. On third and six, Blazer QB Chris Williams hit his receiver Marcus Elliot for what looked as if it were going for a first down, but Rice's Ja'Corey Shepherd teamed with Brian Raines to deliver a crushing stop three yards short of the yard marker, and UAB had to punt out.

A 48-yard Parker Mullins punt backed the Owls to their own six yard line. Deep punt returner Ja'Corey Shepherd appeared to have signaled for the fair catch at the eight, but apparently he didn't do it with sufficient conviction, because the gendarmes allowed the smothering hit applied to him, and it was all anyone could have done, just to hold on to the ball.

Three straight Chase Clement scrambles picked up a total of 28 yards and had the Owls suddenly sitting pretty at their own 34. But a Blazer blitz sat down Chase for an eight-yard loss, however, which set up third and long.

What to do then? Elementary, my dear Watson, er, Brown. Chase dropped back and flung the ball high and far down the home sideline, and Jarett Dillard was there to leap and wrap up the pass for a 31 yard gain.

After a key reception by Rice tight end Taylor Wardlaw gave the Owls a first down at the UAB 12, the Owls were flagged, next play, for illegal procedure. Owl fans are used to seeing such an infraction mean a drive-killer, but not this time. One play later, Chase had good protection when he found his old battery-mate in the end-zone for a relatively easy TD pass-and-catch that went the final 15 yards for the score.

Coach Graham earlier in the week had described UAB as a relatively undisciplined team. So one would have thought that such an emphatic opening statement by the Owls might have prompted the Blazers to fold their tent. But they kept coming back, usually by way of long TD passes that took advantage of Rice defensive breakdowns. First, UAB QB Williams hit Sylvester Mencer, who sprinted in from 30 yards out.

Kicker Parker Mullins shanked the extra point try, so the Owls were still up by 14-6 at that point, late in the first quarter. But after Rice failed to move the ball and had to punt away, William struck again, this time hitting his wideout Willie Edwards, who caught the ball in the middle of the field 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, but then managed to bounce off at least two Rice secondary men who appeared to have clean shots for the tackle, and went on for 71 yards and the touchdown. The two-point try failed, so the Owls led 14-12 at that point, with 6:10 left in the half.

The Feathered Flock had one more good first half drive left in them, however. Mixing the pass (mostly Clements to Dillard) and the run (mostly Clements scrambling), the Owls took it 74 yards in 10 plays to go up, 21-12, with two minutes left in the half.

UAB responded by running its two-minute drill quite adeptly, howver, and it looked for a moment as if the Blazers once again would match the Owls, score for score, when they blew right down the field, finally stalling at the Rice 17, where, as the clock ran out, Parker Mullins missed a field goal try from 33 yards out.

A 21-12 halftime lead could have been more, but it could have been less. The missed field goal put a skip in the step of the Owl defenders as they headed into the halftime locker room -- in effect, it was just as good as a three-and-out.

Owls stiffened after third-quarter defensive breakdown

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Owls' Dietrich Davis levels quietus on UAB quarterback (PTH photo)

UAB moved the ball into Rice territory after taking the second half kickoff, via a 51-yard broken-field run by tailback Dan Burks. Burks had run the Rice defense ragged in last year's 45-26 loss to UAB in Birmingham, but  he was listed as questionable, injury-wise, for this game.

But he came in seemingly none the worse for the wear, and once again ran like a demon against the Owls, carrying the ball 18 times for 133 yards on the night.

Suddenly, however, with a shorter field behind them at defending from their own 34, the Owl defense stiffened once more.

First, George Chukwu penetrated the UAB defensive line and was there to greet Burks for a three-yard loss the moment he took the handoff. An illegal procedure penalty against the Blazers was followed by another Owl TFL, this time shared by Will Wood and Brian Rains. A third-and-long passing attempt skipped weakly into the sideline, and UAB had to punt the ball away.

The Owls were in a disadvantageous field position, however, and that failure to play the field-position game cost them. Though they moved the ball from their 12 out to theirown 36, at that point, Chase threw a ball that UAB's Kris Guyton was able to get a mitt on. UAB's Jeff Williams was the beneficiary, as his interception set up the Blazers at the Rice 37.

Given the short field, UAB wasted no time in tightening the game further. First, UAB QB Williams hit Willie Edwards for 21 yards to the Rice 3. But it took the Blazers three plays to punch it in from there, thanks to key stops by Ja'Corey Shepherd, Marcus Rucker and Bencil Smith.

On third and goal, however, Owl nemesis Dan Burks pushed the ball across, and, with a single PAT taken, UAB was once again within two, at 21-19.

Rice immediately responded with an eight-play, 65-yard drive, the key play being a Joel Armstrong end-around that went 21 yards to the UAB 27. Three plays later, Chase connected with -- guess who -- from 14 yards out and the Owls were back up by nine, 28-19.

Rice held UAB on the ensuing possession, but having gotten the ball back, Rice went three-and-out, and Jared Scruggs got off one of his lesser punts of the day -- althought he had a good day, overall -- and Kevin Sanders returned the ball 13 yards to the Rice 35.

It took the Blazers three plays to go the distance and once again come within two points, this time 28-26, five seconds deep into the fourth quarter.

It was time for Rice either to move the ball and hold on to it, or play the field position game, and they elected to do the latter.

Two exchanges wound up with Jared Scruggs making a perfect punt that landed underneath the deep man and bounded 25 or so yards, all the way to the UAB two yard line, where it was killed by the Owl coverage team.

On second and ten from there, UAB quarterback Williams dropped back into the end zone to pass.  About five yards deep, he was hit with a crushing blow by Bencil Smith, and the ball was stripped away and bounced around, tantalizingly, in the end zone.

Probabilities stood with Owls, but they didn't pan out

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DaJaun Cooper shares high-fives with his buddies in the MOB (PTH photo)

What are the possibilities in such a case?  Well, number one is that a defender falls on the pill for a touchdown.  If so in this case, game over.   Number two is a defender falls on it for a safety.  If so, Rice leads 30-26 and gets the ball on a free kick; game pretty much over.  Number three is the ball goes out of the end zone for a touchback, and Rice gets the ball on its 20, with a golden opportunity to run out the clock. 

Only in alternative four does the fumbling team retain any dignity from the situation, and that happens only when an offensive player is able to pick up the ball and run it out of the end zone.  UAB's Quinton Harris was able to do so and get the ball out to the UAB 2.  The percentages were against him, but he was somehow able to do it.

UAB had plenty of time, but they had 98 yards to go. Moments later, the Blazers faced third and 13 at their own 35, and then the Owls flushed the UAB quarterback Williams out of the pocket, though he picked up six yard to make it fourth and seven.

At that point, UAB had burned all of their time outs, so Watson Brown had to gamble and go for it. Unfortunately, in making the big stick on Williams the previous play, Rice's Bencil Smith was injured slightly, and the time he took to get off the field gave the Blazers the chance to plant a victory garden.

QB Williams threw a quick out to Stephen Brown (again, Watson's son) for nine yards and a first, and the UAB drive was still alive.

Next play, Williams hit the self-same coach's son for the 49-yard scoring strike, and once he'd threaded his way down the visitor's sideline for the go-ahead score, things looked glum for the Owls, indeed.

Only they didn't wind up that way.

UAB head coach (and former Rice head coach) Watson Brown was sanguine, post-game.

"You've just got to play better on the road, that's all," he said. "It's no different than Tulsa or Southern Miss -- it's not an easy place to play here. Houston got out with one point, we needed to come in here and do the same. We were not able to do that."

"It seemed like every big play that they didn't just throw a fade route to Dillard was 16 scrambling out and hitting somebody or getting loose or on a gun running play or on the first play when he gets loose and we don't take him. I thought he (Chase Clement) was the difference in the game, one hundred per cent."

Coach Graham, on the other side of the stadium, said that the amount of yards given up by the Rice defense this night was misleading. "Our kids came in and stepped up to the challenge, defensively. I was really proud by the way the defense bore down and took the game to them," he said. "They were giving up a lot of size to a team that can really run the football."

"All in all, I was really pleased."

--Paul T. Hlavinka

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It's called Attitude:
  Rice's Quinton Smith can't resist strutting his stuff at least a little bit,
once he safely crosses goal line to provide Owls with game-clinching TD (PTH photo)

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Team awarded offensive lineman Lute Barber game ball for his key fumble recovery in waning seconds (PTH photo)

Post game interviews:

Coach Graham: "I said, 'Alright, we'll throw you the ball'"wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

Chase Clement:   "Such a low, such a high there towards the end"wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

Jarett Dillard:   "'I'm going to catch it; we're going to score; we're going to win the game'"wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

Lute Barber:   "I was just glad to put the ball back in our players' hands"




Which Rice team will show -- Tulane's victim, or Army's tormentor?
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'Next time, I'm rentin' me a' Expedition!'

HOUSTON (Oct. 12) --  Will the real Rice Owls please stand up?

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First play of the game, and it's 'see-ya!' to the UAB defense, as Chase Clement romps in 57 yards, untouched, for the score (Mark Anderson photo)

Rice football fans saw a veritable Jekyll-and-Hyde act from their Owls in the past two weeks as the Feathered Flock followed a stirring, near-letter perfect 34-point win over Army with an error-ridden loss to a so-so Tulane team this past Saturday.

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It was like observing two completely different teams on the gridiron, comparing the War Owls of West Point to the birdies of the Big Easy.  The question now is, which of those two teams will show up on the turf of Rice Stadium Saturday, when the home team takes on Watson Brown's Blazers of the University of Alabama-Birmingham; kickoff at 6:30 p.m. (CSTV).

Rice head coach Todd Graham and his staff were besides themselves on the sidelines of the Superdome Saturday as their charges made like they were pale facsimiles of the  rugged bunch that humbled an up-and-coming Army team the week before.

”We got out and beat a very good football team,” Coach Graham said, referring to the Flock’s 48-14 rout of USMA at the Point.  “That was a team that hung 62 points on the board this week,” he added, alluding to the 62-7 beating the Black Knights pinned on the Keydets of VMI Saturday. “And then we come back and lose to a team that I really think we ought to have beaten.”

Yeah, Todd, you and the entire Rice alumni association – or at least the cohort that’s  at least dimly aware football is being played on South Main.

Errors said to be eminently correctible

The difference, the Rice mentor took pains to point out, lies not in a reduced effort, or anything else that’s not eminently correctible.  It’s simply a matter of reducing the defensive breakdowns to a manageable level, and executing on offense the way that the Owls already have demonstrated they can do.

“We're not changing the way we're doing things,” Todd said.  “This season's far from over; we just have to keep getting better every day.”

“If we play defense, that's the key.  In the next six games, for us to win, we're going to have to play defense.  We're going to have to stop the run; at least control the run, be able to do some things to slow people down.  We were doing that the last game -- and then we give up a 64 yard run that's absolutely ridiculous.”

“And the cheap touchdown passes, you just can’t give up.”

“We're going to score our points.  I really believe that, with the kids that we have.”

This talent level in this  league presents the Owls with a legitimate chance to earn a win each time they go out onto the field, the Rice head man averred.  “In this conference,’ Todd said,  “we're going to be in every single game and have an opportunity to win it. And if we prepare and get better every day, we'll have our share of success.”

“We're number one in the conference in turnover ratio. That's the number one indicator for winning football games.  And you're 1 and 5!  That's because you're giving up cheap touchdowns.  And because you're getting killed on field position.”

“That's a sign that we're taking care of the football; getting turnovers.   We're second in the league in sacks.  We're doing good things, but in the last three weeks, we're giving up cheap touchdowns. And we're making too many critical errors in doing that.  Thing is, then, if we don't give up those big plays, we're gonna win.”

Of course, they have video projectors and such at Birmingham, so they’ll be quite able to run films of the Tulane game and see how Coach Scelfo and his able quarterback, Lester Ricard, were able to  pester the Rice defense into submission  with delays, draws, smashes, jams, and just generally sitting back in the pocket and picking out the wide open receiver all afternoon.

Although former UAB QB and All-America candidate Darrell Hackney has, er, de-matriculated, the Blazers are still capable of moving the ball, both on the ground, and in the air – as one would expect any Watson Brown-coached team to be able to do.

Owl fans of a certain vintage can well remember Watson and the skills he puts to work on the offensive side of the ball, being that Mack’s older brother was head coach at the Institute for the 1984 and 1985 seasons, before answering the call and coming home to Mother Vanderbilt.

He didn't win all that much, going 4-18 in the two years he was at Rice.   But his teams scored a lot of points.

Passing-oriented coach this year has emphasized the run

This year, while rotating in a pair of quarterbacks, Watson’s stressed running the ball perhaps as much as he ever has, in his now 26-year head coaching career.

That’s not good news for the Owls, for Rice enters Saturday's game against UAB ranked last among Conference USA schools in rushing defense, giving up an average of 212.9 yards per game. It’s a statistic which bodes well for the Blazers, especially after a running attack that netted a combined 277 yards of rushing offense in the win over Memphis on Oct. 7.

In that contest, both Corey White (130 yards) and Marculus Elliot (111 yards) each rushed for over 100 yards against Memphis, and Watson Brown feels a comparably impressive set of rushing statistics will be well  in order, for the Blazers take home a win from Houston.

"The running game is always important for us," Watson  said. "We need to establish the run when we go in there because that is what we are built on first. I don't know if we will rush for 277 yards again, but we need to definitely establish the run this Saturday."

Another obstacle into getting the running game going against Rice will be the health of UAB's offensive line (sound familiar?). Brown is concerned about it, but feels he has had the injury bug on the offensive line throughout the season, and each week, someone steps up to fill a hole.

"I am concerned about the health of the offensive line," Brown said. "But at the same time it seems like we have always managed to step up every time. Again, this week we are going to have a couple of starters out, but it seems like this team, especially over the last.”

Watson said he wasn’t particularly perturbed about the prospect of facings Rice’s revamped offensive scheme – one that tends to throw first and run second.

"We did pretty well against East Carolina and well against Troy and felt good but then fell back a little bit last week,” he said, referring to last week’s 35-29 win over Memphis.  “I don't think we played as well on that side of the ball in any phase. I think the challenge is to get us on track again and get some big plays to win the game on defense.”\

Funny, we’re hearing the same thing from the coaches on our end. 

UAB is 2-0 in conference play, but hasn't hit road yet

The Blazers are 2-0 in league play but both wins have come at home.  UAB now travels to its first conference road game of the year, and Watson Brown appeared sanguine over the task facing UAB at Rice Stadium.

“ I think it's going to be a typical Conference USA game,’ he said, “where when you go on the road you just beg to get a win. It's only their second home game of the season so they're going to be excited to be home.”

Injury-wise, there are still question marks for the Owls.  The expectation is that Chase Clement will have gotten over the thumb soreness which hampered his throwing hand at Tulane.  Dietrich Davis should be back full-time at middle linebacker, which will be a big help to the Owls in their attempt to slow down the UAB running game.

On the defensive side, Brandon King is still out with a high ankle sprain.  “We didn’t have those back when I was in school,” Coach Graham quipped. “Not having Brandon King is very tough.  It was a big part of Tulane's game plan to attack his position.  Saturday, we really had two guys out of our secondary.   Andrew  (Sendejo) didn't play most of the game, and that hurt us a little bit.  But we've got to play with the guys we've got.”

Offensively, Rolf Krueger  is still walking wounded, and Mike Falco is day to day.  Both will likely suit out, but see limited, if any, action Saturday. But the deal, Coach Graham insists, is that the Owls won big at Army with all of those guys on the sidelines.

“The biggest thing wasn't the talent,” he insisted, in alluding to the loss at Tulane last week.  “It was just a matter of miscommunications and mistakes.  A lot of that had to do with what Tulane was doing.  It was really simple, it was not a matter of having to do anything that was all that complex.”

“The effort is great, but it doesn't matter what the effort is, if you're not going to the right spot.”

“We need to read each chapter as we go."


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Rice future All-American receiver Jarett Dillard comes down with winning TD catch with 3.5

seconds to play  (Mark Anderson photo)

Halftime report
Owls would'a, could'a, should'a been 3-3

By Mark Anderson

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Rice QB/WR Joel Armstrong:  “We don’t have to do too much different.  I think we have a scheme that we can pretty much put up against anybody.” (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Oct. 11) -- If you are one of the Rice fans who have been tempted to toss in the towel on this season, there's a message waiting for you — the players are not.

Rice senior defensive lineman Courtney Gordon, for instance, in spite of all that has happened so far this year, has maintained a positive attitude.  “That’s the only option [a positive attitude],” Gordon said.  “If you don’t keep a positive attitude, it will just continue to spiral downhill, and that’s not what we want. . . .we want to pick up and turn this season around.  We go out and win these next six games, and we come out with a winning record.”

Gordon pointed something important out when he added, “When you look towards the future, you can see a positive outcome.”

Ask Courtney if he believes the Owls have played better than their record indicates.  “Oh, definitely,” Gordon responded.  “If you go back and look at all the games, if there’s a few things we correct, we can be a completely different team.” 

Joel Armstrong agreed.  “We feel that we could have had a better record, but we can’t worry about that.  Those games are over with, and we have to look forward to the rest of the season.”

Yeah, things went horribly wrong in  New Orleans last Saturday.  Between blown coverages and being outplayed on defense both by the run and the pass, some things simply are not as they appear.

Courtney Gordon pointed to one thing in particular as a factor in the loss to Tulane.  “Like Coach Graham said, the big thing was communication on defense.  WE get that fixed. . . . and it should take care of itself.” 

On the offensive side of the ball, Armstrong pointed out, “We don’t have to do too much different.  I think we have a scheme that we can pretty much put up against anybody.”  Joel also pointed out that the Owls needed to eliminate awkward mistakes, “such as penalties, a lot of penalties that we’re not accustomed to,” as one of the keys to getting back on track.

Scoreboard hasn't fully reflected degree of improvement

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Rice DL Courtney Gordon: “If you go back and look at all the games, if there’s a few things we correct, we can be a completely different team.” (PTH photo)

The Owls have played better than the results on the scoreboard have indicated so far this season. 

For instance—quick—who leads C-USA in takeaways?  Which team has already surpassed their total of QB sacks form last year?  Who has the leading receiver in C-USA?  Who has the fifth leading rusher in the conference?  Which team has the number two and number four (both tied) QB sackers so far this season?

The answer to all of the above questions is none other than yourOwls.  And this has been accomplished while playing some of the toughest teams in the country.

Last year, the turnover/takeaway margin for Rice was, in a word, atrocious.  This year is completely different.  Thirteen times Rice’s opponents have coughed up the ball—ten times Rice has recovered those fumbles.  And until the game with Tulane, the pass defense had held its’ own, making outstanding quarterbacks like Kevin Kolb and Ben ---ineffective.  

The truth about this season is that in spite of a 1-5 record, the Owls have played much better football than their record indicates.  They lost by a single point to the high-powered Cougars.  However, Chase Clement had been hurt in that game early in the third quarter.  That’s when an Owls’ offense that was having their way with the Cougar defense began to misfire and ultimately limp the rest of the way.  If not for the injury to Chase Clement, the Owls may have walked away with that game, even with the Cougars scoring 31 points.  But that’s something we’ll never know, kind of like, “Who really shot JFK?”

The UCLA game was also a game the Owls came very close to upsetting a national powerhouse.  In spite of getting down 13-0, the Owls came back to within three points, 19-16. A bad call gave the Bruins the TD that, in the end, was too much to overcome.   There were less than five plays that night that separated the Owls from the win column—and that was in spite of two running backs from UCLA that ran for over 100 yards.    

Keys to the last half of the season

So how can the Owls get off the mat after last week and give the Blazers, the leaders of the Eastern Conference, a defeat?

It starts with the players not coming out flat as they did against Tulane.  “We came out flat,” Coach Graham readily admitted Monday.  Three’s an old saying about a team rising or falling to the level of its’ competition.  For the Owls, they need to rise above the level of their competition, and make that a weekly habit.

Second, it’s time for the good guys to get the early lead.  The first drive on defense this week will be a key indicator as to whether some of the kinks in the amour have been worked out or not.  There’s a saying about preparation meeting opportunity.  In the Owls’ case,  preparation is taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to them.  They’ve been prepared—they knew everything that Tulane was going to do.  But preparation did not take advantage of opportunity.  That has to change for the Owls to get back in the win column.

Another thing that has to happen for the Owls to win next Saturday is for Quinton Smith to have a big game on the ground.  When Quinton runs as he can, it opens up the Owl offense.  He’s been good this season.  But if he busts loose against UAB, the Blazers are going to be in for a long evening.  It will also benefit Chase Clement as the defense simply won’t be able to pin their ears back rushing him and forcing him to run.

Fourth, the offense needs to continue to manage the game well.  Up to this point in the season, they have done remarkably well as far as limiting the number of turnovers.   Quietly, Major Applewhite is becoming an offensive coordinator to be reckoned with.  He is quietly putting together an offense that, if it remains turnover free, can become one of the best offenses in C-USA.  Right now, the only team in C-USA that can stop the Owl offense is themselves.  By eliminating the critical mistakes, such as crucial penalties, this offense can become a juggernaut to be reckoned with.

Finally, the Owls must start winning the game of field position.  That means that all do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  When the defense has the other team pinned back deep in their own territory, they have to begin making big plays to give the offense a shot at the ball in good field position.  The offense, when given those opportunities, must eliminate the critical mistakes.  And special teams must begin pinning the other team down in their territory on kickoffs and punts, as well as avoiding penalties on returns.

Mission Impossible?  Not

One thing that has not been mentioned to date either here or anywhere else I can find is that there is a bit of a wild card in play here.  That wild card is this team has had to learn a completely different system than many were used to running.   As Coach Graham indicated in his press conference this week, which means sometimes a sideline signal is missed in a critical situation.  This team is adjusting to this new system on the fly.

A comparison might be helpful here.  If you have ever taken a foreign language in high school or college, you will remember how difficult the first semester was.  You thought you were never going to be able to get the vocabulary and nuances of the language down.  But if you hung around and braved out a second semester, one day it seemed to all click for you. 

That’s what may very well happen with the Owls in the second half of this season.  The blown coverage won’t be blown.  The signal from the sideline won’t be misread.  The critical mistakes will be eliminated because of familiarity with the new system. 

Would it that same begins Saturday against UAB.

06uabslchaseb464.jpg (106765 bytes)
Rice quarterback Chase Clement seconds after the final gun in Saturday's last-gasp victory over

UAB.  Chase rushed for 141 net yards and threw three touchdown passes to his battery-mate,
Jarett Dillard, to seal the win (PTH photo)

06uabweektoddg375.jpg (42755 bytes)
Tulane game a puzzlement for Todd Graham (PTH photo)

Monday's press luncheon audios

Joel Armstrong: 'You have to take care of the little things...'wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)

Courtney Gordon: 'It's a combination of things that can be corrected as a team...'wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)

Coach Graham (part 1): 'In this confer- ence, every week, anybody can beat anybody...'wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)

Coach Graham (part 2):   'They didn't run one play that we hadn't practiced against...'wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)

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