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'06 U of H week
University of Houston 31, Rice 30 x
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Second quarter TD frenzy not enough
as upset chances slip away from Owls

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Bubba Heard goes high to challenge UH receiver  and prevent the touchdown -- the ball was ruled caught out of bounds (Mark Anderson photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 3) – Renaissance Rice turned out to be very much the engagingly successful, encouragingly transitional experience long-suffering Owl fans hoped it would be here Saturday night.  But apparently just a drop of the leftover old, tired blood still coursed in Sammy's veins, given that the University of Houston managed to overcome a 16-point Rice lead in the last 17 minutes of play to defeat the Owls, 31-30, in the season opener for both teams.

The result left the Owl players, not to mention their coaches and fans, mentally grasping for the one, single, solitary play that could have put away the game for the Owls.

Obviously, that play could've been a converted extra point after the Owls scored to go ahead, 27-14 just before the halftime clock ticked down.

It could have been a slight change in plane geometry allowing a Rice defender to maintain the angle on UH's Anthony Aldridge, keeping him out of the end zone and preventing the winning touchdown from being scored late in the game.

It might have been the play, mid-way through the third quarter, when Rice quarterback Chase Clement twisted his ankle after disappearing into a pile of Coogs on the visitors' sideline, an injury which he appeared to shake off, but which clearly affected his ability to cut, plant his foot for the pass – and probably hurt like hell for the rest of the game, to boot, which couldn't have done much for his powers of concentration.

The list could go on and on. In fact, Rice head coach Todd Graham said afterward, "I asked our kids in the locker room, who wanted to take a play back. They all raised their hands."

Ah, but for the want of a nail – a single Cougar coffin nail – Todd Graham's first-ever game as a college head coach, was lost.

Coach Graham blames self for loss

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Rice running back Quinton Smith runs past the last, diving UH defender en route to 80-yard pass- and-run TD (Mark Anderson photo)

Coach Graham made an earnest attempt to pin that loss on himself and his staff.

"We can't make mistakes like that as coaches," Coach said. "We've got to get better. That's just us getting on the same page and doing things right."

But most Owl fans would protest that the game wasn't lost because of a bit of coaching confusion surrounding a last-gasp, fourth-and-12 play. If at any one place, the game was lost in the first five minutes of the second half. You know – those five minutes that so many coaches insist are the most important in the game.

Prospects for victory, indeed, had looked so great going into that five-minute set.  After the Owls' mind-blowing four touchdown offensive performance in the second quarter, the mood was jubilant in the stands and along the sideline.

And, oh, what a quarter it was.

Actually, the Owl offense first commenced to rub the sleep out of its eyes in the waning moments of the first period, when, down 14-0 after two quick UH touchdowns, and commencing at their own 23, the Feathered Flock got jump-started via a Quinton Smith burst up the middle for 52 yards.

The Owls then chipped and putted their way as far as the UH 14 yard line, where, as the quarter ended, Rice was facing first and ten.

From there, on third and nine, Rice quarterback Chase Clement zipped a quick hitter to Jarett Dillard as he sliced into the end zone untouched, and the Owls were on the board.

The Coogs showed some of that brain power they're always talking about on those billboards, as on the ensuing kickoff, Donnie Avery took possession of the ball and proceeded to run straight out of bounds at UH's own three yard line.

Backed up that far, the Coogs nevertheless managed to get out to the Rice 47 before the Owl secondary broke up two straight Kolb passing attempts, and then Brandon King returned a weak Justin Laird punt for eight yards out to the Rice 20.

First play, Chase had to fall on a bobbled snap, and then Q. made it back to the original line of scrimmage on second down. That set the stage for an electrifying play that brought cheers of ecstasy from Rice fans and howls of misery from the East stands.

'I decided to just let it all out'

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Rice DL George Chukwu fights off UH defender (Mark Anderson photo)

It started out as just a little flare pass to Quinton Smith coming out of the backfield. But Q. said afterwards that suddenly he saw some daylight to run to – if he could just beat his defender to the corner.

"On that play," Q said, "I'd just had another play, just before, that picked up around 50 yards, when in my mind, I was thinking ‘ball security' and I was running with both hands over the ball. But on the TD run I just decided to just let it all out, to just go all out with it."

And that he did, suddenly turning on a burst of speed and breaking into the clear, outrunning several UH defenders who appeared to have at least a shot at him coming across the oblique. But Q made it into the end zone untouched, and suddenly, shockingly, the game was tied, 14-14.

Another crafty Luke Juist kickoff pinned the Coogs back at their own eight yard line, where the Rice defense, led by Chad Price, George Chukwu, Ja'Corey Shepherd and Brian Raines combined to produce a three-and-out for UH.

What a difference one quarter had made, for the Rice defense. Rice DL DaJaun Cooper explained what happened to the Owl defenders.

"Coach (DC Paul) Randolph told us just to settle down and play our game," he said. "We kind of had happy feet when we first got out, but once we started playing the game we had been all during two a days, things started clicking."

And click, they did.

Owls took advantage of short-field situations

The Owls played field position again, as Brandon King managed a 12 yard punt return to set up Rice at the UH 45. It didn't take long from there for the Owls to surge into the lead, as, five plays later, Quinton Smith took what looked an awful lot like an old-fashioned option pitch and ran wide into the end zone.

A big play in the series was a 13-yard reception by Mike Falco to get the drive going. Chase Clement also connected with Jarett Dillard for seven yards and a key first   and goal at the Cougar 7, whereupon Q made his scoring dash, next play.

The next kickoff, UH did manage to get the ball out to their 21 for starters, but went nowhere from there. The Owls' Dietrich Davis made sure of that when he sacked UH quarterback Kolb for a five-yard loss on third and six.

Once again, the Owls wound up with a relatively short field to work with, as this time, Brandon King returned a 36-yard Justin Laird punt for 11 yards to, guess where – the Houston 45 yard line.

At that point, 3:49 remained on the halftime clock, and suddenly it became apparent to Owl fans that the Institute Boys had a chance to double up the scoring on their crosstown rivals going into the halftime locker room.

And the Owls proceeded to do just that. After Chase connecte on a nine-yarder to Jarett Dillard, from there, Messrs. Clement and Smith took turns doing the honors on the ground. UH appeared to be falling back a bit in their coverage, due to the waning scoreboard clock, but that tactic backfired on them, as Chase consistently tucked the ball under and ran underneath coverage for first down yardage.

Nevertheless,  it appeared that the clock might run down on the Owls before they got it in the end zone, when, on first and goal from the one, Chase was repulsed on a quarterback sneak by UH's Marquay Love.

No sweat, though, for during a time out with 26 second left in the half, the Owls decided to go back to the well one more time, and Quinton Smith knifed across the goal with 21 ticks remaining.

Very few, if any, groans emanated from the Rice faithful when a Coog got a hand on Luke Juist's extra-point attempt, keeping it 27-14, halftime score.

At that point, it looked as if the Rice offense could have its way with the UH defense, having scored touchdowns on four straight possessions, and none of them flukes.

The atmosphere had to be slightly surreal in the halftime locker room, one would have guessed.   "I kept telling the kids (during the second quarter and at halftime) that when we took the lead, we hadn't done anything," Coach said.

So the warning was given. But somehow it didn't completely take hold.

Coogs appeared willing victims, early third quarter

When the Coogs came out of the tunnel for the second half of play, there were looks of apprehension – much like there were on the UH sideline last fall when the Owls threatened to take a 17-point lead early.

And at first blush in the third quarter, it appeared the Cougars were more than ready and willing to bumble their way toward an ignominous defeat. The Owls, however, appeared to lack that little extra spark that had propelled them so magnificently, on both offense and defense, in the second quarter.

Taking the second half kickoff, the Owls did manage one first down before bogging down at their 39. The play on third and six came up huge, Clement passing to his tight end Will Moss in a play designed to just pick up the first down, but in this case falling a couple of feet short. Those kinds of errors can be corrected with more play reps, Coach says.

A few moments later that gaffe seemed completely inconsequential, as, after Jared Scruggs pinned back the Coogs with a 61-yard punt, UH went nowhere again, thanks to the defensive antics of Brian Raines, Bencil Smith and Lance Luedeker.

Either the UH deep snapper or the punter – or both – lost their concentration on the ensuing punt attempt, for Justin Laird failed to handle what was only a slightly-off snap, and, quick as a cat, Chad Price was all over him for a take-down.

With the ball at the UH 22, it looked as if the Owls were a cinch to take it in for a fifth touchdown, one that surely would've sent the UH faithful packing for the exits.

But first play, a couple of blocks were missed and Joel Armstrong had to take a four-yard loss to the 26. Then the Owls were flagged for an uncharacteristic illegal procedure penalty.

That was the only infraction on the day committed by the Owls, while the Cougars were 10-for-80 in the same department. Hey, but that wasn't too bad for the Coogs – nobody got thrown out of the game for them, at least.

The Owls got five of those yards back but still faced fourth and 14 from the Houston 27, when Luke Juist came in and calmly booted a 44-yard field goal to make it 30-14.

By outward appearances, the Owls still appeared to be in great shape, leading by 16 with six minutes to go in the third quarter.

That feeling was heightened when the Owls stopped the Coogs once again on their next possession. A holding penalty and a Brian Raines sack of Kevin Kolb set Houston back, and they still had to punt despite a Kolb-to-Jeron Hary 16-yard pass to the UH 37.

But then the UH punter, Justin Laird, who'd been wearing the goat's horns all evening, got off a boomer that narrowly missed going out of bounds and instead caromed down the field all the way to the Rice three yard line, and the Owls had the ball again – but this time beneath the shadow of their own goal.

At that point, it's estimated that at least 1,647 Rice fans turned to their seat mates and said, "It's OK, as long was we don't fumble….." -- or words to that effect.

Guess what? First play, the ever-reliable Quinton Smith managed to have the ball punched out of his hands during the pileup, and fumble it was, recovered by Houston at the Rice four yard line.

Rice defense showed mettle in keeping UH out of end zone

But the Rice defense showed its mettle, as it determinedly kept UH out of the end zone. On first and goal, true frosh Andrew Sendejo burst through to toss Kolb for a loss of four. Andrew showed Owl fans why he deserved the starting tab awarded him by the Rice staff, with three unassisted tackles on the day, one sack and a pass break-up.

Houston had to settle for a chip-shot field goal, and so with 2:04 left in the third, it was Rice 30, UH 17.

Next series, however, the Rice offense got conservative. It seemed to make sense, as the Coogs first were flagged for offsides, which gave the Owls a first-and-five. Two running plays into the line netted but two yards, however, and then on third and three, Chance unload a deep sideline pattern to Jarett Dillard, who was well-covered.

At that point, an estimated 1,873 Owl fans turned to their seatmates and said, "That's OK; we've got Scruggs to come in there and boom it out for us," – or words to that effect.

Guess what? First play, the ever-reliable senior punter appeared to try to steer his punt through a couple of traffic lanes of onrushing Cougars, and shanked it out of bounds for only a ten-yard net.

Now at that point, an estimated 6, 487 Owl fans turned to their seatmates and said, "Oh….shoot!" – or words to that effect.

Notice how the consensus increased when things turned negative. It's all those years of  conditioning, that's what it is. Owl fans can anticipate disaster like Pavlov's dogs can drool over  puppy chow.

Seconds deep into the fourth quarter, then, the Houston brain trust decided to take to the air – and the strategy worked just well enough. Three straight Kolb completions took the Cougars to the Rice eight yard line, first and goal.

Then the Rice defense stiffened. First, Kolb tried the fade route to Jeron Harvey, but the Owls' Bubba Hurd backed the UH received into the sideline and he caught the ball out of bounds.

After a second pass attempt for Harvey went astray, Kolb struck quickly to a slashing Vincent Marshall down the middle – it was the same play that the Owls had scored their first touchdown on – and now the score stood 30-24.

By this time, the red-clad fans on the east side of the stadium were worked up like feeding piranhas, while the home side of the stadium was taken completely out of the game.

Now it was Houston's turn to play the short-field game

Rice started the next series from its own 20, where a quick-out to Jarett Dillard netted four, and Chase scramble for four more. On fourth and two, the punt team came on, and Jared Scruggs got off the punt, but not as high, and not as far, as he usually does.

The ball was fielded at the Houston 33 by Rice tormentor Vincent Marshall, and the speedster threaded his way through Rice punt coverage as far as the Institute 49.

Then, on a key third-and-nine play, Kolb connected on the sideline screen to Roshawn Pope, who rambled for 24 yards down the east sideline to put the Coogs back in business once again.

Coach Graham told reporters afterwards he was particularly disappointed in that turn of events.

"Late, they hit two screens on us, and both times we had a defense called to stop the screen," he lamented. "Those were two plays that were critical. One was third and 9; I think the other was second and 15. Every time it was third and long, and they're calling the screen, we're calling a defense to stop the screen."

"Tonight, we just don't run the defense."

After a Rice timeout to reconnoiter, the next play, the Coogs employed a misdirection to spring big Jackie Battle for 16 more yards to the Rice eight yard line, and the Coog fans brayed like so many coon hounds on the chase.

But again the Rice defense rose to the occasion. Two Kolb passing attempts for the end zone, one to Harvey, one to Avery, were defended.

Then on third and goal, Coach Briles tried to take a little edge off the Owls' aggressiveness by running a backfield pass that worked more like a reverse play. It wound up with the ball in Anthony Aldridge's hands, and he was able to outrun the Owl defender – who to his credit stayed home on the play – to the flag.

Regarding Aldridge's winning TD scamper, Coach Graham said, "he made a play. We had a guy there. He made a play. You've got to give them credit, they made some plays down the line. And that was a great play by Aldridge."

Time became a factor when Owls went three-and-out

Still, there was 10:28 left in the game when the Owls fell behind, so time was not a factor. But suddenly it became so when the Owls went three-and-out on the next series.

Houston moved the ball and ate clock, then, until the drive stalled out at the Rice 28. From there, UH's T. J. Lawrence barely missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, and Rice had the ball back, still down only a point, at their own 28, with 4:59 to play.

All the Flock needed was a field goal. And the U of H started out its defensive series as if it really, really wanted the Owls to have a shot at one.

On second-and-ten, the Coogs jumped offsides. Then, next play, a UH linebacker attempted to cold-cock  Jarett Dillard about five seconds after the play whistle blew, indicating an incomplete pass.

The resulting 15-yard personal foul infraction took the ball to midfield. One, maybe two more first downs, and the Owls would be in field goal range.

On first down, Quinton Smith took the inside handoff, burst through the line and suddenly found himself in the secondary. Almost! But dad-gum it, the Coogs' Rocky Schwartz shoe-stringed Q after a 10 yard gain.

Still, things were looking up. Over three minutes still remained on the clock. The timing was perfect for a closeout, chip-shot field goal to win the game for the Owls.

Coach Graham noted, "I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win when we got to that point in the fourth quarter, because the kids were in great condition."

Could it have been that UH just made the plays?

But that's where the wheels fell off the track. Perhaps it was a matter of excessively conservative play-calling, perhaps just dumb luck on part of the UH, or maybe it was simply the case of the other guys' making the play when Rice didn't.

But the next Q running effort went for a loss of two. Then a second-down pass attempt to Will Moss was off the mark. Houston called a timeout to ponder the situation. A third-and-12 pass to Jarett Dillard was underthrown under heavy pressure. That made it fourth-and-12. Then…well, we'll let Coach Graham take over the narrative.

"The difference at the tail end," he said, "was, we went down there and held them; we got the ball back, went down the field; and had a couple miscommunications with our signals, called time out; had another miscommunication, called another timeout – that's coaching; that's our fault. That's my fault.

Coach Graham was discombobulated by the fact that the Owls had 12 men on the field after the first timeout, necessitating the calling of their third and final timeout.

Houston had the play defensed in any event, and Chase's pass into a knot of white jersies and blue jersies resulted in a rally-thwarting interception by UH's Ernest Miller, and it was lights-out for the Owls.

The difference between the second quarter and the second half was a tale of two games, inferred Rice quarterback Chase Clement afterwards.

"Second quarter, we had a lot of momentum," he said. "Quinton Smith made play after play. He got the momentum rolling for us. That was a good quarter for us. That's the way we've got to play every quarter."

"(In the second half) we played a lot more conservatively," Chase noted glumly. "We tried more quick, easy throws. We ran more."

"We just kind of let up a little bit."

Nonetheless, the new Rice mentor told the press he felt that the team had shown up well, and had given themselves a foundation upon which to build.

"I think we showed signs tonight of having a great football team," he said. "We turn the ball over on our own four yard line, and hold them to a field goal. We shank a punt; they miss a field goal. So when we had to, we played well."

'It's just sickening to lose'

"I never thought the kids let the wind out of their sails. I thought the whole night we'd win. But like I told them, there are no moral victories. It's just sickening to lose. It sickens me to lose. And I really felt like we should've won the game. I think our kids will tell you the same thing. They also know that, tonight, we beat ourselves."

The Big Owl also had complements for his offensive coaching staff, especially the wunderkind who's in charge of it all."

"I thought Coach (Major) Applewhite did a great job," he said. "If you score 30 points, you ought to win the football game."

But defense was, is and shall remain the key to success, the Rice coach added – this season, and every season.

"I said before, that this thing was going to boil down to defense, and it did," he said. "The thing is, I think we played good enough defense down the stretch to win it."

The Rice conditioning program did its job admirably, Coach said. "Our guys were never tired on defense. We roll people on defense. We had a few guys cramp a little bit, but that's it."

"We didn't lose this game because of conditioning. We lost it because we made critical errors down the stretch."

"We just made some mistakes down the line to let them back in it," Coach Graham summed up. "The biggest thing was, we let up. Tonight, we just didn't finish. We've got to learn to do that."

"It's just one game. We've got to move on to the next week, and if we correct our mistakes, there's no reason why we – we've got some talented young men on this football team. I think that showed tonight."

"But bottom line is, to win championships, you've got to play championship defense. I thought our kids played hard on defense; did great things. But we can't give up 31 points."

"But I'll tell you this – we've got a football team."

"I'm proud of our kids. But we should have won it."

-- Paul T. Hlavinka

Preparation ... meet opportunity
Owls look to make
their own good luck
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HOUSTON (Aug. 31) – It’s often said that ‘good luck’ is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

New Rice head football coach Todd Graham and his Owl team certainly will be faced with a major opportunity when they tee off the 2006 season against cross-town rival University of Houston at their new, improved version of Rice Stadium; kickoff is 8:05 p.m. Saturday.

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And nobody can accuse Coach Graham and his staff of shorting the Feathered Flock of opportunities for preparation, as, since taking over the regime in January, and within legal limits, they have drilled the Rice team incessantly, worked them on the weights and conditioning like no one ever before, installed entirely new offensive and defensive packages, put in a half a million bucks worth of state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, and, to top it off, raised and spent over $5 million on stadium improvements that positively knock your socks off.

But all of that won’t automatically produce a single first down, or a solitary three-and-out, on the field, come Saturday.

Success on the gridiron will have to be demonstrated by way of the grit, determination and will of 85 young men who don the blue and grey. Summer reading is over, school’s back in session, and the first weekly examination comes Saturday night.

If one listens to the surprisingly loud drumbeats emanating around the Bayou City regarding this game, one would believe that the Institute Boys don’t have a cut-dog’s chance as 13-point underdogs to a U of H team that, by all indications, is going great places and doing great things this season.

Terms have been tossed about like, "Kolb for Heismann," "Run the table," and "They’ll hang 50 on Rice."

And that kind of invective has come from none other than the local sportswriters! You oughta hear what the wacky Coog fans are predicting!

Indeed, at least on paper, UH has a noticeable edge. For starters, the Cougars return 10 of them on defense,  although reasonable minds may differ over whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage. Defensively, UH has not exactly been a juggernaut in recent years. In fact, the only offense that they’ve proven to be adept at stopping is the good old triple option.  We don’t run that anymore, and the UH assistant coach who was so skilled at defensing the Owls, Dick Bumpas, is gone.

Last year, the UH defense allowed 27 points and 397.4 total yards per game, but, hey, maybe those returning starters are on to something, this year. Anchoring the middle of the UH line will be Cody Pree, who picked up  42 tackles and four sacks as a freshman last year. While the DL is experienced, the strength of the UH defense appears to be in the middle of the field, given that  all four of last year's starting linebackers return.

That returning group of 'backers totaled 328 tackles among themselves last year. Brendan Pahulu leads the group as, last year,  he finished second on the team in both tackles (94) and tackles for loss (9).

Coogs return game-breaker at free safety

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Quinton Smith paces the Owl backfield -- and that's bad news for Rice's opponents

In the secondary, the Coogs believe the return of free safety Will Gulley, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is going to make it all turn out right. Gulley posted 71 tackles and four interceptions in '04.

The Cougars' offense not only ranked 19th in the nation last season, but it also led C-USA in total yards with an average of 438.8  per game. And, drum roll please, for the fourth straight year, Kevin Kolb returns as the starting quarterback for Houston's pass-oriented offense. And, hey, Kolb is rated by one service as being 72nd in the overall Heismann Watch.

Think he might pull it out?

Kolb has made 36 straight starts and is already the Cougars' all-time total offensive leader. In fact, Kolb is the NCAA's active leader in total offense (9,752 yards), passing yards (9,155) and completions (672). Last season, Kolb completed 60.5 percent of his tosses for 3,258 yards with 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

All three of last year's starting wideouts are back, including ace Vincent Marshall. The 2005 First Team All- CUSA selection finished the '05 season with 71 catches for 939 yards and six touchdowns. In the backfield, the Cougars must replace 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Gilbert, but Jackie Battle, who’s big enough to fill both halfback slots, rushed last year for 408 yards and five touchdowns. Naturally, Coog fans expect him to have a 200-yard game agains the Owls.

Special teams may be the one place where the Coogs pan out weaker than the Owls -- on paper. The Cougars finished next-to-last in the nation in net punting and went just 13-of-22 on field goals last season.  Ben Bell and T.J. Lawrence divided the kicking chores in '05  and, although they struggled, they will once again be sharing time. Justin Laird is will handle the punting duties after averaging a respectable 39.5 yards per punt in ‘05.

"We have a pretty good idea of how they are going to respond in different situations," UH head coach Art Briles said of his team. "I would like to think that we are past the ‘if’ stage and to where this is what it's going to be."

"We are in good shape as a football team. We have an issue or two in some areas but we are ready to roll. We have good football players and we are ready to get them on the field and let them play."

Same Coogs, grown older and (sic) wiser

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Chase Clement showed during spring and fall drills that he's cool, collected, and ready for prime time

But even given all that, the Coogs, at most, are still same team that the Owls faced in their last game of the ‘05 campaign, grown a year older and wiser (if such a term appropriately may be applied).

Houston did win that game, 35-18. But consider this: last year’s Rice-Houston game was the swan song for then-Rice head coach Ken Hatfield. The Owls pretty much had given it their best shot the weekend before, narrowly losing to division champion Central Florida on a last minute TD pass after outplaying them for 59 minutes.

If there ever had been a time for just going through the motions and playing out the season, that was it for the Owls. Disappointment reigned among  frustrated team members. The fan base had shrunk to its smallest level ever, as formerly ever-loyal Owl fans found that watching Rice lose week in and week out was just a little more than they could take.

Yet, given all that, the Rice team came into the game and nearly blew Houston out of the park, early. The Owls roared to a 10-0 first quarter lead, stopping UH’s offensive series cold, and  moving the pill via the infantry.

With the ball in Rice territory early in the second quarter, Quinton Smith ripped off a long, broken-field run that left Coog defenders grasping for thin air and then throwing down their helmets on the sideline, in disgust.

The Owls drove relentlessly down the field and, with goal to go, were at the point of going ahead 17-0, when a UH defender managed to wrest loose the ball from the Rice running back just inches before he crossed the plane.

The apprehensive looks coming from the UH bench said it all: John Wall scores, and it’s game over -- we quit. (This reporter was standing right there.)

But instead, UH drew inspiration from the sudden reversal of fortune, marching 98 yards in eight plays, so that instead of 17-0, Rice, it was only 10-7, and the East Enders were right back in the ball game.

Four more Owl turnovers later, it was still 28-18, UH, early in the fourth quarter. But a sixth turnover put a knife in the back of the Owls, as moments later, Kolb connected on an 80-yard TD pass to Vincent Marshall with six minutes left in the game, to put it away for UH.

But, you know, that wasn’t exactly a thermonuclear wipeout of the Owls, even in their compromised, get-it-over-with condition. Switch the turnover ratio, from 6-0, Houston’s favor, to 6-0, Rice’s favor, and that so-called hapless Rice squad likely would have come up with the five-touchdown win that many Coog fans have already written down for themselves, this Saturday.

Better, or worse than last year?  Wanna take a stab at that?

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New Rice head coach Todd Graham has his team in great physical shape and seemingly well-prepared for the season opener

Are the Owls better, or worse, than they were on that benighted November afternoon?

Let’s take a wild stab at that one....er.....ahh....ehh.....better?

Owl fans should find substance for such a contention by taking a tour through the current Rice depth chart. Start with running back Quinton Smith. Q simply tore the hell out of the UH defense last year, whereupon those ten returning starters spent most of their time grasping frustratingly at thin air when trying to tackle him. And this year, he gets to go one-on-one, instead of merely trying to beat the UH student body to the outside, with everybody in the stadium being able to anticipate every play call.

At slotback, Mike Falco has drawn the starting spot over Tommy Henderson, though, of course, both will play. This is finally prime time for Mike Falco. He’s healthy, experienced, and as fit as he’s ever been Owl fans have been waiting for a total breakout game on Mike’s part, for the past three years. Saturday, they just might get it.

The starting wideouts are Jarett Dillard and Joel Armstrong, two guys who reached that spot in very different ways. Jarett was clearly the best receiver on the team as a true freshman last year. All during the spring and August workouts, he’s been sparring mightily with Rice’s top pass defender and his good buddy, Ja’Corey Shepherd. Ja’Corey is as good as anybody Jarett will face all year.

As for Joel, it’s clearly a case of a  yhoung man’s being too talented to be kept off the field. Although perhaps he doesn’t meet the classic passing quarterback mold, he does meet the classic winner’s mold. Far from pouting over his removal from last year’s starting QB spot, he’ll be looking to vindicate himself in any way he can.

Rice's starting quarterback, sophomore Chase Clement, may not wind up setting the world on fire with his stats, but ran the spread with aplomb in high school, passing for 3,000-plus yards.  And he played in all 11 Rice games last year.  Two things he does not lack are confidence and cool.

The starting OL looks like this: Krueger, Heos, Wilkinson, Berken, Barber. Not a weak link among them, and solid backups are behind them in Talbert, Hamilton, Perkins, Miller and Thompson.. No pot guts in that group. And as far as "having to learn how to pass block" is concerned, Rolf Krueger sets the matter straight on that score. "We already know how to pass block," he says.

Defensively, the new-fangled three-man defensive front goes two deep with equivalent talent, and they all can play. The top three get the edge on experience and the size/speed ratio. That would be Chukwu, Cooper and Gordon, all three veteran hands who won’t exactly be trembling at the sight of Houston’s 330-pound OLs. And those guys are backed up by Cary, Wood and Davis, who can all play the game with strength and emotion.

If there’s an ‘if’ on defense, however, it probably would be at the linebacker position. This is a key spot in the defensive configuration, if the Owlsare to be functioning relatively smoothly this year. It would be nice to have four Abominable Snowmen-types  to fill out the spot, but the accompanying SAT scores can’t cut the mustard.

Instead, the Owls have a stock of excellent, motivated -- if slightly undersized -- athletes, including converted running back Marcus Rucker, who’s had his game face on since April. Marcus is just itching to be the hitter, instead of the hittee, and don’t be surprised if Saturday he winds up the game leader in tackles.

Coach Randolph is starting a true freshman at one of the LB spots, and that would be Andrew Sendejo, a 6-2, 210-pounder from Smithson Valley. Andrew got there the old-fashioned way -- he earned it.

Vernon James is something of a surprise starter at middle linebacker, having barely edged out Lance Luedeker for the number one spot on the depth chart, though you can bet Lance will play as well. Lance has held his own since the first game of his freshman year, and, frankly, it’s a good sign that the competition at linebacker is sufficiently strong that he’s currently filling a backup spot.

Brian Raines rounds out the starting four at linebacker, and he’s had simply excellent spring and fall drills. He came up huge in the spring game and excelled in the ‘mock game’ scrimmage held Saturday before last.

In the secondary, with Chad Price, Ja’Corey Shepherd, Andray Downs and Brandon King holding down the starting spots, will the Coogs really be able to "hang 50" on the Owls without hardly even trying? It's sure tempting to lay down a bet on that one.

The Owls’ kicking game is hardly an unknown factor, in terms of the potential of the two main men, Jared Scruggs, at punter, and Luke Juist, as place kicker. Both have the talent to excel, although Jared has been by far the more consistent performer of the two. The skills of both of them will need to be honed to a fine edge, for the Owls to be able to pull down a win on Saturday.

So if you don’t feel better already, take the Owl depth chart, put your index finger on it, and go down the list one more time.

This is not a "Bottom Ten" team. They’ll prove that Saturday. The question is, will they be a 1-0 team as the clock strikes midnight September 3?

It all depends on the happenstance of just a little bit of  good luck -- the 'preparation meets opportunity' kind.

--Paul T. Hlavinka
  Editor & Publisher

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Owls worked hard all spring, summer -- now, it's the fans' time to put in a little effort by merely attending their home games, starting Saturday

Your turn:
so show up!

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Sept. 1) -- With the local media noise level reaching a fever pitch, it's definitely football time in Texas. And for football fans in the city of Houston, that means a great opening game Saturday night between Rice and its cross-town rival University of Houston Cougars.

Last year, the Owls were on the way to what appeared to be an easy victory over Houston in the last game of the season, but a key turnover converted what would have been a 17-0 Owl lead into a mere 10-7. That wrested the momentum away from the beleaguered Owls. And the Coogs never offered to give it back, scoring four more touchdowns and causing five other turnovers to defeat the Owls.

But this is a different season. The team has a new head coach in Todd Graham. Coach Graham appears to have brought with him what this team has needed—mental and physical toughness. Coach Graham refers a lot to "the hard edge." It's something Rice staffers sometimes say the players did not have much of last year, but do have this season.

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Rice starting quarterback Chase Clement faced the press Monday.  The interview.... (PTH photo)

Another thing Coach Graham appears to have brought to Rice is a sweeping change in attitude. It is no longer acceptable to lose, nor is it acceptable to act as if winning were not a possibility in any game -- and that means UCLA, Texas, and Florida State, too.

"We will win" is a sign that is seen not only in the football offices, but in the hearts of the players themselves.

Punter Jared Scruggs, when asked about the possibilities of this season, answered by saying, "we've come too far and trained too hard for it (winning) not to happen. It's not a matter of possibility; it is going to happen."

That's the punter, folks. That's not the quarterback.

So how can the Owls have opening day – and longer – success this season? These will be the keys for the Owls, not only against UH, but every team they play this season:

Get the ball into the hands of the playmakers: For Rice, there's a worthy list of playmakers. Leading the pack are Jarrett Dillard, Joel Armstrong, Quinton Smith, and Mike Falco. This quartet of players has the ability to turn any play into six points. If Rice is going to win, these four will undoubtedly need to be at the center of what happens.

Avoid injuries: Let's face it – injuries are a part of the game of football. If Rice is to win, they must avoid two things – lingering or season-ending injuries, and more specifically, injuries to key offensive and defensive players.

Manage the game: Coach Graham has praised Chase Clement for his game management throughout the spring and fall drills. Now it's time for Chase (with the help of his coaches) to do it in real time. Chase has a good head about him, and he doesn't have to thread the needle unnecessarily in this offense. Coach Applewhite has already been a huge influence on Clement. If Clement can simply execute the offense without making critical mistakes, that will go a long way for Rice to becoming a winner once more.

Avoid turnovers: The offense needs to avoid turning the ball over as it did last year. At the same time, the defense needs to step up and begin getting turnovers. Part of playing championship defense (Coach Graham's phrase) is being in a position to get turnovers and reacting to the ball.

Defensive Intensity: Coach Paul Randolph came from Alabama to Rice because he felt that the defense could play and win here. The defense will be expected to be aggressive, to hit hard, and complete their tackles. It will be up to the defense to get the ball back into the hands of the offense. That is Randolph's goal for this defense – do your job, do it in as few plays as possible, and get off the field.

Special teams play: The special teams, with Coach Phillips in charge, will be expected to be aggressive as well as well-disciplined. The special teams must be aggressive in going for blocked punts and kicks. At the same time they will need to be well-disciplined in order to get the ball in good field position and not incur needless penalties in returning punts or kickoffs that will negate good field position.

Fan support: What it all boils down to is this: Rice fans need some kiesters in the seats! The players have gone all out this off-season working harder than ever before, becoming the best-conditioned Owl team in some time. They will play just as hard, be assured of that. What will really help, starting against UH, is to have Rice fans of both long-time and recent duration, plus a decent measure of Houstonians at large, to buy into Coach Graham's program early, and support the Owls every game this season.

Don't under-estimate what your presence and support does for this team. The student body also would do well to make it a part of their weekly activities to be at the games and support their classmates. Invariably, a richer college experience is the result of such support, win or lose.

For Rice to win, these are the keys. There is no getting around them.

All right, Houston college football fans – and especially all Rice fans – "Are you ready for some football?" If the answer is ‘yes,’ see you at the newly refurbished Rice Stadium on September 2nd!

You never forget your first time
Owls’ first win over UH
one for record books
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Interception thwarts UH scoring bid in Rice's 1972 first-ever win over Cougars (Rice Thresher)

HOUSTON (Aug. 30) – It seems scarcely possible to have been so long ago, to those Feathered Flock members of a certain age who can recall when the University of Houston was just a glorified community college on the wrong side of South Main Street, instead of the sprawling urban megaversity it’s become.

In 1971, when Rice actually sponsored the U of H’s membership in the Southwest Conference, some old grads tossed and turned in bed -- or in their graves, as the case may have been. The deal was that UH would not begin round-robin league play until 1976. But six months later, the Owls and the Coogs nevertheless were lining it up on the turf of Rice Stadium for their first football meeting ever.

The date was September 11, 1971, and the Institute Boys, led by first (and only) year coach Bill Peterson, the master of malaprop, fell 23-21 to a highly favored UH eleven before a Rice Stadium crowd of 62,000.

Most U of H supporters, and the bulk of the sportswriter community, were surprised that the Owls could hang that tough against a Bill Yeoman-coached team that had just recently perfected an offense they called the Veer.

They'd never come that close again, some red-clad boosters inveighed.

But a year later, the two squads were lining it up again on the floor of Rice Stadium, once again as the first game of the season. Few gave the Owls a chance, in this, the coaching debut of Rice head coach and occasional Crazy Man, Al Conover, who’d taken over at the spur of the moment from Bill Peterson after only a single season at Rice when Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams hired Coach Pete away from the college ranks.   This game also marked the coming-out party for the new R-Room situated on the south end of Rice Stadium.

Owls weren't big, but had some capable performers

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Al Conover, Rice's head coach in Institute's first win over UH, never let things get dull -- on or off the field

In the R-Room, the booze flowed thick, but on the field, the Owls were thin, mighty thin.

At the quarterback spot was senior Bruce Gadd, who’d had the distinction of throwing 18 interceptions the year before in an understudy role to Phillip Wood. And it was all up to Bruce -- he had no experienced backups.

The running back cupboard was even more bare, as hopes were pinned largely on a true freshman named John Coleman.

Receiver was a spot where the Owls were relatively deep, featuring proven performers such as Edwin Collins, Ron Arceneaux, Bubba Berg (sorry, George, that’s what they called you in those days), and Carl Swierc, who was destined to occupy yet another footnote in Rice football history.

At tight end were Joe Buck and  Gary Butler, who later went on to all-conference status and earned some All-America mentions.  Gary was the real deal. So was Mark Williams, the Owls’ all-league place-kicker.

The Rice OL was expected to hold its own, with such proven performers as Ron Waedemon, Sammy Johnson and Bart Goforth. In the defensive line, Larry Walling, Cornelius Walker and the Medford brothers, Jody and Larry, held forth.

Behind the DL, the Owls had Rodrigo Barnes (who later played for the Cowboys), LaRay Breshers and Richard Hollas at linebacker, and Bruce Henley, Donnie Bernshausen, and Bill Chilivetis at defensive back.

Almost all of those guys were undersized though. Sound familiar?

The Cougars countered with quarterback D. C. Nobles, running backs Puddin’ Jones and Leonard Parker, and receivers Robert Ford, Del Willingham and Robert Stanley.

New head coach Al Conover had been a surprise from the beginning of two-a-days. "Work their asses off, but make the players feel like you’re one of the guys" was his motto.

Big Al's strategy:  keep it simple, stupid

But his strategic philosophy for Game 1 against the Coogs was right out of taskmaster Bear Bryant’s play book. Observers said he really only used five different offensive plays, the whole game.

The Owls played conservatively, trying to keep the ball away from the high-powered Cougar attack, which only a few years earlier had humbled Tulsa, 100-6. Yes, that Tulsa.

Frosh running back John Coleman turned out to be a diamond in the rough who was good for three or four yards each time his number was called. He finished the day with 24 rushes for 84 net yards. Owing to the just-instituted rule change allowing freshmen to play varsity ball, Coleman was the first frosh to play for the Owls since 1946.

But when the Owls needed to cross the pay station, they did it through the air. Capping drives of 58 and 77 yards, Bruce Gadd threw for two touchdown passes that almost, but not quite, proved the measure of the Rice victory.

For when Bruce connected on a scoring strike to Edwin Collins with 4 seconds left in the game, the score still stood 13-12, Houston.

There wasn’t any such thing as overtime in those days. It was either go for the win, or kiss your sister.

Big Owl Conover didn’t even hesitate over going for the tie. Instead, he called a basic trap handoff, with the ball being given to a converted defensive back, a theretofore unknown named Preston Anderson.

Backup Rice offensive linemen John Paul Hershey teamed with stalwart Bart Goforth for the blocks of their lives, and Preston Anderson vaulted over the goal line to give the Owls a last-second, sweet-as-wine 14-13 win.

In the dressing room afterwards, Big Al was beside himself.

"I told you we were going to win," he said to nobody in particular. "Some of you didn’t believe me, but I told you we were going to win."

"We own this town! Cougar High is through!" Big Al bellowed.

This Rice contingent went on to finish the season 5-5-1, with wins over Clemson, A&M and Arkansas – a high water mark which stood until Fred Goldsmith bettered the effort with a 6-5 record in 1992.

The Owls won over Houston only two times in the next 13 years,  but that hardly took away from the ecstasy of that sweet, sweet, first victory.

"We own this town! Cougar High is through!"

A bit crude, perhaps. But it does have a nice ring to it.

--P.T.H.                Errors or omissions? Please email us....

Some of those who played in Rice's first win over the University of Houston:

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First press luncheon of Graham era
fixes spotlight squarely on Cougars

HOUSTON (Aug. 28) – The first weekly press luncheon of the Todd Graham era came off without

Extra Point Club kicks off
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The Rice Extra Point Club held the first of its regular weekly dinner meetings of the season

Monday night in the "R" Room--more photos here .  For a summary of the proceedings, check
out Bob Reinhold's report in Parliament  (PTH photo)

First press luncheon of Graham era
fixes spotlight squarely on Cougars

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"I feel really prepared for what we’re doing,"

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"Offensively, we’ve just got to take care of the ball"

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"It was, like, ‘Can you believe we’re doing this, you know, and getting paid for it?’ I say that, even though it’s the hardest job we’ve ever had"

HOUSTON (Aug. 28) – The first weekly press luncheon of the Todd Graham era came off without a hitch at the R-Room here today, as the spotlight began to focus in earnest on the upcoming season opener with the University of Houston here Saturday; kickoff time is 8 p.m.

Owls Jared Scruggs, Andray Downs and Chase Clements each took the podium for a press Q&A before Coach Graham held forth. Among them all, there appeared to be a look and a feel of quiet determination. Certainly one could not detect any sense of self-doubt or apprehension.

"We’ve come to far and trained too hard, for (winning) not to happen this season," Jared Scruggs told the group. "It’s not a matter of possibility. It IS what’s going to happen."

Last year, the Owls were six inches away from going up, 17-0 over UH at Jeppesen in what turned out to be Ken Hatfield’s last game as head coach of Rice. A last-gasp fumble negated a second-quarter touchdown drive that would have put the Owls up by that measure, however, and then, six turnovers later, the Flock finally wound up going down to the Cougars, 35-18.

But that’s no indication that the Rice team will face any significant talent differential with they tee it up with the Cougars Saturday night, Jared said.

"Talent-wise, I think we’re just as good," he noted. "And also what we have is a great group of guys that actually binds together, and meshes well together. We don’t have just individuals on this team. It’s going to be a complete team."

Coach Graham noted that, though Saturday will mark his first outing as a Division 1 college head coach, his first head coaching job, at the 5A high-school level, was earned when he was only 29 years old. So there’s no case of heebie-jeebies for Todd Graham, going into this season opener.

"I feel really prepared for what we’re doing," he said. "I feel comfortable about it. I haven’t really thought about it a lot."

The public and the media overemphasize the changes made on offense and underemphasize the changes Coach Graham’s staff have made on defense, he said. "Where progress really needs to be made in this program is defensively," he added. And that, in fact, is what has garned the most of his attentiion during two-a-days.

"I do what I know the best," he said. "That’s why I’ve mostly been out there dealing with the defense, especially the defensive secondary. That’s the area where I’m most concerned about right now, and where my main focus is right now."

"Offensively, we’ve just got to take care of the ball. If we do that, we are going to put ourselves in a position to be successful."

Coach Graham confessed that he and the Cougars’ head man, Art Briles, go back a long way together as fellow high school coaches in the same region, and are good friends. "We actually did a little interview last night," Todd remarked, "and (afterwards) sat out in the parking lot and visited for a little while and talked. It was, like, ‘Can you believe we’re doing this, you know, and getting paid for it?’ I say that, even though it’s the hardest job we’ve ever had."

"I think the most important thing is that you remain poised, and you get your kids ready. By now, we’ve just got to get ready mentally. And how we respond Saturday is based on the need, at some point, for these gets to step up and start leading, while we (the staff) have to step back."

"That takes a while. But the key for us is to stay in the game. They’re very talented over there. They’ve got great skill people; they’ve got a great quarterback. But the key is, just don’t give them one-play drives. Make them earn it; stay in the game; keep the game close; and we’ll get better and better and better."


Chase Clement Monday interview....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes) Coach Graham Monday press briefing....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes) new.gif (908 bytes)    Coach Graham Monday q&a...wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes) new.gif (908 bytes)


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