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'07 Nicholls State week
Looking at it won't change it....
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Owls on the sidelines look up to find themselves suddenly on the short side of the scoreboard right before halftime of the Rice-Nicholls State debacle (Mark Anderson photo)

Nicholls State 16, Rice 14
Could it get any
worse than this?

Five turnovers key Owl offensive collapse

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Forgot something, son?  Nicholls running back lays an egg, which Owls are only too eager to gather up (Mark Anderson photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 2) – Perhaps the worst strategic decision made on the turf of Rice Stadium Saturday night came not from the Owl quarterback, not from the head coach – though both sources stunned the crowd of 11,800 with the length and breadth of their miscreancy during the course of this excruciating, five and one-half hour game.

Nope, the worst decision came from the tongue of Rice Athletic Director Chris del Conte, who, given the election of sending the teams home and pleading 'no contest' after the second of two, hour-long, lightning-induced weather delays – or electing to wait it out and get the game in – chose to stand fast and play ball.

The Rice Owls responded by imploding their own building here Saturday night as a, shall we say, less-than-imaginative offense yielded up five key turnovers en route to a 16-14 loss to an aroused, strutting and confident Nicholls State team.

The fancy banners which newly-adorn the stately, former-72,000-seat-edifice still stand on a muggy Sunday morning. But down like so many tons of concrete and structural steel have fallen the remains, not of a building, but of a rebuilding.

Gone is Rice All-American Jarett Dillard’s 15-game touchdown reception streak, and with it, his air of invincibility.

Down is Davey O’Brian candidate Chase Clement’s uncanny, fleet-of-foot ability to turn a hard rush into a long scramble, and with it, his seeming capability of making the right decision in any key situation.

"I just didn't play well. That's the bottom line," Chase said afterwards. "I didn't take care of the ball and make the best reads I could have made. I totally put that on myself. I just didn't play the way I needed to."

Mysterious it is, how the previously imperturbable , veteran Rice quarterback might have shown up so off his game. Some said he looked at least a step slower as a result of a ten-pound weight gain intentionally taken on over the off season. Others said he was simply hampered by a Procrustean play book. Those five quarterback-induced turnovers were brutal, for sure, but they didn’t tell the whole sorry story.

Where was the swagger?

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Marcus Knox is able to turn the corner on this play, but Owls had only two downs in which they were able to pick up more than 13 yards in this game (Mark Anderson photo)

Imploded into rubble, as well, is any semblance of an effective rushing attack, cohesive special teams play, and, most damaging of all, the ability to surmount late-game obstacles, so evident during last years bowl-securing run, to turn deficits into narrow, but exhilarating, victories.

An offensive unit that returned nine of eleven starters from 2006's seven-win season managed to roll up only 218 yards total offense against a Division 1-AA team not particularly noted for its defensive stinginess.

The game box score yields up additional statistical atrocities, so base and repulsive, that, in the words of Douglas C. Niedermayer, Sergeant at Arms, decorum prevents further verbal rendition before the presence of tender eyes and ears.

And to think that, at first, Owl fans were ready to chalk it up to just a rusty offensive scheme.

The Owls, in fact, moved the ball the first time they got their hands on it, traveling from their own 14 to the Nicholls 40 before quarterback Chase Clement uncharacterisically threw an unforced interception. But all still seemed well as the Rice defense proceeded to shut down the Nicholls option attack right smartly.

Nicholls’ first five possessions ended in a punt, punt, punt, missed field goal and a fumble.

All in all, the defense performed up to snuff against the Louisianans’ option attack, holding the NSU offense to a mere 3.2 yards per carry and 281 yards total offense – and seven total points (the Nicholls defense got the other nine).  Vaunted Nicholls running back Broderick Cole carried the ball 12 times for only 55 yards.

Nicholls quarterback Vin Montgomery was only 3-for-7 in the passing department However, one of those was a 30-yard touchdown pass that took advantage of a Rice defensive collapse right after an Owl turnover, resulting in NSU’s only offensive scoring production of the night.

Moments earlier, Rice had taken a 7-0 lead after marching 80 yards in 11 plays. The end of that drive provided some of the scant drama the Rice offense was able to drum up during the evening.

On second and three from the Nicholls seven yard line, Chase threw the fade to Jarett Dillard, who appeared to be bumped out of bounds by an obviously-interfering Kareem Moore as JD reeled the ball in, about four yards deep in the end zone.

Officials reviewed the play on the one video record available to them, which was the CSTV Rice all-sports online video source. Hey, now that certainly should have allowed the gendarmes to rule with microscopic precision, right? Still, with that one, out of focus, distant shot, the officials determined that JD would have not gotten a foot down inbounds, had he not been interfered with.

So his record-extending touchdown pass was taken off the board, and the Owls were awarded a first and goal at the NSU two.

Rice offensive masterminds went to the same well two more times, attempting to get Jarett his TD on the fade route, but both plays developed awkwardly and didn’t take. So on third and goal, Rice’s designated running quarterback, James Casey, came in and calmly extended his lanky frame across the pay station, and the Owls were up, 7-0.

But Rice immediately let the Colonels feel like they were back in the game, doing so in a way that has become intimately familiar to long-suffering Owl fans – a breakdown in special teams play.

On the ensuing kickoff, Luke Juist hit a looping liner to NSU’s Ladarius Webb, who caught the ball at his own twelve and ran through numerous arm-tackling Owl special teamers before Luke himself saved the touchdown by dragging him down at the Rice 27.

Once again, however, the Rice defensive unit came out on the field to play. After Vin Montgomery passed for a first down to the Rice 15, next play, the Owl defenders were in the backfield to disrupt the handoff, and true freshman Scott Solomon recovered the resulting fumble for Rice.

At that point, only 4:20 remained in the half. Rice had just scored on an 80-yard drive, and the NSU offense was busy going nowhere. A couple of Owl first downs would have ground down the clock and Rice would have taken a 7-0 lead into the halftime locker room, ready to pound in the coffin nails after the intermission.

Seven-zero at half would have been copacetic

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Quick quiz;  How many times did we see this scene on the field last year?  Answer:  (a) none; (b) very seldom; (c) none of the above (Mark Anderson photo)

But it was then that the wheels fell off – not that they, in retrospect, ever seemed fastened securely to begin with.

Facing third and two at his own 25, Chase Clement scrambled five yards for the first down, but managed to fumble away the ball in a frightful demonstration of what former Rice offensive coordinatory Major Applewhite referred to as "lack of ball security," gave up the football with an indecisiveness he never, ever displayed during the ‘06 campaign.

First play, the Owls were expecting to play action but appeared to be sucked in the line nonetheless. NSU’s Montgomery dropped back two and hit his receiver, Grant Thome, who scored without breaking stride, and suddenly it was seven-all.

But wait, it gets worse.

On the Owls' next possession, C. J. Ugokwe took the first-down handoff and rambled six yards to the NSU 30. At that point, 1:55 was left on the halftime scoreboard clock, and the decision, obviously, was to try and push the ball upfield rather than shutting things down in acceptance of a halftime tie.

So in another uncharacteristic move, Chase Clement let go an errant short pass which was intended to be a quick-hitter to Tommy Henderson. Instead, it was picked off by Nicholls’ LaDarius Webb, who streaked into the end zone to give the Colonels a 14-7 halftime lead.

The Owls responded by taking the second-half kickoff and marching the ball in fine, Ken-Hatfieldian style, going 78 yards in 11 plays for the tying score. That drive lasted about an hour and 25 minutes, by the way, being that it was interupted for an hour and a quarter weather delay with the Owls facing third and goal from the Nicholls eight.

It was during that second delay that officials seriously considered cancelling the remainder of the contest, with the idea of either scratching the contest off the schedule altogether or perhaps meeting again to play out the remainder of the game,  later in the season.

Tying TD drive appeared to right the ship

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Maybe we should invest in tear-away jersies -- hey, no fair, we couldn't grab them by the dreadlocks (Mark Anderson photo)

But when Chase Clement took the ball in to score the first snap after resumption of play, it looked as if the Owls were in the process of righting the ship once again.

An aroused Rice defense shut down the Colonel attack on the ensuing possession, thanks mainly to key defensive plays by Dietrich Davis and Brian Raines. The Owls resultingly wound up with good field position at their own 44, with five minutes to go in the third quarter.

Now the road map seemed simple – just run the offense they way we ran it all the time last year. Pick up a score or two, avoid pinning the Owl defense back by inopportune giveways -- and the game is won.

Perhaps it was the constant rain falling throughout the second half, but perhaps it was something much more fundamental than that. In any event, the Owls jsut weren’t able to get the offense cranked up after that.

The Owls’ two possessions after their second touchdown drive ended in a punt and another Chase Clement interception deep in Rice territory. The Colonels were in field goal range after that takeway, but matters turned from grim to much better when Owl defenders Willie Garley and Brian Raines stripped the ball from NSU QB Montgomery and the Feathered Flock got the pill right back at their own 27. 

But once again the Institute Boys marched backwards as NSU’s Jarius Jarvis managed a sack of an indecisive Chase Clement to give the Owls fourth and 20 at their own 17.

The ensuing punt protection just wasn’t there, as NSU linebacker Garrick Spain ran through it like water to block the Luke Juist punt attempt. The Owls managed to smother the ball in their own end zone and wind up thereby giving up only two points instead of six or seven.

That that wound up not making any difference, though, for the Owl offensive brain trust was through for the night, as if it had even shown up to begin with.

"We probably weren't ready for what Nicholls State had," a subdued Jarett Dillard said early Sunday morning, a few minutes after the sorry spectacle ended. . "We watched them on game film, but I think offensively we probably underestimated their secondary as well as their D-line. We made some poor decisions - the whole unit."

"Next time, we will not go into any game underestimating anybody."

But this one frankly was so, so bad, that it almost precludes the possibility of their being a meaningful "next time" this season – and one may expect that certainly  to be so in the minds of every scribe and competing fan, upon hearing the score of htis game.

And to think that Rice had the chance to toss out this stinker and take a mulligan.

-- P.T.H. and Webletter staff reports

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