Inside Slant: Rice

The Sports Xchange gives you an in-depth look at Northwestern's next opponent, the Rice Owls.

There's no playoff in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- hence the name.

Don't tell Rice that. The Owls enter the home stretch of the 2011 campaign facing three consecutive must-win games. Coach David Bailiff's team has a 3-6 record, and must win out to secure a .500 finish and bowl eligibility. Suffer just one misstep, and Rice will find itself sitting at home for bowl season for the fourth time during Bailiff's five-year tenure.

"The last time any of us had a real playoff mentality was high school and what we said was just `it's fun.' I mean, you don't want to be in the situation we're in, but we're here, and we got to do it," senior DL John Gioffre said at the Owls' weekly news conference on Monday. "What we said was just `let's put all of that stuff aside, we've had a lot of bumps and bruises, let's get over them, and we have to win.' There's nothing to lose. I mean, the bowl eligibility, but a lot of people stopped pressing and just started having fun and doing things right. It's good. Spirits are high. I guess the excitement factor that just brings everyone out to play."

At least Rice has some positive momentum for once. The Owls beat UTEP 41-37 last week, in one of the most prolific total offensive performances in team history. It also marked a career game for QB Nick Fanuzzi, who was starting his first game of 2011 and earned Conference USA player of the week honors for his performance.

Carrying it over to this week won't be easy. Rice travels to face a Northwestern team that just defeated Nebraska.

"They are leading the Big Ten in passing and just a solid Northwestern football team. It is what we need to aspire to become," Bailiff said. "They are solid everywhere -- offensively, defensively and special teams."

If Rice can pull off a perfect finish to its 2011 season, it will do so after playing a distinctly challenging schedule. The Owls are the only program in the FBS playing their entire non-conference schedule against teams from BCS leagues. The Owls also are taking on six teams that earned bowl berths this year.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Rice has lost 22 consecutive road games against opponents from BCS conferences.

--During his weekly press briefing on Monday, Rice coach David Bailiff singled out the play of C Keshawn Carrington and TE Taylor Cook in last week's 41-37 win against UTEP. Both were starting due to injury, with Carrington spelling Eric Ball and Cook replacing Luke Wilson in the lineup.

"I thought he had a big-time football game where he took advantage of his opportunity to make plays and he did," Bailiff said of Cook, who made three receptions for 89 yards. Carrington, meanwhile, was making his first start since getting benched back in September for Ball.

--Rice has been a different team since resuscitating the "Wild Owl", its take on the Wildcat formation that has become all the rage in football in recent years. RB Turner Petersen, a high-school QB, takes the snaps in that offensive formation. The results are evident. Since going to that look for the Bayou Bucket Bowl against Houston last month, Rice has racked up 581 total rushing yards in the past two games.

SERIES HISTORY: Rice leads Northwestern 4-2 (last meeting, 2010, 30-14 Northwestern).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Rice has a 90-percent red zone efficiency mark this season, which ties the Owls for 15th nationally. The Owls have generated points on 26 of their 29 opportunities inside the 20-yard line. RB Tyler Smith has climbed the stat sheet to become the second-leading rusher in Conference USA, with a 66.56-yard average. Rice had 671 yards in the win over UTEP, the third-highest output in team history.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Rice remains on pace to rank among the bottom 20 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in both points allowed and total defense. The Owls have achieved that ugly statistical feat during every season of coach David Bailiff's tenure. CB Bryce Callahan made two interceptions against UTEP, giving him a conference-best five for the season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought because of Nick and the way he threw the ball, and if you look, he ran the ball very effectively also. He kept the chains moving. We had big plays. The amazing thing is our longest drives always ended up with field goals. We didn't get any big plays on them but Nick still consistently moved the chains. That is what he has to do. He had great ball security. He played with a lot of confidence and poise. When we needed him the most, he was there to make the plays for us and he did that for four quarters." -- David Bailiff on Rice's performance during the first start of the season by senior QB Nick Fanuzzi

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Rice at Northwestern, Nov. 12 -- The Owls look to break their road losing streak against BCS opponents by taking on the Wildcats, who upended Nebraska last week and are opening a three-game homestand to conclude the regular season. Bowl eligibility is on the line for Rice, and probably is as well for Northwestern (4-5), which still has to take on Michigan State.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Rush the passer. Northwestern starting QB Dan Persa hurt his non-throwing shoulder in last week's win at Nebraska and backup Kain Colter had to finish the game. Persa threw for 307 yards in last season's meeting between these two teams, which the Wildcats won handily. Whoever takes the snaps, Rice can greatly help its cause by rushing the quarterback and hopefully hitting him.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Nick Fanuzzi -- The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week completed 30 passes for a career-high 405 yards in Rice's 41-37 win over UTEP. Fanuzzi led Rice on scoring drives on each of its first four possessions, then engineered a pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter as the Owls rallied for the victory. He becomes just the third Rice QB to throw for 400 yards in a game, and becomes the first Rice player to earn a C-USA weekly award this season.

DE Scott Solomon -- Rice's most prolific pass rusher is second all-time in Owls history in sacks. This would be a fine time for Solomon to add to that total -- especially if banged-up QB Dan Persa plays. Solomon will be crucial from a containment role if Kain Colter, Persa's backup, plays. Colter is a dangerous runner with 516 yards and eight TDs thus far this season.

CB Bryce Callahan -- Callahan picked off two passes against UTEP and now has a team-high five for the season. Not bad for a redshirt freshman. Callahan leads Conference USA and is tied for sixth nationally with his five total interceptions.

ROSTER REPORT

--RB Sam McGuffie is considered doubtful and TE Luke Wilson questionable for this week's game against Northwestern. Both players have been battling ankle injuries that held them out of the past two games.

--C Eric Ball (shoulder) is doubtful to play at Northwestern. The injury also kept Ball out of Rice's win over UTEP last week.


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