With several returning starters coming back from a team that went to the New Orleans Bowl last year, the Owls were looking to pickup where they left off. Unfortunately, that didn't happen last Saturday night at Rice Stadium. The Colonels of Division I-AA Nicholls State came in and ruined the party, taking a 16-14 win back to Cajun country with them. In a game that Rice should have easily won, they turned the ball over several times with fumbles and uncharacteristic interceptions by Chase Clement – one going for an easy score. The game was delayed twice by weather and when the clock read "zero", actually after midnight, Nicholls was the team that made fewer mistakes, while capitalizing on two Rice miscues for scores.
So what happened, and where do we go from here? Let's look at all 3 phases of the game – offense, defense, and special teams.
The Rice Offense was thought to be a returning bright spot coming into the 2007 season. Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard had looked very sharp all spring and in pre-season practices.
They looked anything but Saturday night.
Not surprisingly, Jarett Dillard's streak of games with a touchdown catch was abruptly halted at 15 games after he had a touchdown call reversed by review – he managed a very pedestrian 5 catches for 41 yards. The rest of the offense didn't look much better – putting up only 218 total yards, no where near the high octane, 500 + yard games of a year ago. Chase looked extremely tight all night long and never seemed to get in a rhythm. He finished the game 11 of 28, for 101 yards, with 3 interceptions. He also fumbled at least twice. The Owls rushing game, a spotlight focus in the pre-season, actually put up more yards than the passing attack with 117. The Owls "running back by committee" approach was led by C.J. Ogokwe's 64 yards on 13 carries. Marcus Knox had limited success carrying the ball but had 2 catches for 41 yards coming out of the backfield, including one that went 25 yards. Freshman Justin Hill looked good in his limited opportunities.
The Rice Defense actually kept the Colonels' Option attack in check most of the night. The lone offensive score for Nicholls State came on a blown coverage, as TE Grant Thorne slipped behind the Free Safety for a 30 yard touchdown catch. Nicholls St. "only" rushed for 194 net yards, adding 87 passing yards. It was hard to find much fault with the way the defense played. Brian Raines was the expected star of the defense, notching 11 tackles, 1 sack, and a forced fumble. Terrance Garmon and Andrew Sendejo pitched in with 7 and 6 tackles respectively. Freshman Chris Jones was thrust into action when FS Bencil Smith went down on the second play of the game with an ankle injury (Smith is reportedly out indefinitely). Jones notched 8 tackles. But perhaps the most exciting performance of all was that of San Antonio freshman DE Scott Solomon. Playing in his first college game like Jones, he had 8 tackles, 2 for a loss, and a fumble recovery. The future looks bright for these two youngsters.
Special Teams play has seemingly been the Achilles of Rice football forever. Saturday night was no different. The Owls gave up an average of 31 yards per return on 4 kickoffs – boosted by a long return of 61 yards. The difference in the game however ultimately came down to Luke Juist's punt being blocked through the end zone, resulting in a safety. An injury caused a missed assignment in punt protection, allowing Nicholls' Garrick Spain to come free for the block. With 8 minutes left the Owls got the ball back only twice more as Nicholls State was able to burn up over 6 minutes of game clock with its final possessions. Rice was never able to mount a serious threat. And just like that the Owls had lost David Bailiff's first game as Rice Football's head coach.
The Rice Defense was dominating at times. Brian Raines proved that he is the unquestionable leader of the Rice defense. Terrance Garmon and Andrew Sendejo had solid performances picking up where they left off last year. Freshman Chris Jones made a freshman mistake but otherwise looked every bit as good as his recruiting press had indicated. Freshmen Scott Solomon and Justin Hill both flashed their enormous potential. They will surely push for starting positions in coming weeks.
The Rice Offense, especially the passing game, never got on track. A Special Teams breakdown ended up being the difference in a ball game that Rice should have won.
Impressive: Coach David Bailiff taking all responsibility for the loss. I know we all wanted a win and excuses are little consolation at this point but Coach Bailiff demonstrated his character and leadership by painful example in days after the game. He took absolute blame and offered the utmost in accountability following the loss. My favorite quote offered by Bailiff, "Players win games – coaches lose them." Enough said.
What has to happen: The Owl Offense has got to return to the unpredictable force it was last year down the stretch. I know it was early in the season but the play selection Saturday didn't seem to resemble much of last year's in terms of creativity. Theories: Maybe Chase was given too many progressions and got overwhelmed, maybe he wasn't given enough of the playbook to avoid being predictable - in any case he was totally out of sorts. JD wasn't open much either. We've got to get him into the slot or put him in motion to get him into mismatches. The "No Huddle" used last year kept defenses from "sitting on" our formations. I think its return is near, possibly this week. In short. the Owls better find answers fast, Baylor is up next coming off a thorough beating at the hands of TCU. Speaking of, I'm sure Gary Patterson's phone rang early on Sunday morning …
Up next: Rice travels to Waco to take on the Baylor Bears of the Big 12 Conference.