"White" Knuckles

Two days ago when I wrote here that a "W" is a "W", I never dreamed it would be so true. Even after notching the first win of the season last night in Hattiesburg over perennial conference power Southern Miss – the Owls left the game with mixed emotions...

Who would have thought the Owls would enter the last quarter on the winning side of a 31-7 score – then fail to score while the Golden Eagles came roaring back to score 22 unanswered points the 4th? Ultimately, the difference in the game came down to a failed 2 point conversion as Rice held on to win 31-29. Way too close for comfort. So what went right, and what went wrong? First the positives..

I listed a few things I thought the Owls needed to do to win this here on OwlDigest.com Tuesday, here they are:

Create turnovers – last year we did it, this year we're not..

The Owls forced two fumbles and picked off about a half season's worth of passes, 4 on the night to be exact.

Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone – a team struggling to find confidence has to capitalize on every scoring opportunity with touchdowns.

The Owls scored 4 touchdowns last night in the Red Zone, they had 6 chances all together, adding a field goal and missing another that would surely have made them breathe a little easier at game's end.

Protect the Ball – turnovers have plagued the Owls all year – Chase has 7 interceptions already this year, he had 5 ALL of last year. His receivers have contributed to half of these so blame must be distributed where due. The Owls are also fumbling at a rate that would surpass the total number of fumbles they had last year.

The Owls fumbled twice and got the ball back on the only legitimate one. The other fumble came on an onside kick. They threw one interception on James Casey's lone pass attempt, but the long throw was as a good as a punt as Southern Miss picked the throw on their own 8 yard line.

Stop the Run – Damion Fletcher was held in check against Boise St. so he'll be looking for a bounce back game against the Owls. I also expect the Golden Eagles to keep the ball on the ground even more, considering they are down to 3rd String QB Martevious Young who will likely start. Young can run the ball too.

Young never got started injuring his ankle on his lone rushing attempt. The Owls had moments of controlling the line of scrimmage but hardly stopped the Southern Miss rushing attack. The Golden Eagles gained 225 yards on the ground, netting a sparkling 5.1 yards per carry. The killer came in the 4th when Southern Miss' Tory Harrison bolted down the sideline 51 yards to the Owl 9 yard line. That run led to their second score and ignited the comeback that almost snatched away the Owls' first win of the season.

Make Plays – the Owls haven't had many game changing plays this year and they are due. They need dazzling runs, spectacular catches, interceptions, a blocked kick, quarterback sacks – anything that shifts momentum.

The Owls had several big plays: Freshman Justin Hill bolted right up the middle for a breathtaking 54 yard touchdown where he showed the breakaway speed coaches have been talking about for months. Marcus Knox had one carry on the night but it was a nice one, for 18 yards and a first down.

Andrew Sendejo forced a fumble and had 2 interceptions, just missing another. He had 31 return yards. Gary Anderson Jr. played a heck of a game and also came up with an interception. Arguably the biggest pick of the night though belonged to DE Will Shoppa, who dropped back in a Zone blitz and deftly picked off Stephen Reaves in the flat. Shoppa returned the ball 58 yards to the USM 10 yard line.

Brian Raines combined a sack with a forced fumble.

The Owls had a season high 4 sacks on the night –Raines, James "Thor" Casey, Chris Jones and 2 by Aubrey White. White's last one, a "pure effort" sack of Stephen Reaves forced the fumble that Jonathan Cary returned to the USM 9 yard line that sealed the deal for the Owls. White's hard inside rush on Southern Miss left tackle Calvin Wilson was a thing of beauty. Aubrey used all of his 205 pounds to bull rush the 325 pound plus USM lineman.

With so many good things happening from a team in a game you would expect them to win. Unfortunately they came very close to letting this one slip away.

Here are some negatives: Southern Miss dominated the game statistically with 21 first downs to Rice's 14; 422 total yards to Rice's 236; and actually had an edge in Time of Possession of 30:42 to 29:18. Turnovers are a killer, the Golden Eagles committed 6 – yet still came within a 2 point conversion of tieing the game and completing a 31-7 4th Quarter comeback.

The Owls looked fantastic for 3 quarters – then went completely flat in the 4th. In the last frame they missed a field goal, gave up several big plays including a 51 yard run, were basically unable to pressure the USM QB, fumbled an onside kick, and were held scoreless, able to muster only 3 first downs when a long sustained drive with a score would have likely put the game beyond reach for USM.

The end result of all this is the Owls have their first win of the season. Period. Anytime, you can get a conference win on the road you gladly take it, and when it comes against a team like Southern Miss at "The Rock" you're thrilled. The Owls did plenty last night to show they can still be a good team this year.

Football is a funny game and when the ball bounces your way, you take it. I thought a big win could ignite this team for conference play – if they can throw away the tape from the 4th Quarter I think it still will. David Bailiff's first win as an Owl looked like it would be a blowout for a couple quarters, in the end it was a white knuckle ride. Regardless, the Owls are 1-0 in C-USA.

In the end, is a "W" a "W" ? - you bet it is!

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