Crossroads - 2007

The Owls are 1-5 for 2007. They are also right where they were last year at this time - at a crossroads, with the season in the balance, hoping their best football was yet to be played. It was in 2006. Will 2007 be a repeat and what should Owl fans be thinking about their team right now?

Last Saturday's game against the Houston Cougars was another day of highs and lows for the Rice Owls. Unfortunately, the "lows" added up too quickly for the Owls to get out of Robertson Stadium with a win. In what was easily the Owls' best offensive showing of the season, Chase Clement had a career day, passing for 355 yards, completing 24-44 passes and hitting 7 different receivers along the way. Jarett Dillard had his best performance of the year too with 7 catches for 133 yards and a pure effort score where he used every ounce of his 180 pounds to drag a defender into the end zone. Dillard also had several "highlight reel" catches and near catches. Ultimately, the day came down to defense, or the lack of it as the Owl Defense was the unwilling part of a record setting day too – Donnie Avery's. The Cougars had nearly 750 yards of offense in route to capturing the Bayou Bucket in a come from behind 56-48 win. The Owls have become a very young team on the field as injuries continue to play a key role in the Owls' struggles this year.

The Owls are 1-5 at the midway point of the season, but could just as easily be 3-3. Given all the injuries, a mid-term grade is probably pretty tough to assign to the Owls, so let's look at where the program is halfway through the year.

Expectations were high coming into this season after last year's successful year ended with the Owls going to a bowl for the first time in 45 years. Was it fair to expect a repeat? Probably not, seldom ever do you see a new coach and staff have immediate success with a first-year team. The fact is it's just real hard to do, even with a lot of talent to work with. The team has also played about 85% of its freshman class of recruits, which also means the odds are against winning a bunch of games because of the mistakes in execution that come from playing those young guys. On the bright side, those young players have shown flashes of brilliance thus far in 2007. They will have valuable experience under their belts as the program develops.

The coaches have had to get the team better each week under intense pressure and scrutiny from Owl fans. But you know what? I'm glad the Rice faithful has made it abundantly clear after every loss this year that "losing is not okay" because I think the expectations ultimately have played a role in where the Owls are here at midseason. They look pretty good on offense. Each week Chase looks a little sharper, and each week the offense clicks a little more and becomes increasingly more creative. They are making more plays, but not enough plays to win. Yet. Ultimately, a game comes down to who makes more plays – sometimes its one play, sometimes it's several. The real positive is that over the last two games, the Owls have narrowed it down to one or two plays making the difference. The Owls will never line up and beat a lot of teams with a simple game plan; they will always need a dynamic but executable scheme. We just simply can't "out athlete" opponents, not to say we don't have good athletes but depth is the area of concern here. Last Saturday the offense showed a complexity not before seen this season, the result: 48 points. The defense – well it's hard to say a lot of good things about a unit that gave up 748 yards and is 117th in the country but I think the defense has played well at times – just very inconsistently. The Owls have got to figure the 4th quarter out on both sides of the ball.

Keys to Winning the Second Half of the Season:

Coaching/Scheme – In my opinion, the one thing more important to winning at Rice than anything else is scheme – more directly the creative development and execution of. The Owls have their share of athletes, but give me a scheme that paralyzes the mind of the other team, and the feet will follow. I think we've traversed the learning curve quickly enough in terms of our "schemes". I've seen the question asked, "Why has it taken the coaches so long to figure our personnel?" Well, they didn't have a lot of these guys in the spring – and didn't necessarily have film on all the recruits. I don't think it's unreasonable that some things seem to have "just been discovered". Would you rather the season ended before the changes were made? The most important thing for me with our team is that we are playing much better each week. Unfortunately injuries and youth have directly impeded our on field execution of schemes. Still, I think the coaching staff has made good adjustments as each game has passed. I have confidence that corrective actions are ongoing. One thing that really encourages me about this staff is I feel that they listen. I'm not saying they're coaching to please the alumni – they aren't – but I think they are listening to input and where applicable that input is being seen on the field. Could be coincidence, but seeing it in the field is a positive. What can't be minimized here are the injuries. Rice is not a team with a lot of depth, so when injuries occur a "domino effect" begins to ripple through the starting units. I know everyone wants to just beat people with "who we have". Fact is, "who we have" right now is a bunch of kids starting for us, at multiple positions, which were in high school last year. It's just not realistic to think you can win with this many freshmen playing. Given that fact, I think we're playing pretty damn good football right now. My conclusion is that this staff is smart, motivated, and has enjoyed success at stops before Rice. I don't know how many more games we'll win but I think we'll continue to make adjustments that give us the best chance of winning. With a little luck health wise, I think we can be a pretty good team over the second half of the season.

Defense Has to Step Up – I think everyone, myself included anticipated better results from the defense this year. The secondary has really struggled, and we haven't had much push from the middle. But to be fair, injuries have significantly contributed to the problem. That's a fact, not an excuse. We can scream about poor technique from the corners but it just boils down to speed and depth at the position. When your defense stays on the field a lot, the corners are running a lot. Most teams can rotate corners when they are on the field a lot. In spite of what has been said by those outside the program, not getting a couple of corners in last year's recruiting class really hurt. Chima Nwachukwu from Allen was committed to the Owls for several months last year before switching to Washington State. He's gotten Freshman All American mention and is starting for the Cougars this year. He would have done the same for Rice. Fact is we don't have any depth at that position – so options are limited. We will have to figure out how to stop people from running up and down the field if we are going to win games. A couple things we'll have to do beginning with Saturday's game is to focus on stopping conversions on 3rd (and 4th) down, and eliminate big plays. We've done those things for the most part in the last two games, well 6 out of 8 quarters anyway.

Part 2 to Come...

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