Stealing Victory from Jaws of Defeat
As I mentioned in the pre-game write up I had a good feeling about this game. But I have to admit when the Miners went up 48-28 early in the fourth I was having serious doubts about my intuition. Up to that point the Owls seemed to be in full self-destruct mode and had 7 turnovers on the day! 4 of those turnovers led to Miner touchdowns. Here are the series of plays that probably should have doomed the Owls yesterday:
1. Chase was blindsided by UTEP linebacker Jeremy Jones on a sack that resulted in Clement coughing up the ball and giving the Miners the ball on the Rice 8 yard line. The Owls had a defensive stand here that kept them from scoring – more on that later.
2. The Owls held on a fantastic 4th and goal attempt but were unable to move the ball successfully after taking over at their own 1 yard line. Luke Juist was forced to punt into a headwind just inches from the back of the end zone. The punt carried just 36 yards and UTEP's Fred Rouse returned the ball 17 yards to Owl 22. The Miners scored a touchdown just 3 plays later.
3. The Owls were driving a series later when Justin Hill fumbled at the Miner 22.
4. Chase Clement was picked off on a ball that hit Toren Dixon in the hands first.
5. Jarett Dillard made a spectacular run of 40+ yards after catching a pass on the near sideline from Chase Clement – only to have it stripped at the end of the play at the Miner 11 yard line.
6. Miner defensive end Jason Boyce picked off a batted ball at the line of scrimmage that set UTEP up in great shape at the Owl 28 yard line. The Miners scored but George Chukwu penetrated the line and blocked the PAT.
7. Chase threw a jump ball to James Casey that I'm sure he'd like to have back – Casey had 3 defenders covering him – the ball was picked by Quintin Demps at the Miner 27 yard line. Toren Dixon brought him down by the face mask giving the Miners the ball at their own 45.
In spite of all the turnovers the Owls refused to quit and obviously won the game. The keys to how they did that are important because they represent improvement – and more importantly learning from, not repeating, similar scenarios from earlier games this year. I saw strategic positives on both sides of the ball. I'll start with the much maligned defense because overall they played maybe their best game yesterday. Here's what I saw:
The Owls held the Miners to 422 yards of offense yesterday. Rice limited UTEP's Marcus Thomas to half his ypg rushing average - allowing him only 65 yards.
The Owls forced the Miners to punt 6 times, held them to 7-19 on third down conversions, and more importantly stopped them all 3 times on their 4th down attempts, including an awesome goal line stand to prevent a score.
Rice didn't shut down the Miner receivers necessarily but only gave up one big play, a 76 yard pass and score. The Owls DBs did a pretty fair job on these guys considering this: Lorne Sam and Fred Rouse both began their careers at Florida State. Sam was the #22 ranked "Athlete" in the country coming out of Buford HS in Georgia. Fred Rouse? He was rated a 5 star player and the #1 receiver in the country as a senior at Tallahassee (FL) Lincoln HS. If it seemed like Rouse has NFL skills, he does – at 6-3 200 pounds he runs 4.35 in the 40 and has a 40" vertical leap. Hats off to our DB's – hell of a job guys!
In the 4th when the Owls need stops to win the game they were very aggressive – electing to go at the Miners with some "Man Tight" coverages. They also put more speed at the ends using Biobele Bilaye-Benibo and rangy freshman Aaron Williams off the edges. They mixed their blitzes well and Aubrey White came up with another game winner, sacking Trevor Vittatoe for a loss of 21 yards on a fourth down conversion attempt late in the 4th quarter where the Miners had driven the ball to the Rice 32 yard line with just under 2 minutes left in the game.
As mentioned, the Owls DBs were good enough when they had to be. Gary Anderson Jr. continues to reward the coaches with the time he's been given. Anderson Jr. has always had speed, but his tackling continues to improve, he led the team with 8 yesterday and was also credited with breaking up 6 catches. 3 of those were on the Miners' final 8 attempts of the game.
Chase Clement simply put the team on his back yesterday and said, "Not this time guys, we're not losing another game." He accounted for 498 yards of total offense yesterday and has been nominated for the AT&T All American Player-of-the-Week for his efforts. His 129 yards rushing led all Owls but Clement's final 3 rushing attempts covered 73 yards, with a breathtaking 59 yard sprint to the Miner 9 being the play that broke UTEP. He scored on the next play. Clement was also 38 of 52, hitting 7 different receivers on his way to passing for 395 yards.
Jarett Dillard led all receivers with 11 catches for 168 yards and 2 TDs. His long catch and run were spoiled only by the ball being stripped from him – actually it appeared that the ground caused the fumble. While we're on the subject, the officiating yesterday was questionable all day.
Justin Hill has gotten to be very efficient at picking up the blitz – hard for a young guy and a valuable contribution that doesn't show up in the box score.
Scott Mitchell didn't allow a sack yesterday. The offensive line played very well as a whole. There was scary mishandled exchange on our own 1 foot line where Chase had to take a direct snap though, luckily James Casey picked up the ball and surged forward for a couple of yards avoiding the safety.
The Owls converted 9 of 18 3rd down attempts and were 2 of 2 on 4th down attempts. The Owls moved the ball when they had to yesterday. When they needed plays they made them yesterday.
The Owls had an almost 4 minute Time of Possession advantage in the 4th quarter yesterday – they outscored UTEP 28-6 in the final frame. Let's see win the 4th quarter in statistically and on the scoreboard, win the game. Coincidence? – NO!
On the Recruiting Front:
The Owls hosted several visitors to yesterday's game. It looks like they are continuing to place emphasis on the trenches. Yesterday's visitor's included Bradley Campion from Smithville HS and J.T. Cleveland from Baytown Lee HS. Campion goes 6-3 285 and runs a 5.0 forty. He could be a defensive tackle target for Owls. Smithville was 1-9 last year so Campion hasn't received much attention. On the other hand, J.T. Cleveland was selected to the 2nd Team of Team Texas Region III and to the All-State Junior Team by 5ATexasFootball.com. The 6-1 280 Cleveland benches 375 pounds and was 1st Team All District 21-5A last year. He has been a starter since he was sophomore. All the recruits at the game yesterday saw for themselves what being a Rice Owl is about – never giving up. Who wouldn't want to be a part of a program with mindset like that?
The Start of Something?
The Owls got just what they need yesterday on so many different levels. Well they got a bunch of "class checks" for one but on the field they really helped themselves. The young guys got some payoff for their trials. The seniors got a win in what's been a tough season. Recruits got to see exciting football and a never say die team show it's character. The "older" Owls got to see that football is still fun at Rice. Man what a day!
The SMU Mustangs are up next, and playing UH tonight. One game at a time Owls. Let's continue to build on what got started yesterday…