The Owls have back-to-back wins for the first time this year and are doing a lot of good things on the field. The most obvious is that they are finding ways to win and not giving up. They are getting takeaways – the same were very important in last year's stretch run. Today's interception returns for scores by Brandon King and Andrew Sendejo were potentially enough to blow the game wide open. Give SMU credit; they hung in there and came right back. It seems the Owls can't stand prosperity in any game where they build a lead this year. Rice has seen double digit leads in several games slip away this year. Nevertheless, Coach David Bailiff's squad seems to be coming together as a team.
Things The Owls Are Doing Right:
Using the Entire Roster – not necessarily by choice in some cases but the coaching staff hasn't been afraid to play guys with very few career starts, particularly freshmen. Nobody should question the staff's urgency to build a winner immediately. David Bailiff could have just red shirted most of the incoming class and called this season a "rebuilding one." Instead he's gotten solid contributions from them and from seniors like Gary Anderson Jr., Aubrey White, and Justin Abt – players who were basically buried on the roster by previous staffs. The staff has found a handful of solid starters from their young guys – Cheta Ozougwu, Scott Solomon, Scott Mitchell, and Justin Hill have all started the last several games. Taylor Dupree, Brandon Tolbert and Wil Norris are all Special Teams starters. Tolbert and Aaron Williams have also seen action at linebacker. Williams' speed has even been used at defensive end. As has senior Bio Bilaye Benibo's. Williams is an intriguing prospect -with 25 pounds added to his 6-3 frame he could be a very fast 6-3 250 pound defensive end. Joseph Leary and Chris Jones have several starts between them in the Owl secondary and will likely start somewhere next year. Randy Kitchens has made some big plays as well. Cameron Thompson and Kramer Lucio have been part of the regular rotation on the defensive line. Tyler Smith looked really good on returns before an injury sidelined him. The message should be clear to future recruits: Come in ready to play, and if you're good enough you'll see time as a freshman.
Showing and Cultivating Leadership – David Bailiff has taken the blame for every shortcoming this year. There's been no excuses given; no "don't have the players for my system." There's been no house cleaning on the roster either as is usually the case when programs change head coaches. To the contrary Bailiff has recruited seniors to stay instead. He's shown a high level of accountability and class in general. That's his job right? Well yes but not all head coaches seem to do it (see former coach). I think this is worth mentioning because if a team sees their coaches displaying leadership at all times it sends a strong message as well as setting an example for the players - both on and off the field. A team doesn't necessarily have to respect their head coach to play hard for him – but it's obvious this team does and is. When asked about punting late in the 4th quarter when the Rice defense had been struggling for several series – Bailiff called it a matter of trust. He's taken a lot of heat this year – but I like what I hear and see from Bailiff's Rice Owls more and more as the season goes on.
Recruiting – the Owls have a solid group of guys committed for the Class of 2008. They have several commitments from the big guys in the trenches. The coaches really want to control the line of scrimmage and are recruiting to accomplish this. They are recruiting nationwide, and even in Canada, but are also working to keep players from the Houston area at home too. The previous staffs didn't seem to sign many local players for some reason. The Owls are also looking for a couple of good cornerbacks to come right in and make an impact next year.
Works in Progress...
Defense - statistically the Owl defense is one of the worst in the country. That being said one only need look at the youth on the unit in searching for reasons why. No question the Owls need improvement to become the team they want to be because the offense is more than holding it's own. Rice has some very talented young players that will impact this unit down the road; all they need is experience (gaining it each week as we speak) and time in the weight room. Think about what could have been if Gary Anderson Jr., Justin Abt, and Aubrey White had decided not to play this year.
Running Game – The Owls have struggled to run the ball - the leading rusher on the team isn't a running back, it's Chase Clement. Which isn't all together uncommon in the spread offense. Rice would love to get 100 yards a game from a tailback though - Justin Hill is a guy who just might do it in the years to come. I'm expecting improvement in this area next year - the Owls red shirted almost all (Scott Mitchell is starting at LT) of their freshmen offensive linemen – and these guys are a talented group that will improve the overall athleticism of the unit next year. Offensive Line Coach Blake Miller, a former NFL starter and LSU All American OL himself is not a guy who accepts mediocrity. The offensive line will be better next year, count on it. His work with freshman Scott Mitchell is an example of his drive to develop a top-flight offensive line unit.
Rice – SMU Highlights:
Several Rice players hail from the D-FW area; almost all made the travel squad home to Dallas for Saturday's game. Two freshman made milestone plays to mark the occasion – Cedar Hill's Cameron Thompson notched his first career sack Saturday; and Plano Prestonwood Christian's Wil Norris caught a 22 yard pass from Chase Clement, his first reception as an Owl. Norris was the Owls' first commitment of the 2007 Signing Class.
Jarett Dillard broke another record Saturday, and it was just the statistical proof to support what we already know: Dillard is now the best receiver in Rice football history. His 13 receptions on the day put Dillard at 190 for his career, which broke Eric Henley's previous career receptions mark of 186. His 13 catches also set a personal best for Dillard in terms of catches in a game.
Chase Clement had another gutsy performance, putting up 364 yards passing and 124 yards rushing on the day in leading Rice to the win. His total offense for the day was just 8 yards shy of his output against UTEP – 496 yards. Clement also set a single season record for touchdown passes with 22. He and JD are rewriting the offensive record books at Rice – something I hope they continue next season.
Andrew Sendejo intercepted his 4th pass of the season, returning it 31 yards for a touchdown. He also leads the team in tackles for the season with 83. Brandon King also returned his interception for a score; King's pick was his 3rd of the season.
Clark Fangmeier had his consecutive PAT conversions streak broken when he missed in the 1st quarter. Fangmeier was later the hero, as he made the game winning FG from 31 yards out as time expired.
John Welch had 4 catches for 30 yards Saturday – almost doubling his catches for the season. Most forget that Welch has the second highest vertical jump on the team at 41". The Owls receiving corps is probably the deepest position on the team.
Vernon James had a team high 10 tackles in the game - 9 of which were solos. James has put together back to back games where his play has been stellar. With James and Brian Raines returning next year, and our great group of young linebackers this unit looks really solid for years to come.
Can anyone remember the last time Rice won a football game without some sort of exhilarating heroics? The Owls are anything but boring. Hey if you miss the roller the coasters over at Astroworld, come over to Rice Stadium next Saturday for what will surely be another thrill ride of a game against conference foe Tulane.
I'm sure you'll agree, as long as the scoreboard has Rice on top when the clock reads "0:00" we'll learn to cope with the heart palpitations - although, I wouldn't mind a blowout once in a while guys...