Starting Defensive Ends Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu did not even make the trip to Nashville. Starting Linebackers Brian Raines and Vernon James are perhaps questionable for the rest of the season. On top of that, part time starter sophomore DT Cameron Thompson didn't play either. Top reserve Arnaud Gascon-Nadon was also shelved for the game.
Not to take way anything from Vanderbilt, the Commodores are certainly a fine football team and did what they needed to do to win the game Saturday night. Bobby Johnson is a solid coach and deserves credit for building something out of very little in Nashville. But Saturday night was a case of "what might have been" for the Owls.
Makes no difference now because what's done is done, and injuries are indeed part of the game but when Rice's best run defenders are sitting in Houston you have to think Saturday's game might have turned out differently had they been healthy. The glass half full is that even playing several defensive reserves, Rice gave a good SEC team all it could handle for 2 quarters of football.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt won the game because they played 4 quarters of football, but also because they won all 3 phases of the game. They were particularly better on Special Teams and Defense in the second half. The Commodores were able to establish good field position constantly, either by Owl miscue or with a stellar return game. One of the SEC's best players, D.J. Moore, got a loose on a long return. Vandy kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt was also terrific – averaging 69 yards on his kickoffs and connecting on a his only field goal try of the night, good on a 48 yarder.
Just like last season, injuries forced true freshmen to get thrown into the fire Saturday night. Linebacker Ronnie Lillard, and Defensive Lineman John Gioffre both saw their first game action of 2008 Saturday night. Lillard responded well with 3 solo tackles. Their participation will no doubt season them for contributions later this year or perhaps next. The down side to that is that both would have benefited greatly from a red shirt year. Like every school in the country, Rice would love to be playing with a bunch of 5th year seniors. Its hard to get to that point when true freshmen are playing every year.
The Owls were outscored 17-0 in the final 2 quarters. First half aside, a loss is a loss. But what the Owls showed in the first half Saturday night is encouraging nonetheless. Rice coaches certainly aren't interested in "moral" victories, so we won't label Saturday's game one of "those". But you have to like what the staff did with the depth it has created in a year's time at Rice. At the very least it's a sign that the team is making incremental progress when they can take a patchwork defense and play an undefeated SEC team to a first half tie. It's a positive.
And right now, if you live in Houston, a glass with any water, even one half full, is worth clinging to. Let's take any positive from this game and move forward…Texas is next.