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'06 East Carolina week

Rice 18, East Carolina 17
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Frosh kicker nails last-second field goal
to cap stunning, improbable Rice victory

Fourth-quarter comeback keeps Owls on road to bowl

Was it, or wasn't it?
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Sure, ECU defender Pierre Parker has ball at the end of the play, but was Rice's Jarett Dillard in possession of the football when his knee touched the end zone turf?  (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 19) -- When Clark Fangmeier trotted out onto the Rice Stadium turf with the Owls down to East Carolina, 17-15, with seven ticks left on the scoreboard clock Saturday, it turns out he was probably the least nervous person in the ball park.

And why not, when he'd picked up good vibes resulting from the support of his coaches and teammates. Rice receiving ace Jarett Dillard said he was fully confident that the offense had set the table quite nicely in moving the ball as far as the ECU 23 yard line and setting it up in the middle of the field for the Owls' youthful kicker.

"We definitely were in field goal range," JD said. "And we’d all seen Clark knock down field goals in practice. So I felt perfectly calm after we went out."

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Jarett Dillard skies high to haul in Chase Clement for Owls' first TD of the game.   This touchdown catch marked the 13th straight game in which the Rice receiving phenom has hauled in a scoring catch (PTH photo)

It was a matter of putting faith in one’s players, Rice head coach Todd Graham said afterwards. "There's no question but that you've got to trust the kids," he said. "And I told Fangmeier right there at the end, I said 'there is no doubt.' He asked, 'Are you going with me?' And I said, 'No doubt.' We put that kind of belief and faith in them. Anyway, Clark is going to make -- inside that 45-yard range, he's going to 10 out of 11 field goals. He's that accurate."

Despite being iced by two timeouts called by ECU head coach Skip Holtz, the the freshman walkon 2006 graduate of Northland Christian School in suburban north Houston, gave a youthful grin and said he'd welcomed the opportunity.

"I was hoping I'd get that chance to make the kick for the win," he insisted. "Coach Graham and Coach Beaty have done a good job conditioning me for a quick move -- they call it a 'NASCAR run' – onto the field. They're good at putting in pressure situations at practice. So I was prepared."

Yeah, but he had to wait out there in front of all 12,669 attendees at Rice Stadium and God and everybody, with several minutes to mull over the enormity of his task. What went through his mind?

"To be honest, I couldn't tell you what I was thinking about. It was one of those, 'just make the play, and then think about it afterwards. Keep my head down, and let the audience tell me if it went through.'"

They told him, alright.

The Homecoming crowd, which made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers, let forth with a mighty roar as Clark Fangmeier's effort rode high and true through the uprights. An interminable three seconds on the clock later, after ECU had gone through a Chinese fire drill of sorts on the ensuing kickoff, the game was over, and the Owls had won their fifth contest in a row, rendering them bowl eligible for the first time since 2001 -- and this time in a conference where it means something.

In so doing, the Owls defied defeat when victory repeatedly seemed to have eluded their grasps.

First half a tale of bad field position

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Tommy Henderson slips by his defender for a first down (PTH photo)

The first presentiment that this beautiful fall day might not be one for the Owls to relish lay in the god-awful field position that they were forced to endure throughout the opening half of this ball game. Coach Holtz and his staff clearly decided their team was bigger, and stronger, and  talented enough to mud this one out over an inspired but outmanned Rice squad.  So they held onto the ball,  slogging it out on the ground head to head, avoiding wide open play that might lead to turnovers, and simply not allowing the Flock to gain a foothold with their hellbent style of play on either side of the ball.

Consequently, in the first half, the Owls' average beginning field position was their own 14 yard line (the 20, the 20 and the 2) discounting a fourth possession that began at the Rice 20 with seconds left in the half.

Each time, Rice was able to move the ball, and in fact the Owls amassed some 250 yards' total offense in the first half, but with only a single touchdown to show for it.

Rice held ECU to a missed field goal on the opening possession of the game when Andrew Sendejo broke up a James Pinckney pass attempt to Kevin Roach on third and eight from the Rice 16. And the Owls immediately cranked up the flivver and moved down the road, in response.

First play, Chase Clement hit Joel Armstrong for a pass-and-run down the home sideline that covered 47 yards to the ECU 33.  Had the ball been pitched the ball a second sooner, he just might've gone the distance.

The Owls picked up another first down on the drive, but stalled at the 16, where Clark Fangmeier, as the designated "inside the 40" place kicker, uncharacteristically missed a 34-yard field goal attempt. "I just didn't get all of the ball," he explained after the game.

East Carolina responded with an 80-yard, 13-play drive to get on the scoreboard first. The Rice defense was shaded to protect against the pass, and ECU took advantage by chopping away at the Owl midsection, using four different ball carriers including the quarterback Pinckney. The score, however, came on a five-yard passing play from Pinckney to Davon Drew with just under two minutes left in the first quarter.

The Owls responded with a nine-play, 55-yard drive that featured a 23-yard slash up the middle by Quinton Smith, a play that very nearly broke for the distance.

A couple of pass plays misfired at the ECU 25, though, and from there Luke Juist narrowly pushed his 43-yard field goal attempt wide left, and once again the Owls had produced another nice drive, but had no points to show for it.

'Dray made big interception playing center field

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Mike Falco had a productive game, including two 35-yard-plus kickoff returns (PTH photo)

East Carolina came back and moved the ball as far as midfield, when Pinckney decided to go for broke on the post pattern. Defending ECU's vaunted (i.e. said to be  "better than Dillard") receiver Aundre Allison , Rice's own Andray Downs outdueled the Pirate receiver in jockeying for position, and thus was in place to haul down the interception at the Rice two yard line. It was a fine defensive play, but was better than a punt for ECU, for it set up the Owls with field position beneath the shadow of their own goal.

So what did Clement, Dillard & Associates do but engineer a prodigious 98-yard, 16-play drive to put the Feathered Flock right back in the ball game.

The longest play of the drive was a 17-yard gainer ripped by Quinton Smith from the ECU 28, but other than that, every single play of the drive produced positive yardage, although in the single digits. Mike Falco picked up a couple of key receptions on the drive, but  only he,  Chase Clement and Quinton Smith touched the ball during that possession -- until the scoring play, that is.

The final five yards was recorded on a fade pattern from Chase to Jarett Dillard from the ECU five, and that tied the score at seven and kept JD's consecutive games with a touchdown reception at 13.

ECU had ample time to try and get back on the scoreboard before the halftime gun, but when Brandon Fractious was nailed behind the line by Terrance Garmon, and when, next play, a scrambling Pinckney was chased down by Courtney Gordon who recorded the sack for a loss of ten, the Pirates faced third and 22 from the Rice 45 as the clock ticked down, and the Owls appeared to be out of danger.

However, Pinckney connected underneath a loosened Rice pass coverage to Steven Rogers for 15 yards to the 30, and that put ESU within range for its strong-legged kicker, Robert Lee, to connect on a field goal, and he did so from 47 yards out, which pegged the halftime score at 10-7, East Carolina .

Still, Rice was getting the ball to begin the third quarter, and had moved the ball each time it got its hands on it, not having had to punt at all during the first half.  So spirits were relatively chipper when the Owls came back out after halftime.

Rice did move the ball adroitly to begin the third quarter, starting with an encouraging 36-yard yard kickoff return by Mike Falco to get things going.

First play, Falco picked up eight more yards on a quick look-in pattern, and the Owls were at midfield. Then on a crucial third and five from the ECU 34, Chase connected to Q coming out of the backfield but the Pirate defense was ready for the play, and stopped him for no gain.

The Owls lined up as if to run a fourth down play, but taking the ball from the shotgun position, Chase got off an absolutely exquisite quick-kick which carried all the way to the ECU six-inch line, carefully escorted by a cordon of Owls.

First play, Pinckney tried to pass out of his own end zone, but an ECU blocker blatantly held behind the goal line, and that resulted in an automatic safety for the Owls. (Better teach 'em that rule, Skip.) That made it 10-9, ECU.

So the dumb team had to free-kick out to the smart team from the dumb team's 20, and Brandon King fielded the resulting punt and brought it out to the Rice 43 -- no more of this horrible field position for the Institute Boys.

Now Owls had field position, but couldn't advance

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Bencil Smith hauls down ECU receiver after short gain (PTH photo)

Only one problem -- the Rice offensive possession went nowhere. Two Chase Clement passes failed to connect, and Rice had to punt for the first time all day; well, the second time, counting Chase's quick kick.

Jared Scruggs appeared to be taking his vitamins again, for he boomed this one 52 yards into the end zone.

Now the Owls came out in a four-man defensive front, and first, play, Marcus Rucker and Andray downs were in the backfield to drop Chris Johnson for a four-yard loss.

On second down, Pinckney tried to get it all back, but a roving Terrance Garmon was there to make the interception, and threaded his way 18 yards down the visitors' sideline, barely being bumped out of bounds at the ECU six.

So the Owls were in bidness -- surely they'd score a touchdown here. And on first and goal, things looked promising as Q slashed for four yards to the two.

However, on second down, Chase tried the keeper and was cut down for a yard loss. Then on third and goal, all receivers appeared to be tied up, so Chase bargained for time by scrambling toward the west sideline. He spotted Tommy Henderson momentarily open on the sideline at about the two yard line, and tried to thread the needle to him, but ECU defender Kyle Chase decided to gamble by going for the pick.  Had he failed, it would've been an easy six for Tommy, but the ECU DB came out quite smartly for the ball and managed the interception.

That caused a groan to be emitted from the homecoming crowd, one that was replicated silently by the Rice defensive unit. For they'd set up the Rice offense with as perfect a field position as one could have -- an automatic three for the lead, if not an easy TD-- and the Owls had walked away with nary a point.

Though Terrance Garmon denied it in his post-game interview, the Owl defensive unit clearly felt a collective bum-out over the turn of events, and, in the event, the ECU offense was able to chip its way on the ground for a couple of first downs and get some operating room.

A 20-yard completion from Pinckney to Phillip Henry took the ball to midfield, and then, a couple of plays later, somebody missed an assignment big-time, for when ECU's Chris Johnson took the handoff and got five yards past the line of scrimmage, he was already in the clear, and so sprinted the remaining part of 43 yards into the end zone untouched.

At the point, only a minute remained in the third quarter, and the Owls were down by eight, 17-9 -- but somehow the climb looked even more precipitous than that. Things were simply not going the Owls' way this otherwise glorious day.

When, for example, Chase Clement misfired on his attempted needle-threader to Tommy Henderson, he was chopped down by a semi-late hit, where he lay supine for a moment as he was tended by Rice sideline personnel. Up on his feet gamely, he moved about under his own power, but was immediately escorted to the Rice dressing room, and he was no longer seen on the field, the rest of the game.

Falco pumped up Owls with KO return

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Quinton Smith breaks into the secondary for key first down to keep drive alive (PTH photo)

On the ensuing possession, Mike Falco once again did his thing on the kickoff return, making it all the way from the goal line to the Rice 45, where he was finally corralled by the ECU kicker, without which it would've been a hundred yards and paydirt for the intense Arizonan.

Coach Graham put in John Thomas Shepherd to command the Owl offense, and the redshirt freshman gamely directed the Flock down the field, for a couple of first downs, anyway. But an illegal procedure penalty on the Owls -- one of only two infractions the team incurred all day, by the way -- gave them 15 yards to gain for a first, and a couple of Shepherd passing attempts to Jarett Dillard did not connect.

Then on third and 15, Shep dropped back in the pocket, but did not want to throw the ball away under a heavy rush, and wound up being sacked for a loss of nine.

It was at that point that certain faint-hearted alums turned their conversation to the post-game cocktail party, but the Rice defense was not quite ready to head for the barn just yet.

On third and 11, Ja'Corey Shepherd rather spectacularly broke up a Pinckney pass attempt, so that ECU went three-and-out with a 56-yard Ryan Dougherty punt which carried into the end zone for a touchback.

This time, the Rice brain trust decided to try old hand Joel Armstrong at the quarterback position, and the very first play he responded with a 20-yard dash to give the Owls field position at their 40.

It appeared the presence of the rugged, run-oriented Armstrong at quarterback changed the equation for the ECU defense, and the Pirate defenders appear to play somewhat back on their heels for the remainder of the game.

"Sometimes I did things a little bit different, but I think it was pretty much just the plays that were called," Joel told us afterwards.

Joel resolutely marched the Owls down the field, getting a hand from Quinton Smith, who carried the ball six times for 39 yard on this possession. "The running plays were working pretty well all game long," Joel said, "and Coach felt confident in running them with me in there. We ran it a lot. It worked."

Rice was knocking at the door when, on second and one from the ECU 14, Joel went for Dillard in the back of the end zone.

Jarett was there, the pass was there, and so were two ECU defenders. JD leaped and came up with the ball, and appeared to have it in his possession when his knees hit the turf, but when the dust settled, Jarett's nemesis Pierre Parker had the ball in his hands, and the officials quite readily awarded the interception to ECU.

'I  felt like I had it'

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George Chukwu, playing the whole game dehydrated by a bout of stomach flu,  puts the heat on ECU quarterback Pinckney (PTH photo)

"I felt like I had it," Jarett recalled, "but like the ref said, when I was coming down, I was bobbling it a little bit. Then the other defender (Pierre Parker) came across like he was trying just to make the tackle. Well, he tackled me, and he just came up on top of the ball, and they called it a pick for him. I don't if my knees were down or not."

Maybe they were; maybe they weren't, but the resulting call put the Owls in a major quandary, as they'd just exhausted a 60-plus yard drive with no points (their fourth such fruitless scoring effort of the day), and only 6:47 remained on the game clock.

It was do or die for the Rice defense, then, and the Institute Boys came through. First play, Brandon King met Aundre Allison for a reception of minus-two yards. The on second and long, Marcus Rucker nailed Chris Johnson after a short gain. When the self-same Brandon King then broke up the third- down passing attempt to go-to guy Aundre Allison, it was puntin' time, and the boys in blue thus were able to hang on to a rather slim hope.

BK dropped back to receive the punt, and returned the ball 19 yards to the ECU 46. "The punt return was huge," Coach Graham said in retrospect. "BK getting that ball back down there, that got us going."

Three plays later, however, it was fourth and three at the ECU 39, and the game was on the line. While the ECU defense lined up to stop Joel and Q on the run, Joel quickly dropped back and found Corbin Smiter roaming the sideline far down the field, and the freshman wideout did an artful job of coming back underneath the defender, resulting in a 32 yard gain to the ECU 7, and, of course, a first down.

The next play, Joel ran the zone read, kept the ball, found a teeny hole, and squeezed into the end zone, aided by a key block from Taylor Wardlow.

Down 17-15, and with only 2:52 left in the game, the Owls had to go for two.

"It was the same play we ran against Tulsa ," Joel explained. "Q wanted to get in the end zone, and I wanted to get in the end zone, and we were kind of fighting over the ball, but just couldn't quite get it in."

On the ensuing kickoff, Luke Juist got off a perfectly-placed onside kick which touched an ECU player and bounded loose for a moment, but the visitors managed to cover the ball. Thus, while the ECU sideline rejoiced, it appeared that time had just about run out on the Institute.

But the Rice defense still had one more statement to make. And that statement was, "Give us the damn ball back."

ECU, operating from its own 46, tried two Chris Johnson rushing plays in the attempt to eat clock, which netted minus-two yards, total, thanks primarily to tacklers Courtney Gordon and Andray Downs. The Owls at that point had one timeout left, and were holding onto it for dear life.

ECU went against percentages on third down

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Joel Armstrong is finally ridden down after a 46-yard gain on Rice's first play from scrimmage (PTH photo)

Then on third and 15, Coach Holtz went tricky jones, calling for the deep pass to Chris Johnson, 30 yards downfield, but the ECU running back couldn't handle the ball, though it was catchable.

"Wow. My heart stopped when that thing was thrown," Coach Graham confessed afterwards. "When they went empty, I said that's fine. We're going to roll the dice here and go zero coverage and come after them. So Dale sold out, pressured the quarterback."

"Looked like a pretty smart call to me if he makes the play. It's third and 15; if they get a first down, the game's over. And they came very, very close to getting a first down. It looks really good if you make it, and if you don't there's still probably only 40 seconds left."

Not only did that incomplete pass force a punting situation on the Pirates, but it also stopped the clock with all of 1:09 left in the game. Brandon King hauled in the ensuing punt at his own 11 and got the ball back out to the Rice 24.

But only a minute remained. Frankly, during all those Hatfield years, it would've been time for Owl fans to head for the watering hole, what with 76 yards ahead of the Flock and only one time out left.

But what happened next proved perhaps once and for all thing Things Are Different on South Main under the leadership of Todd Graham.

First thing he did was put it frosh quarterback John Shepherd -- remember what he'd said about trusting his players. Between Joel and John Thomas, Shep had the stronger throwing arm, so TG was going with him, and, hey, let's go get some points.

The rest is, frankly, somewhat of a blur. We do remember that three straight passing attempts, two to JD, one to Corbin Smiter, went incomplete. We remember contemplating the utter impossibility of the situation facing young John Thomas, with fourth and long, almost no time left, and about a thousand yards to go to get even into field goal range.

But the youngster had been schooled by his mentors well. Staring football   oblivion in the face, he retreated and let go a long, high, arching pass far downfield in the direction of a streaking Jarett Dillard.

Once again, JD's tormentor, Pierre Parker, was on the defense, and the ball appeared to start earthward more in the direction of the defender than the receiver. Now, a savvy pass defender in such case would have been schooled simply to bat down the pass and avoid the possibility of a reception.

But the strutting Pierre couldn't resist the temptation. He was going to end this game with an interception, cap it with an exclamation point. And when he reached the apogee of his jump, he had the ball in his grasp.

Tables were turned for JD, defender

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Q throws a shoe but keeps going during Owl first-half drive (PTH photo)

But this time, Jarett Dillard had timed and directed his leap to intersect with the defending Pirate. And when both players fell to the turf, JD had the ball firmly in his grasp.

The tables had been turned, then, by Rice's Biletnikoff Award Finalist. But as it turned out, this duel had been going on for the entire duration of the afternoon.

"It all started at the beginning of the game," JD explained afterwards. "When I walked down the tunnel I saw that same cornerback (Parker) -- he sat there and laughed, like, 'Oh, I've got that 81; you know, he's little -- I've got him.' So that like pumps me up. He played some good defense; he knocked a couple of balls down; knocked a couple of them away. And then, you know, that pick. I can't even explain how mad I was after that. But on that last drive, all that was going through my head was, 'whatever I've got to do, to do it. If anybody can get the throw to my area, I'll get the job done.' "

The resulting 40-yard completion set up the Owls at the ECU 36, and, as Rice burned its final timeout, all of a sudden, its players, coaches and fans all together came to the sudden realization: hey, we're just about in field goal range. One more completion, and we will be.

And after Joel Armstrong narrowly missed hauling in a touchdown completion in the end zone, that's just was John Thomas came up with, hitting Jarett Dillard on a crossing pattern for 11 yards and a first down. JD dashed out of bounds, stopping the clock with 22 seconds left.

But the Owls were out of timeouts. So what do you do? Elementary, my dear Watson, you run a rushing play to set up the ball in the middle of the field.

Quickly the Owls set up at the line of scrimmage and Shep spiked the ball. That left seven seconds on the clock, and the ball stood at the ECU 23.

That's when young Mr. Fangmeier came on to perform his heroics, and the rest, we can only hope, when the book is finally written on this season, will turn out to be history.

--Paul T. Hlavinka

Rice-ECU photos...     Box score, statistics.... 

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Clark Fangmeier gets rollicking welcome from his teammates upon entering the Rice dress room

after post-game media interviews Satuday (PTH photo)

Rice-ECU post-game interviews...wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

006toddg1.jpg (14804 bytes) Todd Graham:   "The way they won today is just indicative of the entire year..."
06ecufang1.jpg (17514 bytes) Clark Fangmeier: "It was one of those, 'just make the play, and think about it afterwards; let the audience tell me if it went through....'"
06ecujoela1.jpg (17744 bytes) Joel Armstrong: "I'll be ready to go, and I know Coach will prepare me -- if it calls for that...."
06ecujd1.jpg (17401 bytes) Jarett Dillard:  "When I walked down the tunnel, I saw that same cornerback -- he sat there and laughed...."
06ecugarmon1.jpg (16362 bytes) Terrance Garmon:   "In the second half, we had to change our mentality to three- and-outs, and make turnovers...."
06ecudray1.jpg (16870 bytes) Andray Downs:   "Every player on this team is important.  They know that whenever you get in a game, step up..."
06ecuq1.jpg (14327 bytes) Quinton Smith:   "When somebody goes goes down, someone else has to come in and make big plays -- like John Thomas did...."

Special teams have big role to play
if Owls are to create special season

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Rice special teamers are a special breed (MA photo)

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Nov. 17) -- If there is one aspect of any football team that goes underappreciated, that would have to be its special teams. It's an area that has shown marked improvement for the Rice Owls, both in comparison to prior years, and during the course of this ‘06 season. One could even go so far as to say that a significant reason for the Owls’ current four-game winning streak lay in the improved play of Rice’s special teams.

"We don’t get a lot of publicity, but we like it that way," Brandon Long, the Owl’s rookie deep snapper, told us. "The only time we’re in the paper is when we do something wrong."

This week, we spent time with seven Owl special teams members: Drew Clardy, Brandon Long, Chris Douglas, Marcus Knox, Jared Scruggs, Luke Juist, and Clark Fangmeier. Each one of these special team players has an important job—or in some cases, jobs—to do.

As good a place to start as any, would be regarding the kickoff chores. For the Owls, Luke Juist handles those duties. Luke told us there are two key aspects displayed by the the successful kickoff man. "From the start, it’s [the kick] got to have good hang time," he said. "And probably one of the most important things is placement. If you put the ball in the spot where the cover team is looking for it to land, then it makes their job a whole lot easier.

"And it helps pin the return team down."

Luke said he’d just learned an interesting statistic, which, if true, speaks volumes about the importance of having a consistent effort by the kickoff team. "If the opposing team starts on the 20 yard line," he noted, "the odds are one out of every thirty attempts, they will score—so that’s great odds for you."

It starts with the kickoff

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Jared Scruggs has been handling punting chores for the Owls ever since his freshman year (MA photo)

When a team kicks off, where do the cameras and the fans turn their attention? That answer is usually the kick return men. But in doing so, they miss some of the best action on the field in the kicking team’s wedge busters.

A wedge is often three to four blockers who form a wedge to escort the one returning the kick up field. A critical element to pinning a team down inside their twenty yard line is breaking up that wedge. The Owls’ Brian Raines, for one, is considered very good at it. Yet there are two youngsters on this team who are beginning to make names for himself by being a wedge buster—Marcus Knox and Chris Douglas.

"Breaking up a wedge, the most important thing is to blow it open so it can clog up everything," Marcus Knox revealed, "That allows guys like ‘C’ Douglas to come in and make the tackle. Busting the wedge is getting that first level of blockers out of the way so we can pin them back."

Chris Douglas also pointed to some other "wedge busters" whose job often goes unnoticed, namely Terrance Garmon, Brian Raines and Marcus Rucker. Against Tulsa, Knox served notice for the entire special teams they came to win when he hit one wedge in particular. "I hit one, and all of them collapsed." Luke Juist remembers that one. "He hit one and it they all fell like dominoes," Luke recalled.

But there’s another part of the cover team that doesn’t get any notice until something goes wrong—the safety men on both sides, Chris Douglas and Bencil Smith. "My main goal is to protect the outside," said Douglas. Against Tulsa, he made perhaps the most important play of his season on the third kickoff. "The guy almost got outside of me," Chris said. "And had he got outside of me, it probably would have been a touchdown."

When the Owls are receiving a kickoff, the deep men are Knox and Douglas. Douglas is leading the team in kickoff returns, and is receiving fewer kickoffs as a result. And Chris says of the blocking both he and Marcus have had on the returns, "This year, we’ve had some great blocking, which allows me and MK to get some great yardage." When asked if he felt like he was close to breaking one, Douglas answered, "I really do think I am."

There are two other aspects of returning kicks that are important to the Owls’ special teams. The first one, according to Douglas, is "Our main focus is ball security." The second part that is just as important, says Douglas, is "eliminating all penalties, because if we get a penalty, we happen to start out at the five yard line."

When it comes to a field goal or a punt, it all starts with a snap. For the last four years, the man snapping the ball for punts, field goals, and extra points has been Drew Clardy. Drew summed up the importance of the deep snapper’s job and said, "I guess the most important part of our job is to actually get it to the guys who can actually do something for the team."

What Clardy doesn’t talk about here is what a deep snapper has to look forward to once he gets the ball away. He can get knocked backwards by hard-charging defensive linemen weighing over 300 pounds each. Although illegal, he can also find himself being used as a springboard by a defender to block a field goal or extra point attempt. But Drew’s take on it is pretty simple. "The snap is the same wherever you are on the field, but it can make a big difference," he said.

A deep snapper has put in a lot of work on his craft before he gets to the college level, and even more when he arrives. The reason he can make those kinds of sacrifices is because he has confidence in those who are going to kick. And one man has been back there ever since Drew Clardy first started snapping the ball for the Owls – Jarrett Scruggs. Jarrett has caught practically every snap both as the punter and as the holder for field goals. "I’ve been working with Scruggs for four years now, so we’re kind of a team," Drew said.

Kicking skills typically start to develop at early age

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This walk-on has been working with the special teams scout unit -- he's Mike Graham, said to be kin to somebody on the coaching staff.  We do know this:  Mike has his own locker and gear (Mark Anderson photo)

Those who do the kicking duties for the Owls didn’t just start kicking a ball yesterday. When Luke Juist was asked how long he has been kicking, he deadpanned, "How long was it since the earth was created?" {Perhaps we need to consult with Luke about how he stays so young looking!) Luke can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t kicking a ball because he started playing soccer at the age of three.

But Luke isn’t the only one that grew up kicking a soccer ball. Clark Fangmeier said, "I played soccer ever since I can remember as a kid." He began kicking footballs in the eighth grade when he was pulled off the soccer team. "I’ve had quite a bit of experience kicking the football," Clark said.

Jared Scruggs starting kicking a soccer ball around early in his life. "Like all punters and kickers nationwide, I started out playing soccer at a young age," said Scruggs. "At that young age, we just get that swinging going, and it translates to football because you can get scholarships and more opportunities," Scruggs told us.

If you are a punter or kicker, you understand that every kick is an important kick. Punters and kickers don’t get second chances very often on fourth down. They have to deliver—and deliver in that moment.

Scruggs understands the critical nature of his job on this team. "Oh, changing the field position is a major part of the game," Jared explained. "Coach Graham has emphasized it a lot more. The punting part has really been emphasized, and we’ve got great people out there. And we’re really doing a great job this year," he added.

Field goals and extra points are also very critical to the success of any football team. Clark Fangmeier emphasized, "Any game can come down to one point. So most people just regard the kicking of an extra point as a guaranteed point," Fangmeier said. "But games have been determined by one point. You can look at our team—we won a game by a point and we lost a game by a point."

Yogi Berra once said of hitting a baseball, "Ninety percent of hitting is mental. The other half is physical." While Yogi’s math doesn’t add up, his logic does—and it applies to every kicker as well.

Every kicker has hot streaks and every kicker has days that are, well, not so hot. Just as a hitter in baseball can go into a slump, so a kicker can as well. Where can a kicker go to at a time like that?

Jared Scruggs confesses that getting out of a slump isn’t easy. "For a kicker in any part of the game, it’s really hard," he said, "because when we’re out here, we’re the main focus out here." Scruggs says that the attitude their teammates take towards them is important. "You’ve got to have teammates and coaches that support you. There’s a lot of mental in kicking."

Luke Juist also had some insight into this area. "If you have a bunch of teammates that are constantly putting you down and down-grading the importance of special teams, then it makes you feel worse about yourself," Luke said. Juist looks to his teammates when he goes through a slump for encouragement. He pointed to one person who has helped him this season. "Scruggs in particular has helped me a lot," Juist revealed. "I was having trouble with my field goals at the beginning of the season, and he helped me out more than I can express."

It’s often said that special team units make up one-third of any football game. For any team to win, they must use special teams to their advantage, making their opponents start deep in their territory when they receive the ball. Every kickoff, punt, field goal or extra point is important—especially when you are playing for a bowl appearance, as Rice is this weekend and the final weekend against SMU.

If you are at the game this Saturday, cheer long and loud for Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard, and Quinton Smith. Make noise when it’s time for the defense to take a stand. But don’t forget the special teams these next two weeks—and especially Saturday! Cheer them on, too. Either of these next two games could come down to a field goal, and extra point, or turning the field around on a punt. Let the special teams hear your voice Saturday.

After 8 out of 10 on the road, home sweet home
Whether payoff time, or payback time --
the time has come for Owls, their fans

Sudden victory Rice; sudden death Tulsa
06tulsao81winningtdvx45.jpg (78064 bytes)
Yeah, we know we've already posted a different version of this shot.  Just want to keep it up where we can all see it and savor it a bit more. JD, you ARE the man! (PTH photo -- many more photos to be posted later this week, beginning Tuesday evening)

HOUSTON (Nov. 13) – Approach Todd Graham six months ago and tell him that you’d be supremely happy to see a Rice ‘06 campaign in which the Owls won five games, four in league play, and he would’ve likely given a response that would be more than remotely similar to General McAuliffe’s at Bastogne: ‘Nuts!’

After hearing his entreaties to the effect that he plans on winning more games than that, you likely would’ve walked away thinking ‘that poor deluded soul; he has no idea what he’s getting into.’ At the same time, surely you’d have been lifted up, at least just a bit, by the enthusiasm inherent in the new Rice mentor’s response.

In other words, you wouldn’t have bought in to his gospel – but you could not have helped being at least somewhat impressed by the reading of it.

Funny, that’s the same reaction quite a large number of the Boys from the Institute had when they first beheld their new coach.

"The coach was fired up," senior running back turned linebacker Marcus Rucker insists. "And he definitely knew what he was talking about coming in."

With the coming of spring drills, the players were fully exposed to the Graham System, and the converts came, first gradually, then wholesale, Marcus told press Monday.

"Initially the guys weren’t necessarily buying into the program, but now the guys understand that we are, or we can be, the best team in the conference, as long as you go the extra mile, work a little bit harder every week."

That hard work has paid off, and the sky’s the limit as to where it yet might lead the Owls – if not this season, then surely in campaigns to come.

Graham turned 'lefovers' into gourmet meal

06ecuweektg135.jpg (46090 bytes)
Todd Graham:  'Our kids are extremely confident right now -- and they should be'

Nevertheless, consider this: with five dozen ‘leftover’ players from a 1-10 Ken Hatfield team, with a dearth of players -- both in the skill positions and the strength positions -- that were designed for and experienced in wide-open offensive football, and with a murderous schedule that presumed failure, the new Rice regime, having played eight out of its first ten games away from home, has now come back to South Main for its last two games of the season with a 5-5 record, and a serious chance to go bowling for the first time since most of us (er, you) were born.

But to the Owls, according to their team sparkplug, .500 ball is just a barely acceptable, first-year baseline.

"I don’t want our team to get the big head about it, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg," ball-catching and touchdown-scoring phenomenon Jarett Dillard said. "I mean, that’s just the minimum expectation. We want to be the team that other teams look at and say, ‘oh, we’ve got Rice coming up; we’ve got to focus.’"

True blue Owl fans can rest comfortably in the assurance that the Owls may or may not be able to pull off wins in their last two games of the season against resurgent East Carolina and SMU teams. But if they lose even one of them, it’ll be a bitter disappointment to the players and coaches – and lead only to a more intense effort and preparation in the attempt to sweep up all the marbles in ‘07.

Its all part of the master plan, Rice head coach Todd Graham said Monday. If we don’t win it all this year, we take what we can off the table, and we don’t say ‘please.’ Then we take it all next year.

"I came in here January the 2nd, we did have a plan, we did have a vision for where we wanted to go," Todd said. "The hard thing about those plans is what are you getting done every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every month with your kids? Our kids are trained well. We work them extremely hard and they have an investment. I told the kids that that (Tulsa) game I felt like was won long before Saturday afternoon."

"This time of the year is the time of the year where all that preparation and all that work, all that pushing and all that straining, all that stuff starts to pay off because people are getting better or they're getting worse. You don't stay the same."

"We're a team that's getting better. We're getting closer to developing a hard edge. What I call a hard edge is a team that plays very physical, plays very hard, plays with a lot of confidence, and plays the next play. That's been the big emphasis with our kids, and our kids are extremely confident right now -- and they should be."

--PTH

Monday's press luncheon audios....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

006toddg1.jpg (14804 bytes) Todd Graham:   'We're playing our best ball right now; they're (ECU) playing their best ball...'
06mruckertn1.jpg (15556 bytes) Marcus Rucker:   'I told him, 'I'm not sure if I'll be ready to start for us (at linebacker), Coach....''
06jarettdtn1.jpg (12721 bytes) Jarett Dillard:  'No matter how many streaks you have, that means absolutely nothing if you lose...'

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