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06 Rice-SMU game page

Rice 31, SMU 27
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Owls upend Ponies,
secure bowl berth
with fantastic finish

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Owl chorus line queues up to run down SMU quarterback Willis    (Mark Anderson photo)

By Bob Reinhold

HOUSTON (Nov. 25) – Win one for the Gipper? No. Win seven for Dale Lloyd? Absolutely.

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Senior slotback Mike Falco virtually guaranteed victory, a la Joe Namath, earlier this week -- and he and his teammates came through.  It ain't braggin' if you can do it (Mark Anderson photo)

The Rice Owls pledged their season to Lloyd's memory after Dale's tragic passing, and made good on their promise with a come- from-behind, heart- stopping 31-27 victory Saturday, a win that propelled the Owls into a bowl game for the first time since 1961, while frustrating SMU’s efforts to get to one themselves.

This Senior Day victory was the sixth consecutive win for Rice after a virtual Bataan Death March early-season schedule, and the untimely loss of one of the Owl bretheren.

Jarett Dillard once again proved why he is a Biletnikoff Award finalist, as he hauled in six passes for 145 yards and three TDs, all of the spectacular variety. But none shall be destined to rank so spetacularly among Rice football lore as the 25-yarder he brought in for the winning touchdown with 4:05 left to play.

It was another one of those command performances, apparently. That is, Jarett commanded Joel Armstrong to throw him the ball, Joel delivered it, and JD made his usual, leaping, impossible catch to provide the margin of victory.

"I just feel it in my soul," the San Antonio sophomore said of his insistence that the ball be hoisted his way. "It's something you just feel to do. When the game’s on the line, I'll take the blame if we miss it. Just throw it up there, and let's go get it."

Owls threatened to blow game open, early

Rice came flying out of the gate by dominating the first quarter. Kicker Luke Juist put on a teriffic hit on the opening kickoff causing a fumble and setting the Owls up deep in Pony territory. A missed field goal ended that first first posession, but the pace was thereby set.

In rapid fire order Quinton Smith scored on a seven yard run, Dillard reeled in a 46 yard bomb from Joel Armstrong and Clark Fangmeier hit a 38 yard field goal, sending the Owls up 17-0 only 27 seconds into the 2nd quarter.

It wasn't going to be a laugher, though. First Columbus Givens scored on 33 yard pass from Justin Willis, followed by two easy Pony TDs. Facing third and long deep in his own territory, Joel Armstrong, starting for the injured Chase Clement, threw an interception to SMU’s Tony Hawkins who returned the ball to the Rice five yard line. Cedrick Dorsey took it in from there.

Trying desperately to make amends, two possessions later Joel found himself throwing out of his own end zone on third and six from the Rice 13. This time, SMU defenders converged on him and managed to wrest away the ball, which was recovered in the end zone by SMU’s Brandon Bonds to put the Ponies suddenly and shockingly on top, 21-17.

The Owls failed to move the ball for the third straight time and had to punt it out again, next possession. This time, the Ponies’ Blake Warren performed a nifty little sleight of hand, convincing the Owl defenders he’d signaled for a fair catch while when the officials determined he hadn’t. The resulting 25 yard return put the Mustangs in good field position again, though this time they had to settle for a field goal by virtue of the first of several huge Rice defensive stops.

Here, just before the half, SMU had a first and goal from the Rice one yard line, but after Brandon King broke up a pass on first down, George Chukwu nailed SMU quarterback Justin Willis for a loss to the three, and then Marcus Rucker got in some sack time, nailing Willis back at the 13 yard line.

Tim Morstead converted a 33-yard field goal to put the Ponies up 24-17 at the half, but the Owls were still in striking distance and undeterred.

SMU had halftime momentum, but Owls had the fortitude

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Rice cornerback Bencil Smith seals the deal with a last-

minute pickoff of a Willis pass at the Owl four yard line
(Mark Anderson photo)

It was time for making adjustments in the second half as SMU had the momentum, and the Owls had a hard time sustaining an offense without Clement. But the confident Rice eleven wouldn't quit.

Dillard's second TD of the game was a leaping grab of another Armstrong pass to tie the game at 24 with 10:10 left in the third period.

The first of two goal line stands held SMU to just a field goal and a 27-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter. SMU’s DeMyron James of SMU looked to be headed for the end zone from 64 yards out, but Brian Raines chased him down on the one yard line. That touchdown saving play in the third quarter put the Owls in position to win the game..

Rice got the ball back with 7:50 left in the game, their ensuing drive being most decidedly for a bowl game. Each player dug down as deep as he could.

Quinton Smith, who had scored the game's first touchdown, but had picked up limited yardage in the interim, got back in gear. He carried the ball six times for 35 yards in the drive to help get the ball as far as the SMU 25.

From there, the script stayed eerily the same, Armstrong looking for Dillard one more time, and the sophomore from San Antonio delivering, grabbing a 25-yarder to put the Owls ahead to stay.

Owl defense thwarts SMU comeback attempt

Of course it couldn't be that easy. The Mustangs tried to come back taking the game to its final seconds. But a sack of Mustang QB Justin Willis by George Chukwu on second down put SMU in third and long, and Marcus Rucker flushed Willis out of the pocket on third down for a short gain. On fourth down, Willis threw for the end zone, but Bencil Smith made the pick at the four yard line, sending the Owl faithful into a frenzy. And into a bowl.

A beaten-up but happy and excited Andray Downs, one of the senior greybeards of the squad, managed to sum up feelings for his comrades – to the extent they could be put into mere words.

"I don't even have the words to describe how I feel right now," he said, speaking undoubtedly for himself and about 75 other men who wear the blue and grey, and several hundred who once did.

"I'm banged up, and I'm hurting right now, but this is the happiest day of my life. This is for 45 years of not going to a bowl."

"This is for all the alumni. This is for everybody that comes to our games. This is for everybody that supports us -- our friends, family, parents. I'm just elated."

Afterward, Rice head coach Todd Graham couldn’t hide his exhultation. "I've won a lot of football games in a lot of places," he said. "But there’s something special going on at Rice right now. It's a coming together. I can't explain it, but I'm just very honored to be a part of it"

"Forty-five years is way too long. And we're just getting started."

Todd Graham and his Owls were beaming, but this night, the biggest smile in heaven must belong to Dale Lloyd. He undoubtedly has got some competition among several thousand Rice loyalists who remain on this mortal earth. But in heaven, he smiles. He smiles, indeed.

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Mark Anderson photo

Sammy: 'Whaddaya say, Peruna, let's get hitched...'
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'I believe we are seizing our destiny'
After 45 years, the time is ripe

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Rice's Joel Armstrong:  'Pressure?  Nah, there's no pressure.   And even if there were, we'd enjoy it'

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Nov. 23)  -- When the Rice Owls take the field on Saturday, don't look for then to succumb tothe media hype about all the pressure they face in squaring off in a winner- take- bowl battle with SMU. For Rice head coach Todd Graham and the Owls, it isn't about pressure, it's about destiny.

The story of this game actually goes back to January 1, 2006, when Todd Graham was hired. "We will win," Graham said that day to anyone who would listen and believe him. But Graham said he was bringing something even more important -- an attitude where failure was not accepted.

Graham pointed out that day that there were only two things the players could control-- their attitude and their effort. As he began to mold the first (attitude), the second began to change.

Joel Armstrong gave a cogent example of the change Graham has brought to this Owl team. With 1:01 left in the game and the ball on the 24, the pressure doesn't get any bigger --especially with an untested John Shepherd at the helm. Armstrong told us about what was happening in that huddle. "When we got in there, we said, 'Keep fighting keep fighting. Something good is going to happen.'

"We knew we could pull it off," he added.  "We said, 'Let's go down and get this score and everything will take care of itself.'"

Joel said he didn't always possess that confidence, nor did many veterans on this Owl team, until this year. Joel recalled, "I've been through those missed field goals the last couple of years. It feels good to work so hard to come back and you finally get that field goal to go in."

When asked if he felt any pressure coming into the game with the Ponies, Joel just smiled. "Definitely no pressure," Joel replied. "We have big-time players and I am confident in what we are doing," Joel explained. "If you're confident in what you're doing, you shouldn't be pressured. You just go out and perform the way you know you can."

JD:  'I think we all like the pressure'

Jarett Dillard has certainly done that this year for the Feathered Flock. Does Jarett feel the pressure of this upcoming week? "We're all excited," Dillard said. "We're glad we're in this position. The pressure that's on us, I think we all like the pressure, because we've been in some very confined situations. We're going to play like it is our last game. That right there will give us the momentum we need."

During the fourth quarter of the ECU game, something took place on the Owl sidelines that produced a spark. Senior Mike Falco turned to the offense and told all who would listen, "I didn't come this far to lose this game. Losing isn't an option." Mike had earned the right to speak that day on the sidelines. He backed up his words with a quietly spectacular game, returning kickoffs for good yardage, and catching what was thrown his way.

In case you haven't noticed, the defense has also started to come of age lately. While the Owls had problems with the Pirates last week in the first half, the second half was a different story. Apart from one long drive, the Pirates were held to one that's right one yard total in the second half. Even more important, when the pressure was on, the Owls responded.

There were two plays in particular that helped the Owls turn the tide and win the game against the Pirates. The first play was in the third quarter, when ECU quarterback Ed Pinkney dropped back to pass in his own end zone. When the yellow flag went flying in the end zone during the play, it signaled holding on the Pirates in the end zone and that the defense had risen up to do its job.

Courtney Gordon was the Owl defender that was taken down on that holding call. "We knew that we had to get the ball right back to our offense. It's just a window of opportunity right there in the end zone," he recalled. "A big play, a safety, we needed it there." The pressure was on the Owls to do something. "I knew we were going to get an interception or turnover," Gordon said. "I knew we were going to get a safety or a sack. . . I knew we were going to get an interception or some kind of turnover."

The other play that was very important on the last drive was on second down, when Andray Downs made a solo tackle on ECU running back Chris Johnson. Downs was the last defender between Johnson and a touchdown that would have sealed the game for the Pirates. Downs held onto Johnson with the tenacity of a rodeo cowboy taking down a calf, and one play later, the Owls got the ball back for the game-winning drive.

“We knew they were going to run, and we had to get across the line to stop them,” said Downs. “He’d been trying to bounce outside, bounce outside, all game, and I was just sitting there ready for him,” Downs recalled.

Down’s efforts did not go unnoticed by his teammates. “Dray is a playmaker,” Gordon said of Downs. He steps up when his number is called, just like everyone else,” says Gordon. “When they call your number on defense, you’ve just got to rise up. It’s our time to shine, and his number was called.”

Courtney certainly knew the pressure was on the defense at that time. “Once again, we knew as a defense we had to stand up,” he said. “If we were going to win this game, we were going to have to make a stand,” Gordon said.

Pressure is something that players and teams deal with in one of two ways. They either react to it, unsure of how to handle it, or they respond to it in confidence because they know what is coming and have been prepared for it. There’s a refrain that the coaches have—do what you’re coached to do. For the players, it is a similar response—we’re doing what we been coached to do. One of the things that the players have been coached in how to respond are pressure situations. 

"It takes a lot of preparation so you're not guessing during games," Graham said. "It's really important that you're poised, that you have confidence." He pointed to why this aspect of the game is so crucial by saying, "When you can take your kids and tell them what we're going to do in fifteen seconds, and then go on the field and do it, it's because they're smart, they're trained, and they trust you."

Pressure sure isn't an unwelcome stranger -- it's been a constant companion this season. Because it has been a constant companion, this team is loose and ready to play Saturday. Ask Courtney Gordon how loose this team is and you will get a surprising answer. "Tell you the truth, I don't feel any pressure," says Gordon. Armstrong answers by saying, "Definitely no pressure."

But perhaps Jarett Dillard said it best. "All people that want to win, tat want to be champions, they love the pressure," Dillard told us. "When it comes, they laugh at it in the face. I see a lot of players right now not even feeling it. So I think it's going to be a good, exciting game coming up."

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Chase Clement takes a licking and keeps on ticking, like an Energize Bunny who can throw a perfect spiral (MA photo)

Report: Chase
to get clean
bill of health

HOUSTON (Nov. 21) – Apparently Chase Clement will get the opportunity to visit some pain upon the SMU Mustangs instead of suffering malaise by himself when Sammy and Peruna line up against each other on the Rice Stadium turf Saturday afternoon.

Sources closely involved with the Rice football program have stated to this reporter that Chase did not, in fact, suffer an alleged broken collarbone as was prematurely and erroneously reported by the Rice radio crew after the game Saturday. Rather, he was taken to hospital for observation to make sure that he had not suffered a concussion or other injury after taking several hard hits during the East Carolina game.

When Chase walked off the field into the Rice dressing room Saturday, he was motoring under his own power although escorted by two Rice sideline personnel. He passed about five feet away from this reporter, and he did not possess the sunken shoulder that is typical of a broken collarbone. In fact, he appeared a bit woozy, but not in any sort of intense pain.

Bear in mind that neither the Rice coaching staff nor Rice Sports Information has in any way corroborated, confirmed nor denied the reports we otherwise have been able to obtain.  Rice officials have been mum, citing federal and NCAA regulations that severely limit the ability of staff to issue injury reports, primarily for reasons of student-athlete privacy.  Suffice it to say that the same sources have proven reliable before – else we would not have been constrained to make this report.

It’s doubtful the Chase will take any on-field reps during practice this week, but one may be reasonably assured that he’ll be busy in the training room, soaking that banged-up but still quite capable corpus. And if he gets into a football uniform Saturday, it will be hard to keep him off the field.


smuprog54a325.jpg (118075 bytes)Flashback
The most important Rice-SMU game since...

(HOUSTON) Nov. 21 – When the Rice Owls and the SMU Mustangs square off against each other Saturday afternoon in Rice Stadium, it will mark the renewal of an old rivalry that goes back all the way to 1916.

This game has special appeal and importance, however, for it’s the first time that the Owls and Mustangs will clash to determine which one of them is going to a bowl game, and which one of them is staying home.

"Who'd have thought at the beginning of the year this would be so meaningful for both teams?" SMU coach Phil Bennett asked Monday during the league’s weekly teleconference.

Not that the Owls and the Ponies haven’t squared off in some important contests before. As recently as 2001, Rice went to Dallas to play SMU in the season finale for both teams. The Institute Boys sported an 8-3 record going in to the game, and a victory over SMU to finish the season, putting them at 9-3, would have made it almost impossible for bowl committees to overlook Rice.

But alas, the day before the contest, SMU announced the firing of its coach, Mike Cavan, which produced an outpouring of emotion from his players. Though the Owls led the 3-7 Mustangs at halftime, 20-7, in the second half the Ponies completely shut down the Rice offense and scored 30 unanswered points to win going away, 37-20.

So it reasonably can be said that the Ponies knocked the Owls out of a bowl game a mere five years ago. Maybe its time that those tables be turned, this coming Saturday.

SMU has not won on the Rice Stadium turf since coming back from its "Death Penalty" in 1989. Rice was the first team that the Ponies met, after coming back from its near-death experience, playing the season opener before a packed house of 22,000 at SMU’s quaint Ownby Stadium, the Dallas school’s original football home which was demolished to make room for the current Ford Stadium.

The Owls won that game handily, 35-6, under the quarterbacking leadership of Donald Hollas. And in fact the Feathered Flock went on to best Peruna for the next seven years running. Starting in 1997, however, both teams have held a downright uncanny home-field advantage over the other one.

Rice has continued to win every game played in Rice Stadium, while the Ponies have won all but a single game played in Dallas – a 41-20 loss to the Owls in 2003.

But Saturday’s game has to be considered the most important Owl-Pony contest since, well, looking back, since 1954, when a strong Owl team garnered victories over Texas and Texas A&M but fell one game short of winning the Southwest Conference that season and going to the Cotton Bowl.

And, you guessed it, that one loss that spoiled it all for the Owls was sustained against SMU, who bested the Institute 20-6 in Rice Stadium on Oct. 16.

Despite a near-capacity crowd of over 60,000 in Rice Stadium (you heard us right), and despite the considerable talents of Rice’s All-American halfback, Dickie Moegle, ably assisted up front by guard Kenny Paul and tackle Eddie Rayburn, among other Rice standouts, the Flock dropped the game to SMU, 20-6.

Although the ‘54 contest is ancient history, it did mark the first time that the Mustangs were able to win over Rice and thereby knock them out of a bowl game. It happened at least one more time in 2001. Question is, will the long-suffering Mustangs be able to repeat the trick Saturday by defeating the Owls -- thus earning a bowling trip themselves? A lot of SMU fans seem to think so.

But almost no Rice fans.


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Rice SID Bill Whitmore wrote this pre-game piece which appeared in the 1954 Rice-SMU game program

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How's this for a mind-blowing trip down memory lane?  In that same '54 Rice-SMU program, top drawing teams in the NCAA were listed, along with attendance figures.  And RIce was eleventh in the nation.

Coach Graham's Monday press briefing...wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

06smuweektoddg125.jpg (17735 bytes) Todd Graham:   "I'm going to do everything I can, night and day, to get them where they can go and be successful this week..."

Media show up en masse Monday
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It's amazing what winning a few ball games can do for local media attention.  After Saturday's

big win, it was a 'seven-camera' crowd at the weekly Rice sports media luncheon Monday,
including several local sports anchors, all of whom were just full of questions for Coach Todd
Graham.  (PTH photo) 

Snapshots -- Monday's Rice media luncheon

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Courtney Gordon meets the press at Monday's luncheon


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Would this, perhaps, be referred to as a phalanx of cameras?


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Coach Graham has the look of a man who's heard that same question a few times before


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Joel Armstrong was loose and comfortable before the cameras


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Channel 26 sports anchor Marc Berman interviews Jarett Dillard -- better get used to it, JD

(PTH photos)

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