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'06 Tulsa week
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Jubilant Owls hoot it up in locker room after Rice's stirring  double overtime victory over Tulsa
(PTH photo)    If your web browser did not auto-play audio clip, click here to help make sense
out of the following story lead-in...

Rice 41, Tulsa 38 (2OT)

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Cardiac Owls refuse to lose;
nip Tulsa in double overtime

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Joel Armstrong skies high to haul in pass from Chase Clement (PTH photo)

TULSA (Nov. 12) It almost did take 'til judgment day.

Staring down defeat in double overtime, the Rice Owls pulled a rabbit out of a hat in the person of none other than Jarett Dillard, the Owls' vaunted receiver and occasional team magician, who lept and twisted in bringing down Chase Clement's 25-yard touchdown pass, to rock and sock the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 41-38, as the sky darkened over the Tall Grass Prairie.

It was a lusciously sweet ending to Rice head coach Todd Graham's homecoming to face a team he had coached for three years, helping elevate them from bargain-basement level to Conference USA and Liberty Bowl championships before taking his act to South Main.

But whichever team wound up on the short end of this one would have been completely justified in what-iffing the ways this game should have been won, but was lost.

Fortunately for Rice fans, it was the home contingent that would up walking away from Skelly Stadium muttering to themselves. And mutter they did.

Tulsa roared out of the blocks with a long, initial touchdown drive and appeared to be well in control of the game, early. But the aggressive Rice defense started playing takeaway, elevating the Owls to a two-touchdown halftime lead, a mere step or two from being in a position to put the game in the bag.

In the third quarter, the Rice offense was prevented from taking that single step by a skilled and aroused Tulsa defensive unit, but the Owl defense, though outmanned, was able to hold its ground. But not forever, as in the fourth quarter, the Hurricane mounted two consecutive touchdown drives to take control of the game.

But the Owls took back the momentum, and the lead.

And then they lost it again, and the game went to overtime.

Rice seemingly had the game won in the first overtime period, but let Tulsa literally sneak back in to a tie to send the game to a second. Finally in the second overtime period, the Rice defense stood up, holding Tulsa to a 39-yard field goal. The Rice offense, in return, played for the all the marbles, and indeed turned out winning them all.

How the Owls got from that initial seven-point deficit to victory in sudden death is a long story. We'll try and hit a few of the high spots. That being insufficient fully to convey the heights and depths of emotions wrought by this game, we're constrained to say: you just should've been there.

Tulsa wasted no time in moving in getting on the board

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Inside of Rice line teams up to down Tulsa running back (PTH photo)

To begin with, it was alarming to observe the ease with which Tulsa moved the ball down the field on its opening possession. After a pooch kick failed to produce the desired instant turnover for the Owls, TU started with good field position at its own 41. Five straight rushing plays took the ball as far as the Rice 36, where, on third and nine, the Rice defense came hard with the blitz. But Tulsa had called for a screen pass, and once quarterback Paul Smith hit running back Courtney Tennial looping out of the backfield, there were blockers in front of him and he was able to pick his way into the clear and all the way for the score.

Rice's first possession unfolded in an unsettling matter, to boot. After Quinton Smith ripped off a 23-yard run down the sideline on the option, he was mugged by Tulsa ace cornerback, Nick Graham, and the refs caught Q in the act of a well-deserved retaliation. The 15 yard walkoff threw a monkey wrench in the Owls' scheme for that possession, and they had to punt it away.

Pinned back on their own 18 after a 44-yard Jared Scruggs punt, the Hurricane offense picked away at the Rice defense once more, mostly on the ground. That is, until Chad Price took matters in his own hands.

First, he nailed Ryan Bugg taking the swing pass out of the backfield for a loss of five yards. Next play, Smith connected with Idris Moss twenty yards downfield for what looked like a big gainer and a first down. But Moss lost control of the ball as he slanted toward the sideline -- it actually wound up in the small of his back, as he was fighting to maintain possession. But Chad swooped and picked it like a dewberry off the vine, and Rice had its first turnover of the day -- this one ruled an interception, but basically just a takeaway.

From the Rice 27, Chase scrambled for nine yards on first down, and then with a 'free play' on second and one, he made good use of it, pressing the ball high, straight and far downfield to Joel Armstrong, who made a leaping catch at the Tulsa 22, a gain of 42 yards.

It took the Owls only two more plays to strike paydirt, Chase hitting Jarett Dillard for 12 yards and a first down; and then Q tip-toeing down the home sideline for the score.

Rice got its second score of the day early in the second quarter, after Terrance Garmon blocked Chris Kindred's desperation punt attempt occasioned by a low snap from center. Technically, it didn't go into the books as a turnover because a Tulsa player landed on the ball after the block. But it did set up the Owls with excellent field position at the Tulsa 35.

From there, the Owls took advantage, but not as much as they would have wanted. Rice was able to move the ball, but sputtered momentarily when a third-down passing play to Jarett Dillard fell a couple yards short of the first down at the Tulsa 12.

Coach Graham decided to take the points out of the quasi-turnover, at that point, however, so Clark Fangmeier came in and booted a 29 yard field goal to give the Owls a lead they would not relinquish until midway in the fourth quarter.

Rice forced a Tulsa punt once more, next possession, and that gave the Owls the ball at their own 26 after a 12-yard punt return by Brandon King. The Rice offense got jacked up in a hurry, as, first play, Chase ran for 16 to the 43, and next play, Joel Armstrong got 18 more on the end-around.

The Owls eventually reached the Tulsa 20 but could not take it in from there, as the Tulsa defense stiffened. Paradoxically, Chase threw six incomplete passes on this drive which covered 64 yards in 12 plays. Just about every one of those incompletions was simply due to heads-up, aggressive play by the Tulsa defenders, so Coach Graham appeared relieved to be able to get three points out of the situation when Clark Fangmeier came out and booted another one through the uprights from 37 yards out.

13-7, Owls but JD wasn't done yet

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Marcus Rucker zooms in on fumbling, stumbling Tulsa receiver -- but Chad Price will get there first  (PTH photo)

It looked as if the Owls would be taking the resulting 13-7 lead into the halftime locker room, but Clement, Dillard & Co. wasn't through yet.

Give the Rice defense credit, for while it was maligned by implication, having surrendered some 568 yards total offense to Tulsa on the day, in this case it forced a three and out for the second time in a row. The ensuing punt gave Rice possession at its 36, where, on second and 11, the Owl quarterback and his trusty sidekick did their disappearing act again -- as in making the WR disappear into the end zone.

The Tulsa defenders and had been pushing Jarett into the sideline the entire first half, to the point that he'd made a couple of impressive aerial catches but each time a foot or so out of bounds. But those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword. Chase lofted a floater to Jarett on the home sideline, and both JD and Tulsa's Nick Graham went up high to contest for the ball, Graham leaning in the attempt to force his quarry out of bounds. Jarett came down with the ball, and the Tulsa defender descended awkwardly on his ankle and fell to the turf.

That was all it took, as JD, with his man out of the picture, had in front of him a veritable Southwest Freeway at midnight, wide open and free of traffic, with which to skip toward the goal line some 65 yards away. That put the Owls up, 20-7, and, if offered in advance a chance to take that kind of lead into the halftime dressing room, there's no doubt about it every Owl player, coach and fan would've jumped at it.

So the Feathered Flock had the big lead at half, and they were getting the ball on the opening possession of the third quarter. Man, oh, man, how nice would about a seven-minute, 80-yard TD drive have looked at that point in the game.

But the Owls didn't get that drive. In fact, dealing with an aroused Tulsa defense that had obviously made material adjustments during the halftime break, the Owls went three-and-out, not once, not twice, but three times in a row in the third quarter.

"I knew they would adjust well at halftime," Coach Graham said, speaking of the Tulsa defensive unit, a team that he, himself had molded. "We were doing some things schematically to them in the first half, that I knew they'd come back and make some adjustments on."

Rice wound up with a grand total of five yards total offense in that damnable third quarter, but when the clock turned over to mark the start of the fourth, the score still stood 20-7. It must be said that the Rice defense performed courageously during that third stanza. The defensive play chart for that period of time has Marcus Rucker's name written all over it, and time and time again he made key stops to force Tulsa into punting   or long-yardage situations.

But as the fourth quarter began, Tulsa was marching, and, after a 12-yard Smith-to-Moss pass put the Hurricane at the lip of the cup, Courtney Tennial took it across from the Rice three yard line, and the score was 20-14, with the Owls still desperately searching for some offense in order to eat clock and maybe even pick up a few points on the scoreboard in the process.

Next possession, a pass interference call on Tulsa's Nick Graham (there he is again) on third and eight gave the Owls life at their own 39, and they moved for another first down at midfield after that. But a rare Rice false start penalty combined with stout defense on the opposition's part, and the Rice drive stalled at midfield.

Tulsa got the ball back at its own 20 after a 46-yard Jared Scruggs punt resulted in a touchback. That's when Smith and his receivers got cranked up once again.

Two big plays in a row a third yard completion to Ryan Bugg on the crossing route, and a 27-yard Idriss Moss end around, set up the 'Canes at the Rice 20, and from there, they took it in to score in four plays, Courtney Tennial getting the last eight on the ground. The PAT made it 21-20, Tulsa.

Now down by a point, Owls needed to generate offense

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DeJaun Cooper gets fouled just a little bit here --do ya think the gendarmes caught it?   (PTH photo)

So exactly halfway through the fourth quarter, the Owls now trailed by a single point, and they knew they'd have to generate at least sufficient offense to put them within reasonable field goal range, for a chance to win the game. But as it turned out, there was going to be a lot more fireworks generated than a single field goal, before this bright afternoon-turned-dusky sunset, played out.

Things looked grim indeed when the Owls were unable to sustain a drive on their ensuing possession. Though the Flock started out with a first down when Chase connected to Jarett on the sideline for 11, they were unable to convert on a subsequent third and one. When Jared Scruggs lined up to punt the ball away on fourth and 11 at the Rice 43, for a fleeting moment, despair set in among the 500 or so Rice faithful who'd made the trip up to Tulsa for the game.

But just like in the commercial where the diver, shooting at a shark, torpedos his own boat, things can go from just fine to awful in the blink of an eye, and that's what happened to the Hurricane when Idriss Moss torpedoed his own boat, making an ill-advised attempt to field Jared's punt at his own 25. Andrew Sendejo was down the field lickety-split on the punt coverage team, and he hopped on the ball at the Tulsa 21, and the Owls had new life.

First play, Chase ran for the sidelines, and in fact ran over a couple of Tulsa defenders before being forced out of bounds at the TU six yard line. The next play, the Rice quarterback appeared to trip and fell back to the earth for a loss of four. Owl fans were thinking "OK, then field goal," but the guys on the field were having none of that. On third and goal from the nine, Chase dialed his own number. He explained afterwards.

"We were in a three by one set," he said. "We were running the zone with Q. The play before, we'd run the same play. The first time, I saw the way they were playing it their linebackers were kind of sucked in; they were keying on Q. So the next time, I saw them in the same alignment, so I held the zone a little bit more; I almost fumbled when I pulled it, and when I saw that I knew I just had to get on my horse."

That he did, zipping past two defenders and vaulting into the end zone, head over heels. And that's where he lay, unmoving, for a couple of minutes while Rice medics ran onto the field to check him out.

"(The defender) just kind of got my leg a little bit and I landed on my neck," Chase told us afterwards. "I was in quite a bit of pain and I decided before I moved I'd better check out my arms and legs by moving them, one at a time." Indeed, the Owl franchise quarterback looked more than a little wobbly. "But I was going to finish, no question," he added. "I couldn't let my teammates down."

It was basically option football, Coach Graham explained later. "We kept coming back to the thing I thought we could run, and we could run the option against them," he said. "I know that people don't want to hear that, but we still always go back to that; you know. We run the option when other things don't work. So we did that pretty successfully and that helped us be able to run the football."

Joel Armstrong was QB for one play but it kept Owls in game

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Loose pigskin! and Chad Price is after this one, as well (PTH photo)

Speaking of the option, Joel Armstrong took over at quarterback momentarily for the two-point try that was necessitated by the 26-21 score after the touchdown. The play looked, and worked, just like the old-fashioned 'belly series' as Joel put the ball right into Q's midsection and then started to run with him together, hands still on the ball. The tactic appeared to be more by way of confusion than by design, but it worked like a charm.

That froze the Tulsa linebackers for just a second, and it was enough time for Q simply to clamp onto the pigskin and dive across the goal. Rice 28, Tulsa 21.

There was 2:52 remaining on the scoreboard clock, and the hope was that the Owl defense, aroused by such a shocking, sudden turn of events, would rise up and play like they did for the first 40 minutes of the game.

But Tulsa took the ball and moved right down the field, once again with alarming ease. In fact, the 'Canes almost scored too soon, having reaped gobs of yardage in each play, each time connecting on a Smith pass twice to Ryan Bugg; once each to Idriss Moss and Jessee Meyer.

Then on first and goal from the three, Smith ran the naked bootleg and crossed the goal untouched. With the extra point, the score was tied at 28, with 1:19 showing on the scoreboard clock.

Using the short passing game and throwing underneath coverage, the Owls were able to advance the ball as far as the Tulsa 48 during that final short interval of regulation. Had Rice one more timeout, it might have been possible to set up for a passing play -- how about halfback pass from Joel Armstrong to the tight end?-- that would have set them up for a long field goal attempt. But with seconds remaining, TU's Aaron Karatepeyan surged in to sack Chase for a loss of 11, and we were going into overtime.

At that point, it's fortunate the Owls did not have the time to survey the scene that had just unfolded during the second half. Tulsa had surged to three fourth-quarter touchdowns, all on long drives. The Rice defense had not stopped the Golden Hurricane since midway in the third period. Meanwhile, the Owl offense had been positively stymied by whatever adjusted defensive alignments the Tulsa brain trust was throwing at it in the second half.

Rice's only score had come on a short-field drive of only 21 yards, and that, after being set up by a muffed punt on part of the Tulsa deep man. Meanwhile, Rice's quarterback and the heart of the offense was sitting on the bench with a terrible headache, and no one, either in the stands or on the bench -- no one except Chase Clement himself-- had any idea whether he was in a position to be effective during the overtime.

But in fact he was effective. Hugely effective.

The first overtime period, Rice got the opening possession. Set up in the north end zone in front of a screaming crowd of partisan fans, Chase coolly connected with Jarett Dillard twice, the first time for 11 yards and a first down, and the second time, on third and seven from the 12, for the remaining yardage with a perfect strike on the quick slant over the middle.

Now the pressure was on Tulsa. And the Rice defense managed to sustain that pressure quite well.

One first down from the 25, Jonathan Cary and George Chukwu teamed up to down Tennial after a gain of two. On second and eight, Smith tried a bit of tricky jones but was snuffed out by Marcus Rucker after a gain of a couple more. Then on third and six, Marcus again got to a scrambling Smith, dropping him in the backfield for a loss of one.

The 'Canes now faced fourth and seven, and the game was on the line. "We were in good shape," Coach Graham said afterwards. "We had them in the blitz we wanted. We were doing what we wanted to be doing on defense."

But on that fourth down play, Smith was able to avoid the rush and fling a desperation pass down the middle which was snagged seemingly out of nowhere by Tulsa's Paul Johnson at the Rice five yard line. The quarry had escaped the trap.

The Rice defense was not going to give in without a major fight, however. Thanks in no small part to staunch defense in the line by Jonathan Cary and Courtney Gordon, Rice kept TU out of the end zone for three straight plays. Then on fourth and one, quarterback Smith was able to sneak over the goal by submarining between the legs of his lineman, and on it went to overtime period two.

This time, Tulsa got the ball first, and the Rice defense just stayed on the field and kept on doin' what it was doin.' A heavy rush forced two hurried incomplete passes, and George Chukwu snuffed a second- down handoff to Tennial after a gain of three.  

Tulsa's Jerod Tracy did get the field goal attempt through the uprights from 39 yards out to put the 'Canes up, 38-35. Yet, at that point there was a palpable buzz on the Rice sideline.

"I knew that once we held them to three, basically the game was over," Marcus Rucker said afterwards. "I didn't go out there saying that, you know, 'we've got it won' -- but we do have confidence in our offense."

That confidence was well-placed indeed. The Owl offensive unit was sufficiently confident,  too, to go for the jugular right away, eschewing the ground game for a series of called pass plays that each were designed to score in one fell swoop.

On second and ten, a shot down the middle to Joel Armstrong almost did the trick, but was broken up at the very last instant by our buddy, Nick Graham.

Will this one forever be known as 'The Play'?

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Joseph Agnew bags himself a TU ball carrier -- hey, no limit on those, Joe (PTH photo)

That set up the play that may go down as one of the bigger ones in Rice's 85-year football annals. Coach Graham set the scene for us.

"We came to the sideline, and I knew their construction, what they were doing in the secondary," he said. "So we actually got in an empty set, and we put Dillard at the number two slot instead at the outside slot."

"We get him matched up and they had their best player (Graham) matched up on our best player. But we had him in a different location on the field. We put their 22, we put Nick in a position where he's not used to playing Jarett."

"Sometimes when you've always got a wide receiver that really good out wide, they can bracket him. You put him at number two now they have to match up. And he's got a lot of space to work with."

"I really just kind of listened to Jarett, and asked him, 'what about putting you at number two and taking a shot down the field.?' I really was worried about throwing an interception, too. So I said, 'don't take the side; let's take a shot.'

So JD lined up in the slot full of confidence, too, by the way. This was backyard football, he later said. "Chase and I have that down, to where he knows when to underthrow it and when to overthrow it. That ball was just perfect; he saw the defense playing over the top and he underthrew it. In that kind of situation, the ball short and underthrown is easy to catch."

And in fact, the Rice phenom made what could only be described as an easy catch, going against Tulsa's top pass defender. Jarett had a right to come back for the intentionally-underthrown ball, and he did so, refusing to be pinned to the out-of-bounds marker by Tulsa's Graham.

Some Tulsa fans later said JD was guilty of offensive interference, but in fact his move was more in the nature of don't-allow-yourself-to-be-mugged. The official was right on top of the play, and he didn't hesitate for a split second once Jarett skipped across the goal. Touchdown. Game over. Rice wins.

Back in the dressing room after the game, the atmosphere was as charged with electricity as the prairie after a thunderstorm. The Rice players were jubilant, exultant, and firm in the knowledge, now, that all that hard work during the spring and summer was really beginning to pay off.

Todd Graham, on the other hand, was circumspect. One knew he was absolutely ecstatic on the inside. But these were his friends and former colleagues at Tulsa. He knew he needed to soft-pedal his response.

"I can't tell you that it didn't mean a lot to me," he admitted. "It felt kind of strange at first, coming in here and being on the visitors' sideline. But you know this is my team here. It's the team that I'm coaching now."

"And I love those kids that I recruited to Tulsa; that I coached they know that; they know I've got a great respect for them. But this team here is my team. You know, this is my first head coaching job. This is my football team. And I'm very, very proud of them, coming in here to win."

"To win four straight, three of them on the road, says a lot."

"And we're still not done yet."

--Paul T. Hlavinka

Owls now eager to take show on the road again
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HOUSTON (Nov. 9) – The plot thickens yet again for the Rice Owls as they travel to Tulsa to take on last year’s C-USA champion Saturday in a game that has much more in the way of postseason implications than was ever dreamed imaginable a mere month ago.

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Owlook

That was before the Owls went on a three-game win streak in conference play, bringing their league record up to 3-2 and season mark to 4-5. We’ll skip the obvious chatter that could be raised about bowl implications facing Rice at this point in the season’s campaign.

If the Owls beat Tulsa Saturday, however – then, it’ll be high time to join in the conversation.

But the Owls face a formidable, if not insurmountable, task in taking the measure of the Golden Hurricane on their home turf, before such things ought be considered. Tulsa comes into the game 7-2 on the season, 4-1 in league play, and still bound and determined to recapture the C-USA western division flag and host the league championship game in early December.

That ambition was dampened a bit last weekend when the University of Houston pasted the visiting Hurricane, 27-10, at Robertson Stadium. Depending upon how one views it, that either makes the ‘Cane riled up and tougher to beat, come Saturday, or dampens their confidence just a bit and makes it at least marginally easier for the Owls to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of the defending champs with an early onslaught. We vote for version two.

Tulsa head coach Steve Kragthorpe, however, says neither circumstance holds any water. "I expect our team to get back out there and get back in the groove and practice well and get ready to go. Our preparation does not vary because we win or lose a game. That has no bearing on it. We have the same formula each week, we employ the same formula each week and its not going to change."

Ah, but will something inside those players’ noggins change? That’s the question.

Rice offense has been nothing if not consistent

Ever since Rice quarterback Chase Clement has returned from his hand injury, five games into the season, the Owls have been a regular scoring machine, putting at least 31 points on the board each game except for the surprising loss to Tulane, which most Owl fans have written off as anomalous.

But this Tulsa bunch is stingy on the defensive side. The Tulsa defense ranks first in Conference USA in three defensive categories, including total defense, pass defense and scoring defense. "TU" has held the opposition to an average of only 286.3 total yards per game, with only 149.6 yards passing – and has given up a mere 17.7 points per game in its first nine contests.

Taking a gander at Tulsa’s defensive lineup, Tulsa's linebacker corps stands out as particularly experienced, with senior Nick Bunting and juniors Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain as the starters. These three have been in the starting lineup together in 17 career games, including all 13 last year but just four this year, due to Chamberlain’s coming off an injury . After nine games, junior linebacker Nelson Coleman leads the team in tackles with 72, including 11 against the Coogs last week.

And the Hurricane are loaded in the secondary, as well. Among the five starters   -- safeties Kedrick Alexander, Bobby Blackshire, Anthony Germany and cornerbacks Nick Graham and Roy Roberts -- there is a combined 177 games played and 119 games started . The quintet has totaled 756 tackles, 57 pass breakups and 23 interceptions in their respective careers.

But the big splash for Tulsa lay in its offensive productivity and precision. Tulsa isn’t at the very top of the league in offensive stats, but it features a balanced offense that appears to get its points, week in and week out, regardless of the quality of opposition.  (Well, except for last week.)

The Hurricane ranks third in the league in scoring offense with a 27.4 scoring average, and also ranks third in total offense with a 379.4 average per game. Speaking of balance, Tulsa's rushing offense is second in the league with 159.3 yards per game, while the pass offense is ranked sixth at 220.1 yards per game.

Tulsa does not feature the big, tall wideout corps that the Owls saw in their last three league games, tending to play more of a ball-control passing game with distribution to numerous receivers. The Tulsa ball-catchers are led by receivers Ryan Bugg and Idris Moss, both seniors and California junior college transfers. In the last seven games, Bugg has caught 21 passes for 288 yards and five touchdowns, while Moss has totaled 33 receptions for 523 yards and a 15.8 average per catch .

Focus in Tulsa is on the quarterback

The focus in Tulsa is much more on the pitch man than the catch men, however. Junior quarterback Paul Smith is a Davey O’Brien Award nominee for the nation’s best quarterback, and sports career totals of 4,960 yards on 408-of-642 passes for a completion percentage of .636 percent and 33 touchdowns in 30 career games.

But the main quality of Smith is said to lie in his calm, efficient and consistent game management. As a starter, he has a 16-6 record. This year, Smith has had two games in which he completed over 80 percent of his passes. In the season opener against Stephen F. Austin, Smith completed 16-of-20 for 229 yards and three Tds, and he completed 85percent of his passes (17-of-20) against Memphis for 217 yards and one TD.

In 2005, Smith had an efficiency rating of 142.90 and a completion percentage of 62.4 percent while completing 227-of-364 passes for 2,847 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Senior Brandon Diles leads the Tulsa running back corps in career starts, and he’s been a nemesis to the Owls in prior seasons. But he’s had injury problems this year, missing four starts, and in the meantime junior Courtney Tennial (no relation to The Captain), who began the year third on the depth chart, has come to lead the team in rushing with 580 yards and nine TDs, and has a 4.9 average per rush.

“Tulsa just has tremendous athletes,” Quinton Smith told press Monday. “They’re just coming off a loss to Houston, so they’re going to be ready and hungry to get the win.”

But enough of performance statistics – Coach Graham has us pretty much convinced that, if you play this game right, the stats just don’t wind up meaning squat.  However, let’s take a look at the tale of the tape, which likewise appears to portend difficulty for the Owls.

The ‘Canes can throw some beef at their opponents on both sides of the line, and that’s one area where the physical tools of the two teams perhaps diverge, being very comparable, otherwise, across the board.

But the Tulsa three-man defensive front can go 6-2, 271 pounds (DE Robert Latu), 6-4, 345 (NG Terrel Nemons), and 6-2, 317 (DE Walter Boyd), though soph Moton Hopkins, a mere pup at 6-3, 275, has edged out Boyd on the depth chart.

Offensively, the Hurricane is slightly heavier, but a lot taller, than the Owls’ offensive line. Starting left tackle Mike Muengers goes 6-4, 280, senior left guard John Hameister-Ries is 6-6, 308, center Aaron Danenhauer, also a senior, goes 6-5, 302, right guard Justin Morsey is 6-2, 282, and senior right tackle Jeff Perrett looks to be the first at the dinner table, sporting 329 pounds on his 6-7 frame. Perrett, by the way,  is a Lombardi Award nominee.

Yeouch. That’s a lot of avoirdupois to have to push around for the relatively svelte Rice defensive front. One suspects the Hurricane will try to use their size advantage to benefit by trying to wear down the Owls. It’s a challenge, to say the least. And it’s another challenge that’s going to have to be dealt with on the road.

Owls win on the road, despite the grind

With the parity that appears to be dominant in Conference USA, one would think that the home field advantage would reign supreme.  And the Owls will play away from Rice Stadium eight out of the 12 times they tee it up this fall.

But Coach Todd Graham says that the road-trip issue has been factored into the equation for the Owls – and they’re ready to play any place, any time. "We're on the road every week," the Rice head man said, engaging in only a slight bit of hyperbole. "So it's kind of the same preparation all year long."

"Going to UTEP is probably the toughest place to play – and the other tough place to play is Central Florida. I was really proud of how they handled that. We knew that we wanted to jump on them. Facing adversity in the game, when they came back on us a little bit, our kids kept playing."

Instead, the key to success in such an equally-balanced league, Coach Graham insists, lies in the ability to make adjustments on the fly. "That's one thing that I think is really critical in this conference is that when that game starts, you better start adjusting and you'd better be able to adjust throughout the game."

"You adjust or you die in this league – one or the other. There's a lot of parity. The games, you can see, are very close games. I'm really proud of our staff and how hard we prepare because they have worked an enormous amount of hours and we have to make sure we're prepared for everything that's going to happen."

"It's tough to do week in and week out because ultimately things are going to happen during the game that maybe we didn't think about or we didn't see, but then you've got to be able to react to them and be able to make adjustments."

"Bottom line we're winning right now because we've got kids that are making plays, and our players are playing well. Players win games and coaches lose them. We're trying to stay out of the way and do what we do best and let our kids win. "

If the Owls had a theme song for this season, it'd have to be ol' Outlaw Willie's 'On the Road Again.'   That's where the Rice Owls will be this Saturday, just one more time this season -- it will have meant eight of out the Owls' first ten games have been played away from Rice Stadium.

And if they can come back to the Nest Saturday night standing at 5-5, those last two home games are really going to mean something, indeed.

--P.T.H.

06tweek44avx375.jpg (47508 bytes)
Q:  'You can't ever be satisfied'

 

'Hard edge' another
way of saying 'heart
of a champion'

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Nov. 10) -- If you haven’t noticed by now, there are certain expressions that Rice head coach Todd Graham refers to often.  But perhaps none of those expressions may be more important to Rice Owl football than this one—"hard edge.This expression carries a great deal of meaning, not only for him, but this team as well.  It is the most important expression that this football team has learned and lived.

Let’s revisit exactly what Graham had to say about the hard edge.  Earlier this summer, Graham referred to the hard edge by saying, “Coach Stallings taught me about the hard edge.”  Graham went on to explain what that meant with these words: “We went kickoff to kickoff live—he’s a tough guy.  He’s a Bear Bryant guy.  He taught me that only the tough people win in this game.”

The hard edge is the key principle in the Graham philosophy.  And it paid huge dividends in the UAB game when UAB linebacker Kris Guyton tried putting the ball in his other hand after it  had been intercepted, and Lute Barber recovered it.  Lute Barber was nowhere near the ball—but was pursuing the linebacker in possession of it when it Guyton inexplicably lost the handle with nothing but pay dirt in front of him.  Barber’s hustle and recovery were a demonstration to all that Rice was around to play hard edge football whistle to whistle. 

Potential

Quinton Smith understands what it means to play hard edge football.  “It’s playing with all you have, all your abilities, going out there and giving it all you have, Quinton explained.  “These past few weeks, we’ve been showing that.”  Smith doesn’t believe that this team still has played up to its’ potential, but says, “You can’t ever be satisfied.  Going out there and giving it all you have is what the hard edge is.”

The first part of playing hard edge football is simple—you never quit and you play the play until it is over.

The second key to hard edge football is attitude.  Brandon King talks about the attitude necessary to play hard edge football when he said, “I think attitude is everything.  Your opponent, they can be bigger than you, faster than you, stronger than you, but like he [Graham] is always preaching, ‘Have the heart of a champion.’”

King went on to explain why this is a critical part of hard edge football when he said, “You’ve got to have the attitude that no matter how big your opponent is, how fast or tall he is, you’re going to play hard to the end of the whistle.”

Sound familiar?

Confidence

When you play with a hard edge, another thing changes, according to Brandon King—your level of confidence.  “To me,” Brandon explained, ”playing with a hard edge is playing with a strong mentality confidence . . .all of that.  And what Coach Graham brought to us—I mean, he changed our mindset and changed our whole swagger about us.  We’re playing with a different approach—a better approach—than last year.”

For the Owls, starting 0-4 wasn’t exactly what their confidence needed.  But Brandon King points to the game against UCLA as a very important game.  “The one game that I thought showed us we had a good football team is UCLA,” Brandon told the Webletter this week.  “We should have beat them.  I think playing big schools like that, it only makes you stronger.  No matter what the outcome was, we still followed through and gave it our best shot,” King explained.  While losing to UCLA on basically three plays, the Owls found a confidence that they could play with any team in the country on any given Saturday. 

The Owls are playing with a newfound level of confidence that was not present last season.  Part three of hard edge football is establishing and maintaining confidence in the system.

The fourth aspect of hard edge football is playing a physical game.  When asked if he believed the team was playing hard edge football, Coach Graham answered, “There’s no question.  I think in the last two weeks, we started to do that.  We’ve emphasized it all year long, and I think our kids are starting to have a belief now,” Graham said.

Physicality

Graham went on to talk about the physical part of hard edge football when he said, “I think they’re starting to develop that toughness, and that hard edge mentality that we are going to be a physical football team,” Graham said.

Graham believes that the key to having a consistent winner is the hard edge mentality.  “The key to being a constant winner is to have that hard edge mentality, offensively, defensively, and the kicking game, and we’re starting to develop that,” Graham said.

He also pointed to one group who typifies this hard edge that he has talked about since he arrived at Rice.  Our offensive line has gotten better, and they’ve been playing with that hard edge mentality,” Graham explained, “and opening up those holes and protecting the quarterback.” 

Graham points out that one of the results of playing hard edge physical football is you dominate your opponent.  That’s exactly what the Owls have done in the last two weeks against UCF and UTEP.  And it didn’t go unnoticed by the opposition, either.

Let’s sum up what it means to play hard edge football:

  • Don’t quit playing till the whistle blows;
  • A positive attitude that believes you can play with any team in the country;
  • Establishing and maintaining confidence in yourself and the system;
  • Playing a physical game and dominating the game.

That’s what is known as hard edge football.  And as the Owls play hard edge football, they get something they’ve not had at this level: the heart of a champion.


Relaxed Owls prep
for Tulsa matchup

06utepdconvergevx4a.jpg (95207 bytes)
Owls will be looking to replicate this past Saturday's gang tackling against Tulsa Saturday, as well (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 8) -- The Rice Owls worked out in shorts and shoulder pads in Rice Stadium Wednesday, reaching the turning point in the week of preparation before a crucial Conference USA game at Tulsa.

The team appeared loose and relaxed as they went through play reps and then took more than the usual amount of time afterwards listening as a group to Coach Todd Graham and then huddling with their position coaches.

It's time to get the game face on, Coach Graham told us afterwards. "The most important time is probably between now and game time; it's in the mental preparation," he said.

No problem in getting up for this game, he added. "We've marked this week as the week we're playing the defending conference champions," he emphasized. "That's enough -- if you can't get motivated for that, you can't get motivated."

06utepd4pursuesvx4a.jpg (91393 bytes)
Rice linebacker Marcus Rucker draws a bead on UTEP QB Jordan Palmer.   Next stop, Tulsa and their heralded man under, Paul Smith (PTH photo)

Coach Graham also alluded to his good relationship with Tulsa head coach Steve Kragthorpe, having coached with him for so long.   "You know, we played college ball against each other," he added.  "He was the backup quarterback for Eastern New Mexico, and I was, well I wasn't the backup at safety for East Central. We go back a long way."

The Tulsa head man, like Todd Graham, took pains to warn media this week that the Rice-Tulsa game is not shaping up to be some kind of grudge match or pay-back time. Rather, he insists, it's simply an important, late-season battle between two good football teams.

"This is Tulsa vs. Rice," he said. "Todd and I aren't going to put any pads on. At least I hope not, because I wouldn't last for more then one snap. It's a neat story line for you guys, but in terms of what we are focusing on is that we are concerned on competing against a very good Rice team."

Todd Graham said he agreed one hundred per cent with Steve Kragthorpe's sentiments, and had sought to downplay the implied personal angle that this game appears to present to both coaches.  But chuckling as he walked off the field, he mentioned one thing that he believed he'd take issue with.

"Steve should be glad we're not putting on the pads," he said through a grin, ever the competitor.  "Because if we did, I'd whip his (tail end)!"

--P.T.H.

Wednesday's post-practice interviews....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

006toddg1.jpg (14804 bytes) Todd Graham:   "Our kids know that this is a big game; there's no question...."
06paulrandolph1.jpg (15206 bytes) Paul Randolph: "It's kind of like looking in a mirror.  We're seeing ourselves on film...."

Man of the hour06tweek44media464.jpg (79127 bytes)
Having been named C-USA Offensive Player of the Week by the conference office, Rice senior

running back Quinton Smith plays 'meet the press' on Monday (PTH photo)

Q gets league POW accolade
but, along with teammates,
wants to remain focused

06tweektgvx375.jpg (49430 bytes)
Rice head coach Todd Graham:  "We're trying to stay out of the way and do what we do best and let our kids win"

06tweek15vx375.jpg (50470 bytes)
Rice DB/LB Brandon King: "Basically, our season is on the line, each time out"

06tweek44vx375.jpg (50246 bytes)
Senior running back Quinton Smith
: "I’m just going out there playing, trying to do the best I can"

HOUSTON (Nov. 6) – When Rice running back Quinton Smith heard he had just been named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week, he was unmoved. It’s a distraction, he figures.

"No comment about that," he told gathered members of the Fourth Estate at Monday’s press luncheon. "I’m just going out there playing, trying to do the best I can; that’s it. Whatever recognition occurs, that’s just what happens."

The reason for such apparent nonchalance? Well, to begin with, it’s neither ennui nor weltschmerz. It’s simply a matter of staying focused, Q insists. His job is to help Rice win out the rest of its games, not pick up personal accolades.

"If we don’t jump on the opportunity to win, our goals are diminished," he emphasized. "So we’re going out there, each time, with the mentality that this is a bowl game, and that we’re playing for a bowl game."

Q wowed ‘em at the Sun Bowl Saturday, picking up 243 all-purpose yards – 171 on the ground and 82 via pass reception, including a 64-yard catch-and-run for one of his two TDs on the night.

In so doing, Quinton becomes the third member of the Rice offense to be so honored this season– third in the last five games, in fact. Chase Clement earned POW honors after the win over Army, and Jarett Dillard was selected after his performance against UAB.

But if you polled them, they’d likely all agree that such kudos are for naught unless the Owls are able to continue what now is working up to be a veritable Sherman’s March through Georgia as they take on their C-USA opponents, week after week. But, in that regard, it’s strictly ‘one game at a time’ for the focused Owl players and coaches, all speakers Monday unanimously agreed.

"Basically, our season is on the line, each time out," Rice defender Brandon King said. BK had his second pass interception in consecutive games Saturday against UTEP, negating a Miner fumble recovery and giving the Owls a leg up in their 30-10 first half domination on the Sun Bowl turf.

"As the season gets shorter, we have to be more and more fired up, I guess," BK said. "We know we have to win out, and that’s what keeps us getting better and better each week."

Rice head coach Todd Graham sounded a familiar mantra to his press questioners. "The key is improving every day," he said yet again this week. " I think we are starting to develop a hard edge as a football team, starting to develop a physicalness to how we run the football, how we're tackling, how we're doing things in the special teams. That hard edge is conditioned over a time period."

"Bottom line we're winning right now because we've got kids that are making plays, and our players are playing well. Players win games and coaches lose them. We're trying to stay out of the way and do what we do best and let our kids win. "

--P.T.H.

Monday's press luncheon interviewswavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

06tulsaweekbk1.0 (16580 bytes) Brandon King:   "We know we have to win out, to accomplish our goals...." 
06tweekq1.jpg (16582 bytes) Quinton Smith: "Tulsa will be ready, and hungry to get the win...."
006toddg1.jpg (14804 bytes) Todd Graham:   "We're winning right now because we've got kids that are making plays...."

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