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'06 U C L A week

Coach Graham on the UCLA game...new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)
Ja'Corey Shepherd post-game comments...
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UCLA 26, Rice 16
Almost an ambush
at old Arroyo Seco
Quarterback-hobbled Owls
hang tough, but fall short

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John Shepherd drew the start at QB for Owls under what might be termed less than ideal circumstances, but put in a game performance (PTH photo)

PASADENA, Ca. (Sept. 10) -- When Rice's Joel Armstrong had to be helped off the field with an injury early in the first quarter of Saturday's game against UCLA, little did the 45,000-odd Bruin fans present realize that they were getting a gift that later would appear absolutely necessary in order for their leading men to eke out a 26-16 in over a determined Owl team.

With starting quarterback Chase Clement relegated to an extras role due to his broken (or perhaps merely jammed) finger, and with Joel's only being able to take the field at limited efficiency in the third quarter, the Owls lacked the offensive punch necessary to win this shoot-em-up at Arroyo Seco.

But that doesn't mean they went down easily, instead scratching and clawing their way to what almost became an upset of blockbuster proportions.

But in actuality, had it not been for the chewing-gum and bailing-wire Rice found it necessary to cobble together an effective quarterback spot Saturday night, those handsome lads from Westwood just might've gone home with their heads stuffed completely up their tails, instead of merely half-way, as it turned out to be.

"I've never been so unhappy with a win," UCLA quarterback Ben Olson said afterwards.

Oh yeah?  Talk to the guys at U of H. Looking back on it, they say they're feeling mighty lucky to win by one over the Institute Boys.

Just like against U of H in the season opener, Rice once again spotted an opponent to a two- touchdown lead, and then yet again roared back to keep the outcome in doubt until the waning moments of the game.

Stat sheet not an indicator of defensive effort

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This one had to be studied by officials in the booth; it was ruled UCLA receiver came down in bounds for the TD (PTH photo)

Rice was able to stay in the game with tenacious first-half defense that turned touchdown drives into field goals and kept the Flock within striking distance.

In fact, were it not for the Owls' inability to punch the ball across the goal line after alert, aggressive special teams play set them up at the lip of the cup with a fumbled punt, the score would've been 13-7 instead of 13-0 at the half.

A pair of recovered Bruin fumbles set up the ideal field position. First, on second and six from the Rice 40, UCLA quarterback Ben Olson was rocked by Brian Raines, forcing the fumble which was recovered by Dietrich Davis at the Owl 47.

When the Rice offense failed to move the ball, Jared Scruggs lofted a high pop-fly punt which Marcus Everett, the Bruin deep man, unwisely tried to field inside his 10 yard line. The ball squiggled free and Chad Price charged in like a man possessed, first knocking Everett away from the pill and then falling on it himself at the UCLA two yard line – and the Owls suddenly were sitting pretty.

With redshirt freshman John Shepherd at the helm, the Owls just couldn’t quite managed to push the ball over the goal. On first down, Will Moss made a nice catch but couldn’t evade two defenders; he was stopped for no gain.

Then, the Owls were flagged for a false - start penalty, which set them back to the seven, a decidedly much more tricky situation.

Let us digress.

The officiating crew, it seemed to those strictly impartial observers from the Bayou City, deserved an Academy Award nomination for their impersonation of an unbiased arbiter of the game. While, on paper at least, both teams apparently were hit relatively evenly with penalties -- the Owls getting flagged 10 times for 80 yards and the Bruins eight for 70 -- it was the gendarmes' impeccable sense of timing that made them so deserving of thespian kudos.

For it seemed that each time the Owls were positioned to fly high in taking advantage of a momentum- changing turnover, or stop, they were brought down to the turf with a thump via the yellow flag.

This was the first time. There were more in the second half.  Ask Ja'Corey Shepherd.  Ask Andrew Sendejo.

At any rate, now facing second and goal from the seven, the Owls managed only to fly backwards. What happened was, the UCLA defense simply put on the afterburners and roared in each play, but the offensive prescription didn't manage to punish them for their aggressiveness.

After a third down reverse play lost 12 more yards, Luke Juist missed a field goal try from 36 yards out – hey, that just wasn’t quite far enough for Juice; he needs to be outside the 40.

What a downer the failure to score was, for the Owls.

"You look back on the big play of the game, when you get the ball on the two yard line like we did, you’ve got to score," Rice head coach Todd Graham said afterwards. "You’ve got to be able to punch the ball in. We do, and then we’re winning going into the fourth quarter."

But more on that later.

Despite disastrous start on offense, Rice stayed in game

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Brian Raines runs right through his blocker to down UCLA's Chris Markey for a loss (PTH photo)

Rice had given up those first 13 points to the UCLAns very begrudgingly – and that, despite what proved to be a disastrous start for the Rice offense.

Coach Graham said that a last minute decision was made to hold out starting QB Chase Clement, who still couldn’t comfortably grip the ball with his either broken or jammed throwing-hand thumb, depending on who you ask.

"We made a game-time decision not to play Chase," he said. "That was very difficult. And then (John) Shepherd goes out there and right away gets banged around, dinged around. Then we put Joel (Armstrong) in there, and Joel gets dinged around – and suddenly you’re playing two different guys at quarterback. But you keep battling back."

It looked for a moment that the Owls were going to have to send up a note to the Rice faithful asking if anybody who’d ever played quarterback had any eligibility left. 

Dr. McReynolds, please report to the Rice bench.

As Todd mentioned, on the Owls' first offensive series, John Shepherd, who drew the starting nod when it was determined Chase couldn't go, got his bell rung the first play from scrimmage.

With Chase out, and what they perceived to be fresh meat handling the ball in the Owl backfield, the UCLAns blitzed in as mercilessly as the Capital One Huns in the attempt to rape, pillage, burn and create as much havoc in the Rice offensive scheme as they possibly could.

Joel Armstrong came in to spell John after the first play, and he immediately jacked up and moved the team, scrambling for a first down on third and long. But that's when he, too, in turn, got his mugging from the Bruin defense (as in a knee to the helmet).  Rice at this point was down to one quarterback with experience under his belt -- John Shepherd, who'd run the first play of the game.

The fans in the stands and the sportwriters in the press box apparently never figured that out, instead merely assuming that, hey, these Rice guys are even worse than they were last year -- and, man, this is going to be fun tonight.

In fact the Owls managed all of eight yards total offense in the first quarter, and earned only four first downs the entire first half. Part of the reason for it lay in the tenacity of the UCLA defense, which, after all, had virtually completely shut down a prolific Utah offense the week before. But the UCLAns' task was made easier by the fact that John Shepherd was thrown to the lions under the worst possible circumstances -- in front of 45,000 noisy, hostile fans, with seemingly no one available to back him up, and with a headache from taking a shot on his very first play from scrimmage.

Under the circumstances, he perfomed admirably, each of his throws being on the button.

It was to the Owls' credit that they refused to let those negative developments get the best of them, resolutely keeping UCLA out of the end zone for the entire first three quarters of the game, save for one pass in which Ja’Corey Shepherd uncharacteristically got faked out of position -- and don't expect that to happen much more this season, if at all.

The Bruins did, in fact, score the first two times they had the ball, but both drives had all the vim and vigor of a split-T three yards and a cloud of dust.

UCLA reached the Rice 13 the first series, before George Chukwu dropped Chris Markey for a loss to force the field goal.

Things looked as if they might quickly get out of hand next possession, when UCLA swarmed into the Rice backfield on a third and 11 play and picked up the fumble at the Rice 32. But the Owl defense was having none of that.

Thanks to key stops by Brian Raines and Chad Price, three plays netted zero yards, and the Bruins’ Justin Medlock had to come in again and nine-iron another field goal, this time from 32 yards out.

Late in the first quarter, then, Rice let UCLA’s Chris Markey out of the bottle, and he ran for 43 yards to the Rice 30, and with the Owl defense rocked back on its heels, that’s when the Bruins’ Ben Olson managed his TD strike over Ja’Corey Shepherd, a nine yard fade route to a leaping Junior Taylor.

That’s all the scoring there was in the first half. Still, the partisan crowd appeared to be just sure that the party would really begin in the third quarter. But when it did, it was the Owls who were cooking and celebrating.

"You've got to pick your battles"

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Center of Rice defense goes high in attempt to block Justin Medlock field goal try (PTH photo)

Although the statisical battle was won by the Bruins, the box score didn't tell the story of the game.

Rice's aggressiveness on defense was taken advantage by the Bruins via the run, as the bulk of Chris Markey's whopping 205 yards on the ground was set up by trapping blocking schemes that created running lanes through which the speedy Markey deftly cut. But those same Owl defenders who were so often camped in the UCLA backfield were able to make the big stop on offense more often than not, however, once the field got shorter.

And that same defensive strategy proved successful in limiting Bruin quarterback Ben Olson to a mere 124 yards passing on the night -- a far cry from the 255 yards he picked up via the air in last week's much easier Bruin win, a 31-10 laugher over Utah.

Local scribes naturally concluded the veteran Bruin man under was simply having a major off- night -- it couldn't have been anything to do with the grit and tenacity of the Rice defense, could it? Nahh....

"Defensive football’s not about what your stats are," Coach Graham told a local writer afterwards. "The bottom line tonight is that we played good enough defense to beat them."

"On defense, you’ve got to pick your battles. We invited them to run the football; they did. They did some good things schematically; they came back and made some great adjustments. They’re a very well coached football team. But there’s not any question that our defense tonight gave them all that they wanted."

Going into the third quarter, the spirits of the 500-odd Rice partisans shunted off in the northwest corner of the end zone were lifted when Joel Armstrong was able to come back onto the field and guide the Flock after the Owls received the second-half kickoff.

But Joel appeared unable immediately the shake off the rust that invariably had accumulated on his quarterbacking mechanism, as the Owls went three-and-out on that opening possession.

But once again the Rice defense rose to the occasion.

First play, from the UCLA 31, the Bruin quarterback rifled down the middle,   and Ja’Corey Shepherd was there to make the pick.

"I gave up that touchdown in the first half, so I knew I had to come back and make a play," Ja’Corey said afterwards. "I was sitting back and I read the quarterback’s eyes, and I just broke on the ball."

This time, the Owl offense wasn’t quite there yet, but "Juice" was. On fourth down from the UCLA 28, Luke Juist came in and calmly booted a 45-yard field goal attempt that was straight and true, once again proving the theory that Luke is the St. Jude of field goal kickers -- only if it appears to be a lost cause, is he able to guide the ball through the uprights.

Though that three points seemed measly at the time, the fact that the Owls had gotten on the scoreboard did something to further tarnish the UCLAn's perceived self-image of defensive invinceability – previously so forcefully emphasized by their second quarter goal line stand.

Owls roared back with 78-yard drive

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Jarett Dillard comes down with 15-yard TD reception in third quarter to put Owls within six (PTH photo)

For when the Owl defense next played bend-but-don't-break on the next UCLA drive, limiting the Bruins once again to another Justin Medlock field goal, this time from 51 yards out, the Owls roared back with a picture-perfect, 78-yard drive next time they got their hands on the ball.

During that drive, Rice seldom needed to go beyond second down, getting first-down distance on every play save for two. Key pickups were by Quinton Smith, rushing for 13 yards to get the ball near midfield, and Jarett Dillard’s 14-yard completion to the UCLA 34.

A couple plays later, Jarett was wide open on the fade route and cradled the ball to his chest for the touchdown from 15 yards out. Suddenly, Rice was totally and undeniably right back in the middle of things.

And the partisan UCLA crowd, always ready to give a big boo, this time would’ve let the local boys have it, were they not been shocked into virtual silence by the turn of events.

Remember, last year, UCLA scored touchdowns the first seven times it got its hands on the ball. This year, suddenly, it was the middle of the third quarter, and still anybody’s ball game.

Ja’Corey Shepherd recalled, "We were very excited. We had all the momentum. I mean, we shut the Rose Bowl down. We had the Rose Bowl quiet. So that made us very excited over on the sidelines."

Things got even quieter a moment later when Chad Price once again hunted down his man and took away the ball. This time, with UCLA operating from the Rice 38, next possession, Chad chased QB Ben Olson all over the place, finally corraling him back at his own 41, where he promptly coughed up the pill and Chad grabbed himself another one.

At that point, the partisan crowd, a surprisingly surly ensemble of boo birds, foul-mouthed townies and rout-hungry  alumni, were disposed to absolute silence.

One the sideline, Coach Graham admonished his defense, who'd just picked up the turnover, that "we're going to win this game."

As the Rice offense readied to take the field, OL David Berken was telling his fellow linemen, "Keep on hitting and then hit some more. These California guys don't like to be hit hard. They'll roll  over."

At that point, one would have expected a well-executed first play would have set up the Owls for a go-ahead drive on a short field, but that's where the zebras decided to take center stage.

We all are aware that somewhere, somehow, an offensive holding call can be made on just about every play that involves delayed action in the backfield. The Owls’ first play from scrimmage here did, and the Flock was whistled for a holding call that made it first and 20 instead of first and ten, and somehow that upset the apple cart when it came to momentum.

The Owls failed to convert the first down, punted out to the UCLA 13, and from there, the Bruins’ Chris Markey once again found a seam in the line on a trap play that went for 36 yards, and the Owls had lost both their field position and their mo.

Justin Medlock converted another field goal at the end of that Bruin drive, this time from 34 yards out, a minute deep into the fourth quarter.

Fade route ruled in-bounds put UCLA up by 16

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Rice's Quinton Smith couldn't be tied down for whole game; kept Owls in it with 48-yard fourth quarter TD jaunt  (PTH photo)

The Owls failed to move the ball on the ensuing possession, punted out, Markey got loose again, and then came another, shall we say, interesting call.  It was a questionable fade route from Olson to Brand Breazell from 18 yards out that made it 26-10, Bruins, with 8:19 in the game. Rice challenged the play, and the replays seemed to show that the receiver was out of bounds before he had full possession of the ball, but the man upstairs apparently lacked the gumption to overruled the call on the field.

But still Rice didn’t pack it in. Aided by a key block from Mike Falco, who also had three gut-check kickoff returns,  Quinton Smith got outside and dashed down the sideline for a  48-yard TD run a moment later. That brought the Owls back to within 10, 26-16,  so the Flock went for two, given that there was only 5:38 left on the clock.

On the two-point try, Jarett Dillard appeared clearly to have been interfered with as he went up on his own fade route, but the no-call loomed large, for it took the pressure off the Bruin defense as the Owls thusly needed two scores to come back, instead of one.

The Owls did go for the onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff, but weren’t able to come up with the ball.  

That took the wind out of the Rice sails, and UCLA was able to run out the clock and escape what would have been an upset defeat of epic proportions. 

Todd Graham tried to assume the air of a frustrated coach in defeat in his post-game news conference, but instead he could not help projecting the beaming air of a proud papa. You see, to his way of looking at it, those few loyal Owl fans who fought their way through Southern California traffic to the Rose Bowl Saturday evening just might have witnessed the Birth of a Football Team.

"I wasn’t surprised. I knew we could defense them," Coach Graham said. "We have a pretty good secondary and ran a pretty good scheme against them. To go out and play like we did against a team like that shows that we have the makings of a championship defense."

"When we scored, we go onside kick. We’re coming to win. The thing that we’ve got to do as a program is get turnovers, get the ball back for our offense. We did that tonight."

"This team’s dangerous. We’re going to win a lot of football games."

--Paul T. Hlavinka


Owls to test UCLA on the road
New attitude to meet
formidable roadblock

06bruin3f35.jpg (74090 bytes)HOUSTON (Sept. 7) -- The Rice Owls are packing their bags and heading west to La-La Land to meet UCLA Saturday in the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row, although this time, they have a solid game under their belts, new coaching, new training, new, er, schematics, and a whole new attitude.

That attitude apparently has held up just fine this week despite the Owls' depressing one-point loss to the University of Houston in the Institute's home opener Saturday. The 31-30 defeat, by the way, was said to be the Coog's biggest road comeback ever, as they trailed by 16 points with just over 17 minutes left, and yet managed to squeeze out a come-from-behind victory.

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Owlook

But demoralizing as that may sound to Owl fans, Rice head coach Todd Graham says he, his staff and his team are through thinking about that game, and for that matter, they're through talking about it, too. Nobody expected to be 12-0 on the year, especially after having won just once in the Owls' last 18 tries. Rather, it's a week-by-week proposition, and each game is up for grabs, no matter how exalted the opponent, Coach Graham said.

"This Rice team can win any time it steps on the field," Coach Graham said Monday. And apparently he meant to include the next three games, roadies (or virtual roadies) against UCLA, Texas and Florida State.

An alert paramedic immediately took Todd's temperature, and, whaddayaknow, it was 98.6. He apparently really believes that stuff.

Well, it is a matter of belief, he avers. But before that, it's a matter of conditioning.

"These kids, with all the training they did in the spring and summer – when we are in any game, and it gets down to the fourth quarter, we are going to have an opportunity to win," Todd noted, "because the other night, we were not tired. And our defense played a lot of snaps."

"Our players are in shape. Coach (Yancy) McKnight has done a tremendous job -- and that's in six months."

Rice clearly showed improved product against UH

Anyone who ventured within the confines of Rice Stadium last Saturday – and that includes wearers of the blue and grey and of the red and white as well – could agree that the product Rice is putting on the field this season is a far cry better than that which was seen during last fall's 1-10 campaign.

And that's a good thing, because with the next three neighborhood bullies coming up, it's going to take a superhuman task just to stay in the ball park. And that starts at the Rose Bowl Saturday night.

The Bruins lost half their starters on offense and defense from last year's 10-2 campaign, but, like a certain baseball team we know, apparently they don't rebuild – they just reload.

In that regard, studying game films from last year haven't proven to be all that much benefit for the Rice brain trust, Coach Graham said.  "I've looked at films of seven or eight of their games from last year," he noted, "and they don't help much at all."

"They have a different quarterback, different running back, different tight end. Defensively, they have a totally new defensive coordinator. They're very much a different team."

The Bruins are led offensively by 23-year-old senior Ben Olson, who’s back on the field after time off taken for missionary work. The plus on him is his maturity, in addition to his deft passing touch.

Olson’s favorite target last week was big tight end, Logan Paulsen, who had five catches for 90 yards in the Bruins’ season-opening, 31-10 win over Utah.

Olson went 25 of 33 passes for 318 yards and three TDs in his debut as a starter. A total of 10 Bruins caught passes against Utah.

UCLA added 107 yards on the ground, led by Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey. The Bruins did not commit a turnover and did not allow a quarterback sack.

Defensively, UCLA allowed just 287 yards, 79 in the second half when it outscored Utah 17-0.

The Bruins played nickel and dime packages extensively against the Utes' spread offense and allowed just 175 yards passing and 112 yards rushing. The rushing total was the lowest by a Bruin opponent since Wyoming had just 76 in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl.

Utah is expected to contend for the Mountain West Crown this year (apparently the league has decided against retiring the trophy and handing it to TCU permanently). But Coach Karl Dorrell's bunch appeared to have little  trouble with the Utes, winning going away in a game in which the Utes lost five fumbles and went 0-for-11 in attempts to convert on third down.

"To shut down any offense from not converting any third downs tells you something about the potential our defense can be," Coach Dorrell said Monday. "I'm very pleased about that, being 0 for 11 for an offense to convert on third down. That's a very impressive statistic."

Uh, yah, it is.

Boys from Westwood a handful on both sides of ball

Dennis Keyes led the Bruins with against the Utes with seven tackles (one for loss) and two pass breakups while Chris Horton added five solo tackles. Rodney Van and Aaron Whittington (two for losses) had four tackles each. Kevin Brown (two for losses) and Nikola Dragovic, both returning from season-ending injuries a year ago, had three tackles each.

True freshman Alterraun Verner returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble and Trey Brown made the fourth interception of his career.

OK, then, sounds like the Boys from Westwood are quite a handful on both sides of the ball. So where do you go for help? Well, the aforementioned wholesale personnel changes seem to leave only the video of last week's relatively easy Bruin win over the Utes. "The Utah game is a great reference for us; that's what we're really looking at," Coach said.

Must be painful to look at. Look, it's not like anybody said this game was going to be a walk in the park, despite the venerable Rose Bowl's park-like setting. Last year, UCLA led the Owls 42-7 at the half enroute to a 63-21 win. Actually, the Owls did play the Bruins on equal terms for a quarter, at one time owning a 7-7 tie, but once the game became a footrace the big hosses easily outdistanced the young colts.

Still and all, it's not so bad a place to be going for a first-ever road trip as a head coach. And it's not all that daunting to be playing on the floor of the Rose Bowl, or anywhere else, for that matter, Coach Graham said.

"There won't be any better setting to play a football game," he said. "But when you're a ball player, and you love this game, though, it only has a momentary effect."

"I've coached games at Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Orange Bowl, Wisconsin – you walk out onto the field and look around, and you say, ‘Aw this is pretty neat,’ And then when the game starts, it's still a football game. And then you play."

UCLA Coach Dorrell says Rice playing inspired ball

The Owls are planning to strap it on and play just like that, and to hear UCLA Coach Dorrell say it, the new coaching regime at Rice has earned his attention – and his respect.

"(Rice) lost a very close football game last week," he noted. "They were leading most of the game and couldn't quite close them out, but you can tell this team that's playing now is really inspired. They're really flying around on defense."

"Coach Graham has really got them playing hard on defense, and on offense, they really have some weapons that you really have to pay attention to. They have a really good tailback that can run and has very good speed. They have a quarterback that has some experience and is very mobile, throws the ball well on the move."

"And it looks like it's a program that's really starting to blossom with their first-year coach."

Coach Dorrell adds that he likes the attitude his squad has displayed during fall practices and during game one last week.

"This (UCLA) team has something about them," he said, "that they can see the issues that plagued us, they can see the potential shortcomings that happened in the game where we need to correct. This team has a good deal of maturity in that standpoint, so we expect to have a lot of progress made this week."

Coachspeak translation: "This Rice bunch is game bunch, but they don't have any players. I'll be stunned if we don't beat the crap out of them."

It's one thing to be beaten, and yet another to be beaten up. With Texas and Florida State on the horizon, the Rice staff has got to be concerned with the injury factor, and may be expected to run more players in and out of action this week than last.

Against Houston, it appeared the Rice coaches wanted their most skilled people out on the field at all times. But that appeared to catch up with them late in the game.

This week, if they don't give numbers 13, 44 and 81 a breather or two, they won't have any vinegar left to spend against Texas the following week. Same goes for numbers 31, 21 and, heck, the whole gang who played last week on defense.

"It's no question that staying healthy is one of our biggest concerns," Coach Graham said. "It's a big challenge, because we don't have a lot of depth."

Regarding the keys to success on Saturday, the Rice mentor spoke both in specifics and in generalities.

Specifically, Todd say, UCLA quarterback Olson has got all the tools. "(Olson" is a very good quarterback," Coach Graham said. "They have very talented tes. They’ve got a very veteran offensive line that doesn't make mistakes."

"The key for us this week," he added, "is that we're going to have to stop the run, because they're really going to pound it at us."

"And always the key for us," he said, "is that, each week the kids are going to have to learn a little bit more."

Gentlemen, class is now in session.

--P.T.H.


TG:  'This team can win any time it steps on the field'

Graham says effort was there, but  Owls are determined to eliminate errors, complacency


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'There’s no way we should go into a game and have only three first downs in a half, with the weapons that we have on our team'

 

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'The game showed great signs of what we can be'

 

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'These kids want to win. They should have won'

 

HOUSTON (Sept. 4) – The mood around Rice Stadium Monday was, well, it was just about what one might expect after the Owls’ stirring but ultimately frustrating debut against the University of Houston Saturday. There was a sense of quiet satisfaction over the effort that was displayed on the field, but it was tempered by what appear to border on a sense of grim determination, certainly a bit of disgust, of anger, over the game’s outcome.

"These kids want to win. They should have won," Rice head coach Todd Graham emphasized, speaking of UH's last-gasp, 31-30 victory. And he went beyond that, placing blame for the loss – as if there were anyone on South Main who deserved opprobrium – squarely on the backs of himself and the members of his staff.

"As their coaches, we let them down Saturday," Coach Graham insisted. "We lost that game because of coaching. There’s no way we should go into a game and have only three first downs in a half, with the weapons that we have on our team."

"That comes back on me."

"We need to make sure the mistakes we made don’t come back to haunt us again. We lost because we didn’t make the right adjustments as a coaching staff. I told our coaches I expect perfection from us all. And we weren’t quite perfect Saturday night."

"You can’t give up a 16 point lead, after you’ve worked so hard to get it."

Coach added that he and his players were proud of the level of support displayed by the Rice community for Saturday’s season opener. "I think those who came to the game saw a completely different look and a different atmosphere. Our fans were great; the setting was just awesome."

Coach Graham lauded the effort his players gave on both sides of the ball.

"Our kids played every stinkin’ play to the end of the whistle," he said. "They gave incredible effort. We’ve made tremendous strides with this football team.  This team can win any time it steps on the field.   But we’ve just got to learn how to finish, down the line."

"Our kids played extremely hard. We got complacent down there in the end."

"But the game showed great signs of what we can be."

The Rice mentor added that his staff wasn’t surprised by anything that happened, good or bad, on the field Saturday. Nor were they met by anything particularly unexpected in the way of approach to the game by UH. "The game turned out exactly like I thought it’d be," he said. "I just kept telling the kids to trust their training. And once we settled down, they played pretty well."

Graham said his players have made more progress in a short amount of time allotted them than any group he’s worked with. And that includes the Tulsa and West Virginia, where the staffs were responsible for a couple of the biggest turnarounds in recent history.

By comparison, he noted, last year the conference champion Tulsa Hurricane, with Coach Graham as defensive coordinator, gave up 429 yards total offense to this same Houston team. Saturday, the Owls improved on that figure by a hundred yards or so.

And they didn’t give up the long bomb, which was a major pre-game goal. "If any of you had bet me we’d not give up any one-play drives, I’d have said we’d definitely win," Coach Graham added, somewhat nonplussed over the matter.

He noted that the team’s attitude was good when it returned to the field for practice Sunday evening. "We had a great practice Sunday," he noted. "The kids were flying around all over the field, and had a great attitude."

--P.T.H.

Todd Graham Monday press conference....new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)
Coach Graham's Monday Q&A....new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)


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Quinton Smith (L), Brian Raines listen in on Coach Graham's press interview Monday

Interview:  Brian Raines
'I really think it was a great move for me'

06uclabraines1v35.jpg (52585 bytes)HOUSTON (Sept. 4) -- Rice's Brian Raines had an auspicious coming-out party against the University of Houston Cougars Saturday night.   Participating in his first varsity start, Brian came up with 17, count 'em, seventeen tackles -- a figure that puts him at the head of the class for Conference USA after Week One games.  The Lovett College sophomore was relegated to the defensive secondary last year as a redshirt freshman for the Owls.  He nevertheless played in all 11 games and was credited with 25 tackles on the season.  This year, he obviously found it comfortable being back home at the linebacker spot, a position that he played as a schoolboy at Houston Willowridge.  And if there's a "Linebacker U." at the high school level, it's got to be Willowridge, which also was the home of an Owl linebacker more than a few Rice fans might remember -- O. J. Brigance.  Brian told press Monday that he was happy about the return to linebacker, but he felt only so-so about his performance Saturday night (despite his league-leading number of tackles).  The linebackers have to play as the heart of the team, he said.  The linebackers have to lead.  The way you hear Brian tell it, the linebackers have to be responsible if the bad guys' defense scores any points at all.  And we'll take that attitude, any day.
The Interview....

Interview:  Quinton Smith
'The game showed we have potential'

06uclaq1v.jpg (41575 bytes)HOUSTON (Sept. 4) -- If the Owls had held on to beat UH Saturday night, there likely would have been a newspaper headline somewhere reading, "Q'ed, Glued and Tattooed."   That's because Rice senior running back Quinton Smith, whom we all by now know as simply "Q," was practically a one-man wrecking crew for the Flock's offense, rushing for 108 yards, including a 52-yarder reminiscent of the running of the bulls at Pamplona.  Oh, and he also had a little 80-yard touchdown pass that was really more of a running play, a flare pass from Chase Clement to Q circling out of the backfield, in which he simply outran the entire right side of the Cougar defense. To top it off, Q scored three of the Owls' four touchdowns on the evening.  His performance means he now leads the league in all-purpose yardage, touchdowns and scoring.  Last year, Quinton (as he's known to his mom) was the winner of the George Martin Award as the Owls’ most valuable player, as well as  the  George R. Brown Award as Rice’s top running back.  How do you top that?  We may just get to find out.  Looks like Rice sports officials will have to come up with another set of awards to hand out to the Baker College senior after this season, especially if he maintains the momentum he established Saturday night.
The Interview....


A Rice primer for UCLA fans

physicstn.jpg (4165 bytes)HOUSTON (Sept. 5) -- Not many UCLA Bruin fans  may be familiar with Rice,  its rank among American universities, its history and its traditions, beyond a vague notion that its football teams have been NCAA also-rans for decades, that it plays pretty darn good baseball,  and that the school's name appears to provide fodder for bad jokes and shaky allusions to breakfast cereals.

Believe us, we're not named after the crop, and we've already heard all the bad jokes from the Aggies, years ago. Our university, in fact, is named after William Marsh Rice, a wealthy Houston cotton merchant of the mid-nineteenth-century. 

Any football game involving Rice and a large state university is by its nature a matchup of David versus Goliath --  Rice's being by most counts the smallest university in NCAA Division 1A football competition, boasting all of 2,750 undergraduate students.

Against UCLA’s storied athletic history, Rice -- known as The Rice Institute until 1960 -- managed quite well for itself, for a few decades, at least. Rice has engaged in a full slate of top-division intercollegiate athletics since 1916, and its football teams, in the '40s and  '50s, won Southwest Conference Championships, made trips to the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls, and on at least one occasion finished the season ranked as high as the number five team in the nation. 

During those halcyon days, university fathers managed to get built the 72,000-seat Rice Stadium, on the west side of Rice's 300-acre campus located about three miles southwest of downtown Houston, in a neighborhood of stately homes and spreading live oak trees. 

Throughout the '50s, Rice's crowds averaged between 50,000 and 60,000 a game, and in 1958, the Institute finished third in the nation in attendance behind Michigan and Ohio State.  In 1974 the stadium played host to Super Bowl VIII, one of only three on-campus stadia, extant, to have hosted the extravaganza -- Stanford's and Arizona State’s  being the other ones.

Yeah, you're right. All of that was, sadly, a long time ago.  And Rice's athletics prowess  eroded drastically in the 60s and 70s, although there indeed has occurred quite a metamorphosis (off the field, at least) since January 1 of this year.

Rice’s football fortune’s reached yet another low ebb in 2005, a year which saw the Owls go 1-10 with their single win coming over a homeless Tulane team.  You may recall that exactly one year ago, UCLA humbled the Owls 63-21 at the Rose Bowl.  And you probably expect a mirror image of that game coming up Saturday.

1-10 season in '05 led to new coach

But in January, Ken Hatfield resigned, and we hired a new football coach by the name of Todd Graham – since he had the same last name as our Casey-Stengel-esque baseball coach, Wayne Graham, we figured it was a good bet.  Wayne’s teams, after all, are perennial entrants in the College World Series in Omaha and in ’03 took the whole enchilada – against Stanford, by the way.  Last year we finished third in the CWS, and came home disappointed.

Todd Graham clearly aspires to the same kind of success on the gridiron that his namesake has achieved on the diamond.  To that end, he immediately raised some $6 million in the first six months of his employ, simply by making speeches to small groups of alums and buttonholing the more affluent among them -- and not letting go until they forked over.  He's that intense.  With that, he immediately effectuated a complete makeover of venerable Rice Stadium, bringing it up to contemporary standards, big Jumbotron and all.

Todd spent half a million bucks on audio-visual equipment alone, bringing Rice out of the mid-20th Century when it came to what he likes to refer to as “schematics.”  He instituted a summer school program for his players, keeping them together and on (or near) campus for the first time in school history.

And he went out and hired an energetic young staff, all guys who know how to coach the game and engender a sense of excitement.  One, for example, is former University of Texas quarterback Major Applewhite, who at age 26 is the youngest offensive coordinator in Division 1A.

His efforts appeared immediately to bear fruit in the season opener against crosstown-rival University of Houston.   The Owls were 14-point ‘dogs, and most betting parlors  had singled out the game as the ‘lock of the week’ – laying the points, that is.

But Saturday night in Rice Stadium, the Owls surged to a 27-14 halftime lead, and were ahead 30-14 with two minutes left in the third quarter, when their accursed fate caught up with them.  UH scored 17 unanswered points in the last 17 minutes of the game to eke out the Owls, 31-30.

Yet all who saw the game agreed that this is not the same Rice team that played the role of whipping boy last year.  More on that in other stories we post elsewhere on this site.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about what the coaches like to call “academics.” So many of you out there would likely scoff at the mere notion that Rice may be an academic institution mentionable in the same breath UCLA, that we feel constrained to quote some statistics.

Rice shows up consistently high in national rankings

U. S. News and World Report:   Seems the annual U.S. News ranking of American colleges and universities has become the single most-quoted source in the "my- school's- better- than- yours" wars.

In this year's survey, just out, the UCLA is ranked 26th among National Universities  -- the Big Boys, the major research institutions, some with unspeakably difficult undergraduate admissions standards:  the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, MITs, and, yes, the UCLAs.

Not bad. But where is Rice ranked? Surprisingly, with its paltry 2,750 undergraduates and 1,650 graduate students, Rice, too,  is included among the ranks of National Universities -- not tucked away among the Regional Private Colleges, quaint little places like Williams and Claremont.  And  U.S. News this year has Rice ranked number 17.

We think that's getting the shaft. In prior years, Rice has ranked as high as eighth, and has never finished out of the top 18.

Why?  Just read the magazine, if you're interested.

Again, this final score just in:  UCLA 26, Rice 17.   Rice wins.

Princeton Review: The latest release from the Princeton Review has Rice ranked even higher, listing it as number three in the nation in the category "Best Overall Academic Experience."   The top three are the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Rice.  Rice was also ranked by Princeton Review as number one in the nation in the categories “Lots of Race/Class Interaction” and “Best Quality of Life.”

Kiplinger's Magazine. Here is a survey result which particularly pleases alumni and university administration. A few  years ago, Kiplinger's started an annual survey which reviews American colleges and universities using the typical criteria, more or less along the same lines as U. S. News -- but which adds economic value as a significant variable. Since 1999 (when Rice was ranked number one in the nation in the category “private universities worth the price”) our old Institute has never been ranked lower than third.

The deal is,  the tuition at Rice is still no more than about two-thirds of what it costs at an Ivy League School.  And the financial aid opportunities are exhaustive. So Kiplinger's concludes that, when you factor in costs, a Rice education is simply among  the best thing out there to have.  Bar none.

Now, we're not saying that Rice is "better" than UCLA.  Or vice - versa.  There are some things a highly-accomplished and -endowed state university can manage to do that a small, private school cannot.  And vice-versa.

A few more statistics before we leave the subject for good.  Rice's average SAT score of all its scholarship athletes, in the most recent compilation, ranked first among schools playing division 1A football.  Rice's average SAT for scholarship basketball players ranked first.  Football ranked in the top five.  Rice has graduated a greater than 70 per cent range of its scholarship football athletes every year since the NCAA started keeping records on it.

All that doesn't count for much, we know, among most of the people who'll be populating the stadium Saturday.  But we labor on in Division 1A athletics, with our tiny enrollment and alumni base, our difficult and relatively uncompromised admissions standards, and a paucity of respect from a sports media with misguided priorities. Why?

Our alumni, fans, coaches, and student-athletes seem to want to hang on to the outmoded  notion that it has something to do with how you play the game.  Sure, we want to win.  But we can enjoy a crisp, clear October game day just as well, win or lose, so long as we continue to be competitive.  And under Todd Graham, we will be.

By the way, did we ever tell you about our 1966 GE College Bowl team?

--P.T.H.


06uhslmajor1vx35.jpg (60753 bytes)
Rice OC Major Applewhite runs onto the field with his team prior to Saturday's UH game

(PTH photo)

Owls did everything
but win the game

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Sept. 5) – The Rice Owls’ first game of the season has come and gone, but there remains the temptation to look at the Owls’ 31-30 loss to UH and say, "In the end, it was the same old story." But is it the same old story? Very few of the Owl fans who were on hand Saturday night would reach that conclusion.

Last week, we talked about seven keys to this game. Let’s review them and see how they actually panned out.

Getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers: Quinton Smith had a night to remember against the Coogs, rushing for 108 yards with 2 TDs and tacking on 87 more in passing yards, and scoring another TD. Jarett Dillard was also a factor in this game with 4 receptions and a touchdown pass. All the points came through those two primary playmakers.

Another important, yet overlooked item, is the balance of the offense against the Coogs—31 rushing attempts, 26 passing attempts (that’s how it sorts out in the box score after a few quarterback keepers and a few "get out of Dodge" runs).

Avoid injuries: Other than some cramping issues, no injuries of note happened Saturday night.

Manage the game: Until the last few minutes of the ball game, Chase Clement and the Owls did exactly that. One interception in that last couple of minutes and some timeout issues were there only times this area reared its head, and that, despite Coach Graham’s remonstrations over the two called timeouts on fourth down in the Owls’ final possession of the game.

Avoid turnovers: An uncharacteristic Quinton Smith fumble with the Owls backed up close to their goal line and a Chase Clement interception late in the game were not the reasons the Owls lost this game. If the turnover rate were to continue at its present pace, the Owls would still trim off 10 turnovers from last year’s showing in this area. This was an area that the Owls showed significant improvement (there were six turnovers in last years loss to the Coogs).

Defensive Intensity: Once the Owls got their bearings, the intensity was there for all to see. Kevin Kolb was sacked for losses four times by four different Owls—a tremendous improvement. When they weren’t sacking Kolb, they were harassing him and forcing him to run for very modest gains—just enough to avoid getting another sack attached to the stats for the night. The defense, especially the secondary, played well. When UH got its points in the end, it was simply because they were able to make the big play.

Special Teams Play: For those who feel that Luke Juist caused the Owls to lose this game, listen up: he didn’t. While he did have that extra point attempt blocked, he made a critical field goal, and also placed the kickoffs in key areas that prevented long returns (except for the opening kickoff). Scruggs absolutely was great punting—with one exception, and you know which one that was.

The special teams coverage of punts and kickoffs, with the one glitch, was very good against the Coogs. This area looks to be much improved from last year.

Fan Support: Hats off to the students! You were loud and a lot of fun to watch as the game progressed. The alumni came out in droves—and if you ask anyone who was on the sidelines, the paid attendance of 23,532 was a little short in our guesstimation. Both lower decks were almost completely full, and there were some in the upper decks as well as standing all around. Hope that you will all make it back to Rice Stadium and support the Owls in their bid to surprise C-USA teams and become a bowl team.

Summary: September 2 was a date the Owls can be very proud of in many ways. While the final result fell short of what we were all hoping for, it’s evident that this team is going to be a good team this year. Let’s hope for some of the good things that happened tonight to continue, and a few of the glitches to work their way out soon. This team did a very good job with these seven keys. Let’s hope that it carries forward to the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

 

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