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'06 UTEP game page
Rice 37, UTEP 31

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Rice's Bio Bilaye-Benibo forces a rushed throw by UTEP quarterback Jordan Palmer -- the pass went incompete; fourth down (PTH photo)

EL PASO (Nov. 5) – When the Rice Owls jumped out to a 30-10 halftime lead over UTEP here Saturday night, many Owl fans couldn’t have been faulted for reverting to form in pondering the ways that the game might yet be lost. But not these Institute Boys.

Quite the contrary, according to Rice head man Todd Graham. "I thought I'd have to get on them," he said, talking about his team's behavior before the game.   "Because I thought they were a little bit loose. And I was thinking that they were being complacent; that maybe they were satisfied."according to Rice head man Todd Graham. "I thought I'd have to get on them," he said, talking about his team's behavior before the game.  "Because I thought they were a little bit loose. And I was thinking that they were being complacent; that maybe they were satisfied."

"But no, it's because they think they're going to win."

It took a last-ditch, nail-biting and time-consuming seven-minute drive to end the game, but the South Main Men did just that, ekeing out a 37-31 triumph over the Miners before 43,000 sometimes raucous, occasionally ridiculous homecoming fans.

Rice quarterback Chase Clement took another big step on the road to stardom, controlling the Owl offense with surgical precision, tossing three touchdown passes to three different receivers (you can pretty well guess who they were) and finishing the night 19-of-26 for 233 yards with no interceptions.

But the big offensive hero of the night was Quinton Smith. The senior Owl combination race-horse and plow-horse – let’s just say, "hoss" – carried the ball 31 times for 171 yards, and caught four passes for 72 big ones, including a 64-yard, broken-field pass-and-run for the first of his two TDs on the night.

But call him a hero, and Q demurs, saying he’s just the guy who winds up toting the mail sack.

"My linemen were really blocking well downfield for me tonight," he told us after the game. "So they blocked out some of the defense and then all I did was just cut back a few times. They were there up front, and they were doing just a whole lot of the work."

"I was just the guy who happened to score."

Talk to the CEO of the aforesaid Rice offensive line, however, and one gets a different take on Q’s heroics. "It's pretty easy when you're blocking for a back like Q," senior tackle Rolf Krueger was quick to say. "He's probably one of the best backs in the country, so it's not all us."

Rice quarterback Chase Clement had a slightly different perspective. He said that Quinton got a couple of cheapies up side the head early in the game, and that riled him up. "He started to get mad," Chase said, "and once you get Q mad, he's going to hit that hole. You know he was punishing some of those DBs. He did a great job."

Whatever the case, Rice first half stampede, and second-half hold-the-fort, both were the result of team efforts on both sides of the ball, Coach Graham said. "I’m not going to be able to hand out any game balls tonight," he quipped.

Rice defense used blitz to good effect

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Running back Quinton Smith streaks for the end zone in his second of two TDs on the night (PTH photo)

Rice altered its Plan A defensive strategy a bit in this game by blitzing on a relatively high percentage of UTEP’s offensive plays. And, at least in the first half, the concept worked to perfection, as Miner quarterback Jordan Palmer spent a good part of the time scrambling for his life and throwing passes to empty pieces of turf.

Meanwhile, the Rice offensive machine was successful both on the ground and in the air, vindicating the game plan of OC Major Applewhite. UTEP was kept off balance the entire first half, for while the Owls never had to punt the ball in the opening two stanzas, they were able to grind out touchdown drives of 82, 67, 81 and 80 yards en route to that 30-10 lead. Now that’s efficiency.

UTEP’s first-half offensive production, on the other hand, was downright anemic, being limted to 141 yards total offense and just eight first downs. The Miners’ only scoring came on a 49-yard field goal by Reagan Schneider on the game’s opening possession, and one lone TD on an 81-yard drive that was helped along by two trap plays that went for 15 yards apiece, a dubious offsides call on the Rice defense that gave UTEP a key first down, and then a 25-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Marcus Thomas on third and ten.

The rest of the time, the decidedly partisan crowd had very little to cheer about as the Owls set about to run a clinic on how to embarrass somebody on the Homecoming Day.

The formula for all four of Rice’s long-drive, first-half scores was basically this: control the ball with pin-point precision out of the quarterback spot, give the ball to Q every time the read indicated it, abandon the pocket and scramble for yardage when the receivers are covered, and mix it up when distributing the ball to your receivers.

And there was no shortage of Rice first-half offensive highlights, to boot.

Up 7-3, and after beginning the possession with four, straight running plays by Quinton Smith and Mike Falco, on first and ten from the UTEP 34, Chase set up deep in the pocket and had plenty of time for Jarett Dillard to run his circle route which brought him beneath the shadow of the goal posts, but surrounded by a blanketing double coverage.

Both UTEP DBs had a least two or three inches of height on Jarett, but Chase let ‘er fly good and high as JD made his crossing, deep in the end zone.

It looked as if the ball would sail harmlessly into the stadium entrance tunnel, but Jarett skied impossibly high to snap up the ball like a rainbow trout leaping for a caddis fly. The two defenders were all over him, but JD simply made what looked to be an impossible catch and came down to earth holding on tightly.

That one play, more than anything else, took the UTEP crowd out of the game and tended to turn them on their local heroes.

Owl first-half effort something to frame and put on the wall

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And what the heck -- a little congrats are in order  (PTH photo)

Previously, Chase had thrown to a wide-open Tommy Henderson for 17 yards and the Owls’ first score of the evening. And after that, the Owls converted an 80-yard, 16-play drive that was consummated by Quinton Smith's one-yard touchdown dive on fourth and goal.

Rice quickly thereafter stretched the lead to 28-10 when Chase nailed Q on a quick screen out of the backfield, and the senior scatback turned what looked to be an eight or nine-yard gain into a 64-yard, broken-field touchdown run.

Next possession, Marcus Rucker on first down, and Bio Benibo on third down, both caused UTEP QB Palmer to hurry his throw, and the Miners were three-and-out.

Not to be outdone, special teamer Joel Armstrong shook his blocker on the ensuing punt try and surged in diagonally to be right on top of Ryan Hotchkiss’ punt attempt, slapping the ball to the turf with a huge thud.

And, yes, the ball did bound to the turf and roll backwards, but the nearest Owl defender was ten or 15 yards away. Rice’s Chris Douglas almost managed to get to the ball as it bounded past the end line but was a split-second late.

So the block earned the Flock a two-point safety instead of a TD, but was an immensely satisfying cap to Rice’s impressive first-half performance, nonetheless.

Going into the halftime locker room, the Miners were booed loudly by their hometown fans. Actually the booing had started in earnest late in the first quarter when Palmer misfired on a couple of passes in a row.

The atmosphere in the Sun Bowl was more akin to Friday Night WWF Takedown than it was a college football game, as the 40-plus thousand partisan attendees alternately howled down the visiting villains and booed the local heroes when their efforts fell short. None of this polite clapping stuff.

But the Owls couldn’t have cared less as they trotted into the halftime locker room having just displayed their most impressive half of football since the Army game.

Second half commenced with mixed results

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Rice's Andrew Sendejo tracks down UTEP call carrier  (PTH photo)

And the second half? Well, at least at the beginning, the second half turned out to be a horse of a different color.

Rice was to get the ball to start out the third quarter, and a nice, long drive culminating in a TD would have made an excellent coffin nail to finally do in the Miners. But as luck would have it, the Owls only got the kickoff back to the 14 yard line, and from there, went backwards when they were flagged for holding on the first play.

Consequently, for the first time all night, the Owls had to punt the ball, and they had to do so from beneath the shadow of their own goal posts.

UTEP went after Jared Scruggs, and one Miner did get a pinkie or something on the ball, so it only carried as far as the Rice 36.

With the short field, UTEP was able to strike quickly, Palmer passing 28 yards for the score to Dan Robinson – one of their tall wideouts – on the second play from scrimmage, and the lead was cut to 30-17.

That TD strike, naturally, got the wrestling fans worked up once again, after they’d been as silent as a church congregation for most of the second quarter – except when they were booing UTEP players.

But Rice’s reaction to the sudden TD silenced the crowd once more.

For starters, Chase passed to Mike Falco in the flat for 14 yards and a first down – and added to that was 15 more for a personal foul on one of UTEP’s dumbos for throwing an elbow. That put the ball near midfield, and from there, after a 12-yard completion to Tommy Henderson, the Owls took it the rest of the way on the ground.

Q carried the ball three straight times, and the UTEP defenders acted like they were afraid of him. He carried for six, six, and then on the third try, burst through several arm tackles into the clear, right up the middle for the final 21 yards. That made it 37-17, and the Owls were back in command.

But not for long. UTEP obviously had made some adjustments to its blocking scheme during the halftime interval, and settled into a ‘max-protection’  front most of the time when Palmer dropped back to throw in the second half.

That ‘max protection’ scheme can give the Owls headaches – remember the big 35-7 lead lost to San Jose State a couple of years ago in a brutal 70-67 loss that marked the effective end of the Hatfield Administration.

The UTEP defense, in the meanwhile, stiffened only slightly, but that was enough to force a couple of Rice punts.

The Owls ended the third quarter ahead 37-24, and the Rice defense was up to the task for the most part, but the Miners kept moving the ball. What they did was emphasize the run more than they did in the first half.

"They starting running the ball in the third quarter," DL George Chukwu told us afterwards. "We had anticipated the pass all day. With Jordan Palmer and all his passing statistics, we came prepared for it."

But when the Miners did score, they did it via the quick strike. The touchdown that made it 37-24 was the result of a 65-yard drive that took three plays, Palmer going to his ace receiver, Johnny Lee Higgins for the last 22 yards.

UTEP threatened again the next time it got the ball, quickly getting into the Rice red zone via several effective sideline routes. The Miners had first and goal at the Rice nine -- but that’s when the Owl defenders arched their backs and stiffened for what was perhaps their most impressive series of the season.

On first down, Chad Price nailed UTEP’s Marcus Thomas after a pickup of one. Next play, Thomas got five more up the middle, but Vernon James was there for the Owls to save the touchdown. On third down, then, Palmer went the flag route, but the pass was well-defended.

That brought up fourth and goal from the three, and instead of taking the automatic field goal, UTEP head man Mike Price decided that, one minute into the fourth quarter, he needed to go for the six.

We’ll let Coach Graham take over the narrative from there.

"Actually it was a great job; a great call by Paul Randolph," Coach said. "It was fourth and three; we get 'dime’ -- which is actually a long-yardage defense. That was because we knew what play they were going to run; we knew they were going to 21 (Higgins) on the 'pig' route, and we bracketed it. We double-covered him, basically, with Chad Price. And Chad made a great play."

Goal line stand turned out to be margin of victory

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Jonathan Cary fights off his blocker (PTH photo)

That goal line stand by the Owls put some starch in the back of the Rice defenders. But UTEP QB Palmer was threading the needle the entire second half, and he had at least one more bang-bang touchdown drive left in him.

When he passed 26 yards to Dan Robinson for another UTEP score, exactly halfway deep into the fourth quarter, the Miners had themselves another 65-yard, three-play drive. With the score now 37-31, the Owl fans we mentioned at the beginning of the story doubtless had to be thinking ‘here we go again –  1-2-3-kick, and it’s another demoralizing last-minute loss.’

But there was no three-and-out for the Owls this time around. Instead, the Rice offense’s wheel of justice ground slow, and what’s more, it ground exceedingly fine.

Starting at the Rice 21 after the ensuing kickoff, Chase first hit his tight end, Taylor Wardlow, open down the middle for 14 huge yards and a first down.

Then it was time to stay on the ground, and chew up clock. That the Owls did, for out of the next nine plays, seven times the ball went to Quinton Smith, and he dutifully got things in gear, picking up one after another key first down.

When the handoff wasn’t there, Chase scrambled for 11 yards to the UTEP 31. And then facing a crucial third down play from the Miner 25, the Owl quarterback, under a heavy rush, stayed on his feet until he found Jarett Dillard on the sideline, and throwing across his body made a perfect strike to JD, who managed to stay in bounds for a first down at the UTEP 19.

And Q wasn’t through yet, either. Next play, he slashed across the middle for ten more yards, to which a half-the-distance penalty was added when the Miners’ Alex Obomese just couldn’t resist getting in one more elbow punch on the Owl running back.

Rice could’ve easily scored, having first and goal at the four yard line, but why take chances? Instead, after UTEP used its last time out, Chase took a knee twice, and the game was over.

Afterward, Coach Graham was jubilant. "We outplayed them," he said. "We deserved to win tonight. It was obvious from the scoreboard. We were the better team tonight, and I'm very proud of our kids to come in and play in this kind of environment, and win, is impressive."

"Defense has a goal line stand; they come out battling their rear ends off. Yeah, they completed some passes -- but they've got great receivers; they've got a great quarterback. You know, they're going to make some plays."

"But, man, we put pressure on him; we confused him – that's what you call rolling. We're starting to roll and do some things, like that goal line stand on defense."

"You know, after Ja’Corey goes down, now we've got guys 5-7 and 5-8 going against guys 6-6, doing the best we can trying to pressure. But the pressure we were able to put on the quarterback tonight was huge."

"I have no idea what the stats were. I don't care. All I care about is: we're taking care of the football."

"We're getting there. Now, the next step."

"Next step's Tulsa."


Ja'Corey down, but maybe not for the count:  Coach Graham was referring to an injury to Ja'Corey Shepherd, which happened in the first half when the Rice DB was back to field a punt.  UTEP punter Ryan Hotchkiss was sending up dying quails all night, and each time the Rice deep man felt he needed to come up and scoop the ball on the fly to avoid the big bounce.  That led to a couple of frightful collisions, especially considering the fact that the UTEP wide defenders were coming on aggressively.  In the case of Ja'Corey's injury, the field judge threw the flag against UTEP for failure to allow the catch.  But the penalty was waved off when the referee determined that the UTEP perpetrator was blocked into Ja'Corey by an Owl defender.   The ball was fumbled in the ensuing melee, and the Miners wound up with the pigskin.  But the very next play, Brandon King intercepted a tipped Jordan Palmer pass, and the whole scene went for naught -- except for Ja'Corey's injury.  But apparently good news ensues:  on Monday, Coach Graham reported the injury to Ja'Corey's knee was not as severe as initially feared, and that he might even be ready to come back and play against Tulsa on Saturday.

Jared's punt gives Owls breathing room: Senior punter Jared Scruggs got off the punt of the season in the fourth quarter.  With the Owls pinned back inside their 15 yard line, Jared got off a booming 51-yarder that marched back the Miners a manageable 65 yards from the Rice goal.   Coach Graham was effusive in his praise of the Rice punter afterwards.  "That punt was huge," he said.  "Because, you know Jared's cold; he hadn't punted all night. And he walked up, and I said, 'son, you've got to boom this thing.' And he boomed it; and it's huge." 

--Paul T. Hlavinka

Post-game interviewswavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

006toddg1.jpg (14804 bytes) Todd Graham:   "We outplayed them.  You know, we deserved to win tonight...."  
006georgec1.jpg (17697 bytes) George Chukwu: "Defense has to win these next three games, not the offense.  Defense wins championships...."
006chasec1a.jpg (13722 bytes) Chase Clement: "Once you get Q mad, he's going to hit those holes...."
06ucf44tn.jpg (21479 bytes) Quinton Smith:  "The guys up front were doing the work.  I just happened to make the score...."
006rolf1b.jpg (17056 bytes) Rolf Krueger:   "It gets pretty easy when you're blocking for a back like Q...."
006mikef1.jpg (17610 bytes) Mike Falco:   "I think our offense is really starting to come into its own -- at a perfect time...."

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Rice OL Lute Barber executes perfect-10 chest bump in congratulations to Tommy Henderson

who'd just caught TD pass for Rice's first score of the night against UTEP  (PTH photo)

Turning the corner,
one game at a time


By Mark Anderson

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Junior WR/QB Joel Armstrong: 'I bought in during two a days' (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 3) -- The Rice Owls, after getting off to an 0-4 start, have won three of their last four games and two in a row for the first time in a long time. But it's not the fact they won it's how they won that has the followers of the Feathered Flock excited about the future of this team.

While Rice led most of the game against the Blazers, the win against UAB was a thrilling come-from-behind win, with Jarett Dillard scoring with three seconds left. The win against UCF was a convincing win. Whenever UCF challenged, Rice responded and put the Knights away.

It's these kinds of wins that cause the Rice faithful to wonder one question: "Have we turned the corner?" It's a legitimate question.

When Todd Graham came to Rice on January 1, 2006, he made a statement that has turned out to be prophetic. "There's only two things you can control," Graham said, "our effort and our attitude."

Ask those who play for the Owls what is different between this year and last year, and there is one common response,

"Our attitude," summed up senior offensive tackle Rolf Krueger.

Joel Armstrong put some meaning into the word attitude when he said, "The major thing that is different is that we refuse to let all of the hard work go to waste. We went through some dreadful workouts, and I guarantee you that no one on this team wanted to go through all of that grind and sweat to be a losing football team," Joel explained.

Owls sought to develop 'hard edge'

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Senior DB Andray Downs: 'You either had to buy in or quit' (PTH photo)

"When you put so much into a season, you know you will have success, whereas in the past we really just 'thought' we were going to be successful instead of demanding it from our team."

Part of that attitude that has changed has been what Coach Graham refers to as a "hard edge." It includes the attitude of finishing a team off, and playing a game until the last play is over. And that is what David Berken, sophomore offensive lineman, referred to when he said, "I feel like not only are we in better shape physically, but we have been conditioned mentally and we believe that we can finish games and win."

The beginning of this change in attitude started at different points for the players. For some, it was on January 1 when they first met with Todd Graham. Rolf Krueger was one of those players. "I knew we could when with the right system and attitude," Krueger said.

For David Berken, that buy-in came shortly afterwards. While Berken believed Graham from the first day, he actually bought into the changes during Graham's "Tour of Duty." "I would say I believed him when he first talked to us. But I believe I really bought in during our "tour of duty" workouts," Berken said.

For others, however, the buy-in came much later.

Joel Armstrong was one of those players who demurred early. "I definitely felt we could win, but it took me a while to put it in my mind that we will win," said Armstrong. "You have no choice but to believe you can win after you see "we will win" 100 times a day written on walls and on everything else."

But while Joel 'felt' the team could win, he told the Webletter that his buy-in did come later. "I bought in during two a days when I saw how good of a team we were," confessed Joel.

To some, the notion was not an easy sell

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Senior OL Rolf Krueger:  'I knew we could win with the right system and attitude' (PTH photo)

Andray Downs, the senior safety, admits he was not an easy sell, either. "As a senior, I did not think that I would see any of the benefits he mentioned on his first day on the job," Downs revealed. "But as Coach says, you can take what he says to the bank and cash it." Downs admitted that it was during the Tour of Duty that he bought in. Andray put it pretty simple when he explained about Coach McKnight's conditioning program, "You either had to buy in or quit."

What two things can these players be heard mentioning? Their effort and their attitude – exactly what Todd Graham pointed to on January 1.

While Coach Graham has led the charge in bringing real change to this Owl squad, he insists there needs to be recognition of the assistant coaches who have also made a difference.

For the offensive line, that assistant coach would be none other than Todd Dilbeck. Dilbeck's work often goes unnoticed by many. Yet his zone blocking schemes, although sometimes difficult to shift to from the run oriented option of the Hatfield era, gradually has changed what happens in the trenches for the better.

David Berken, when asked about the influence of Coach Dilbeck, offered, "Coach Dilbeck has really brought us together. We have learned a lot, and we are coming together as a unit." Krueger also had high praise for him, pointing out that Dilbeck is a no-nonsense guy. "He is a disciplinarian and I think it shows on the field," Rolf opined.

Another assistant coach who has had a huge influence on this team, and particularly the offense, is Major Applewhite, the offensive coordinator. He is recognized as a model of success, a teacher, and much more.

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Soph OL David Berken:  'We believe that we can finish games and win' (PTH photo)

Rolf Krueger spoke about Applewhite's influence as a model for success when he said, "He is a coach we all can relate to, since he has played the game at a high level and he is a great offensive mind."

Berken pointed out his teaching abilities when he said of him, "Coach Applewhite has really impacted this team. He is a great coach and the whole team is learning a lot about our offense."

But Joel Armstrong pointed to something else in Applewhite his desire for absolute perfection. "Coach Applewhite makes you want to be perfect because he demands excellence, said Joel. "You have no choice but to take in his coaching because he's been there before, and he has great mind for the game. Players respond to his coaching very well."

On the defensive side of the ball, it all starts with Paul Randolph, the defensive coordinator.

Coach Randolph is a member of two Hall of Fames (his college alma mater and the Toronto Argonauts Hall of Fame). The man knows defense.

But Randolph is more than a football coach he's a person of great integrity. Randolph has a passion for the game football (as does every assistant coach at Rice). His players see that. Downs says of Randolph, "Coach Randolph is not just a great person, but a person you do not want to let down, period, in life, because the way he represents himself everyday."

As the players bought into Coach Graham and his way of doing things, a team that couldn't get over the hump at the win column is in the process of being transformed. It's hard to say today, but it is entirely possible that this team found out what they were capable of against UAB.

Ask the players if they believe they have turned an important corner in this program, and the resounding answer is, "yes." Rolf Krueger was asked that question, his response was simple: "I do--I think we are hitting our stride and if we stay focused and keep improving we can win out."

Turning corner not same as arriving at destination

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Sophomore WR Jarett Dillard:   'We still have a lot of uphill battles we have to fight' (PTH photo)

Jarett Dillard believes this team has turned the corner. Yet he answered with caustious optimism when he said, "I believe we've turned the corner, but we're not there yet. We've still got a lot to go," Dillard explained.

"UTEP's a great team, Tulsa's a great team, East Carolina and SMU are great teams. I don't want our team to turn the corner and now we're all downhill," Jarett cautioned. "We still have a lot of uphill battles we have to fight. If we played like we played against Central Florida, we have a good chance of winning. But if we go back in the tank, like we did against Tulane, there will be another Tulane game. So we've really got to play this game, and play it like it's our last," said Dillard.

One of the proofs that this team has turned the corner is in the confidence it now has. "We did not go into every game last year thinking we had a chance," Downs said of the teams' confidence. "But now, we believe that we can play with anyone if we bring our ‘A’ game,"Andrays says of one of the signs of turning the corner as a program.

While the team's confidence is growing, Andray points out that there is a balance here. This is not an arrogant team by any stretch of the imagination, ne notes. "Every week we grow as a team, and I do not believe we have played our best game yet," shared Downs. "When we reach our peak, the rest of the country will take notice."

One thing that stands out that this team has turned a corner is they do not compare games from opponents from this year to last year's results. Last year, Rice lost to UTEP in the final minute on a spot of a fourth down John Wall run. When asked if a win over UTEP would be redemption, Rolf Krueger saw it a different way. "It would mean a lot," Krueger said, "but I really don't take any feelings to this game from last year."

David Berken shared that view. "A victory would be nice because of what happened last year," Berken said. But the difference Berken sees in this game comes down to a game Rice must win. "This is a must win for us right now too so our mind is not on what happened last year, it is on what we want to happen this year."

Joel Armstrong agrees that a win against UTEP "would be a huge win. This is a team that we've played to the wire the last two years. We've never been quite able to seal the deal," Joel explained.

But Joel pointed out a difference. Joel points to the fact that it is not revenge that is the motivating factor against UTEP. "It's not only because of that. The main reason that motivates us is the fact that UTEP stands in the way of our goals and they must be dealt with."

Andray Downs, while focused on what needs to happen at UTEP Saturday, also admits, "We have played UTEP close the last couple of years and got the short end of the stick. It would be nice to give them a taste of their own medicine."

All the evidence points to this team turning the corner. But there would be one "can't miss" way of judging that or not a bowl game appearance. It is understood that this team has to take care of business, one game at a time, starting Saturday with UTEP. While a bowl game is not the end all way of judging whether this team has turned the corner, it is certainly a good measuring stick one not lost on the Owls.

When asked about whether or not they believed this team would be playing in a bowl game in December, the Owls were very emphatic. "If I did not believe we will be in a bowl game, then I might as well quit right now," said Downs.

David Berken put it this way: "I definitely believe we can be there. There is no doubt that we can win these next four, but right now we just need to focus on UTEP."

When asked about whether or not he believed the Owls would go to a bowl game in December, Joel Armstrong replied, "Of course I do!"

And Rolf Krueger answered the question with brevity and certainty: "Yes."

Who would have even dreamed of thinking that last year much less saying it?

The next four weeks will tell if they are right or not.

Owls seek another rung
on way up victory ladder
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HOUSTON (Nov. 2) -- With another victory and a welcome open date safely under their belts, the Rice Owls next travel to El Paso to try and climb yet another rung, this time against the 4-4 UTEP Miners Saturday, in an 8:00 p.m. kickoff.

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Rice's impressive win on the road over Central Florida two weekends ago pretty much buried, once and for all, one would hope, the notions of any remaining prognosticators who'd previously grouped the Owls within the Bottom-Ten lumpenproletariat of Division 1 college football.

Nope, now the Owls can hold their heads high and expect to be accorded the respect that an up-and-coming program such as theirs deserves. Only one problem, though: from now on, playing the other team close won't be enough. Starting this Saturday night in El Paso, to stay with the program, the Owls need to win.

It's far too early and unfair to the players and coaches to use the "B" word in public discussion as a gauge for success this season, but it's not inappropriate for players, coaches and fans alike to internalize some goals.

"For us," senior linebacker Marcus Rucker said Monday, "each game, from here on out, is like a bowl game to us. To get where we need to be at the end of the season, we need to win out."

That's a tall order, but each journey begins with but a single step, and Rice head coach Todd  Graham, for one, likes his team's chances against the UTEPsans.

"We probably match up against UTEP better than we did against either UCF or UAB," Coach Graham remarked, keeping his alphabet soup of school names straight. "UTEP will be very similar to both of those teams in that they have size, speed and are very talented."

"The key is for us is to make them earn what they get and not give them cheap touchdowns. And improve on defense. The team who goes out there Saturday night and plays the best defense is the one that's going to come out ahead on the scoreboard."

" If we can do those things, we'll be alright."

Defensive stats unimpresssive, but so what?

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Marcus Rucker:  'I didn't want to go out of town again on my weekend off, after being on the road so many times already this year' (PTH photo)

The Owls indeed leave a lot of room for improvement on the defensive side, at least statistically speaking. The most recent NCAA stats show Rice being ranked 114th in the nation among the 119 Division I-A schools in run defense, giving up 200.4 ypg. Add to that the 234.4 ypg the Rice defense gives up through the air -- good for 97th in the country -- and the Owls wind up being ranked as the 115th rated defense in the nation overall.

But Coach Graham reminds us that the Owls opened the season against four teams with murderously prolific offenses. And he says he's not concerned about statistics. "First downs, yards allowed, things like that -- they don't matter," he said. "The only statistic that counts is the one you can read on the scoreboard."

With the way the Rice offense has been scoring points in the past four games, it appears that the Owls have a pretty decent chance of simply outscoring each of the remaining opponents on the schedule. And the Rice - UTEP matches traditionally have been high-scoring affairs.

Last year, the then-winless Owls gave it all they had in falling short to UTEP, 38-31, at Rice Stadium. The game went down to the wire as UTEP was able to stop Owl running back John Wall at the four-yard line on fourth and one in the game's waning seconds to pull out the win.

The year before, Rice lost a 35-28 double overtimer in El Paso, in a game where the Owls outgained UTEP 409-274 in total yardage. The Owls completely outplayed the Miners but the locals were basically handed the game in the second overtime period when Rice's Ed Bailey's fumble was allowed to stand despite a personal foul on UTEP the same play.

Diminutive scatback Johnnie Lee Higgins was the hero for UTEP in that game, catching a 25-yard TD pass which proved the margin of victory.

Now, as a senior, Higgins remains the linchpin of the UTEP offensive machine, much in the way that Jarett Dillard fulfills the same role for the Owls.

"Johnnie Lee Higgins, he's like Dillard -- a big time player," Coach Graham quipped. "He's going to be a great NFL receiver, and he's an unbelievable return man. We have to make sure we don't let him beat us."

Higgins' battery mate is senior quarterback Jordan Palmer, who  holds all-time passing records for UTEP.  He's been the captain of the ship in the past two seasons, both of which ended in bowl games for the Miners under coach Mike Price, after enduring years of futility.

The rap on Palmer, before, was that he would make great plays, and then make turkey plays, exhibiting the tendency to throw the interception -- in other words, in the favorite term of Rice OC Major Applewhite, he's often been guilty of "poor ball security."

But not so much this season, apparently. "Jordan Palmer is playing excellent this year," Coach Graham noted. "He's not putting the ball in jeopardy as much as he was in the past."

For the record, he's tossed 11 interceptions thus far this season.

UTEP's road to bowl eligibility not bumpy

The Miners feel they need to win at least three out of their last four games in order to punch a bowl game ticket. After Rice, they go against Marshall and UAB on the road and close with Memphis at home. Sounds doable, even with a loss to the Owls.

Just as Rice needs to improve its defensive output, in order to prevail over the remainder of its schedule, UTEP would appear to need to resuscitate its running game.

With the Miner infantry advancing at only a 74.6 ypg clip, good for 111th in the nation, UTEP has had to live or die with the aerial output of its veteran quarterback, who, it turns out, is the younger brother of NFL standout Carson Palmer

The current mystery surrounding this UTEP team lies in how well they've been able to play in the first half, and then how lousy, frankly, they've been after coming out for the second half kickoff.

On the season, they're plus-50 in points scored, first half, but minus-60 in the same category for quarters three and four.

In fact, in their last two games against UH and Tulsa, the Miners have been outscored 24-0 in the second half -- each game. Why?

"It could be a lot of things," Coach Price said of the Miners' tendency toward second-half swoons.  "It's not any one thing. I thought it was maybe intensity. But, obviously, it wasn't, because we were definitely emotionally prepared and riled up to go out there in the third quarter --- like we never have been in the three years that I've been here. We just haven't executed well."

The expected crowd Saturday night, while short of a sellout, may approach the 45,000 range in the Sun Bowl, so the Owls may expect to be greeted with and treated to a lot of noise for the duration of the game. That may prove to be a challenge to Rice's intricate system of conveying offensive signals from press box to sideline to quarterback to offense.

If the hand signals work OK and UTEP hasn't manage to pilfer their meanings, the Rice offense should be able to score, nonetheless. It simply remains a question of whether they'll be able to score more than the other guys.


Owls back in action after open date
Rice uses week off to advantage,

prepping for upcoming UTEP game

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Jarett Dillard:  'I just wanted to lie down, watch the games on TV -- you know, have a normal Saturday like most guys'

HOUSTON (Oct. 30) -- Looking toward Saturday's showdown in El Paso, the Rice Owls are rested and relatively better off in the injury department, thanks to the just-enjoyed open date, but head coach Todd Graham says that the schedule he and his staff put on the Rice team in the past few days couldn't exactly have been described as a week off.

"We had what we called an extended week, " Coach Graham said at Monday's press luncheon.  "We had a productive time healing up and having more time to prepare for UTEP."

The Owls practiced three times last week before breaking for a long weekend off, a weekend in which many Owl players took advantage of the break to go home and sample some of mom's home cooking, while other took it easy hanging out on campus.

The Rice coaching staff split up and went out on the recruiting trail, catching as many high school games as they could on Thursday and Friday.  But other than that, it was burning the midnight oil as usual for Todd's assistants, last week.

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Coach Graham:  "We didn't take the week off"

"I didn't want to go out of town again on my weekend off, after being on the road so many times already this year," senior Rice linebacker Marcus Rucker told media. "I was just glad to have the time off and be able to relax and catch up on my studies."

Ace Rice wide receiver Jarett Dillard had a different approach to the down time, however. 

"I was ready to go home; I thought I'd just go to San Antonio to relax," the soph phenom said.  "So I went home, saw my mom, saw my father, just relaxed, stayed off my feet -- didn't touch a football; didn't want to play catch with anybody."

"I just wanted to lie down, watch the games on TV -- you know, have a normal Saturday like most guys."

And that's exactly what he did, he said.  And it helped a lot.

For those readers who also have been out of town the past few days, note that Jarett on Friday was named a semi-finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, the trophy given out each year for college football's number one receiver.

"We're as healthy as we've been all season," Coach Graham said Monday.   "Now it's going to be important that the guys who are coming back, don't come back rusty; that we continue to take care of the football; that we continue to be penalty free."

"We emphasized that a lot during the week."


Monday's interviews       

06utepweektoddg10.jpg (29516 bytes) Todd Graham:   'We've got to get the ball to our key guys and take what they give us...'new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)
06utepweekjarettd10.jpg (29685 bytes) Jarett Dillard: 'We're all ready; our legs are all underneath us....'new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)
06utepweekmarcusr10.jpg (28705 bytes) Marcus Rucker: 'We can play four quarters of football with anyone else in the conference....'new.gif (908 bytes)wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)

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