|'06 UTEP game page
Rice 37, UTEP 31
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 couldnt have been faulted
for reverting to form in pondering the ways that the game might yet be lost. But not these
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
"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 lets 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 hes 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 Qs 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
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.
"Im not going to be able to hand out any game balls tonight," he quipped.
Rice defense used blitz to good effect
Running back Quinton Smith streaks for the end zone in his second of two TDs on the night (PTH
Rice altered its Plan A defensive strategy a bit in this game by
blitzing on a relatively high percentage of UTEPs 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
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 thats efficiency.
UTEPs 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 games 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
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 Rices 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
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
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. Rices 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 Rices 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 couldnt 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
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
theyd been as silent as a church congregation for most of the second quarter
except when they were booing UTEP players.
But Rices 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 UTEPs 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 thats 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 UTEPs 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
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.
Well 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
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 its another
demoralizing last-minute loss.
But there was no three-and-out for the Owls this time around. Instead, the Rice
offenses wheel of justice ground slow, and whats more, it ground exceedingly
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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 couldnt resist getting in one more elbow punch on the Owl running back.
Rice couldve 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
"You know, after JaCorey 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
"We outplayed them. You know, we deserved to win tonight...."
"Defense has to win these next three games, not the offense. Defense
"Once you get Q mad, he's going to hit those holes...."
"The guys up front were doing the work. I just happened to make the
"It gets pretty easy when you're blocking for a back like Q...."
"I think our offense is really starting to come into its own -- at a
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
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
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
Owls sought to develop 'hard edge'
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
on way up victory ladder
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
Ace Rice wide receiver Jarett Dillard had a different approach to the down time,
"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
"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
"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
"We emphasized that a lot during the week."
'We've got to get the ball to our key guys and take what they give us...'
Dillard: 'We're all ready; our legs are all underneath us....'
'We can play four quarters of football with anyone else in the conference....'