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'10 SMU week

SMU 42, Rice 31
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Shades of '09:  Pick-six, blocked kick for TD provide SMU with margin of victory as Rice ends three-game homestand empty-handed , 1-4 on season, 0-1 in league play

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Chris Jones puts quietus on flying red horse (PTH photo)

Sam sets sail
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This night was the night when Sam McGuffie decided to go airborne, displaying his vaulting abilities on several plays, one in particular (MA photo)

HOUSTON (Oct. 3) – Rice’s litany of miscues included a quick pick-six and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against the SMU Mustangs Saturday.

That’s about all one needs to know about the game – long-suffering Owl fans will be able to mail in a report about the rest, sight unseen. The more masochistic of our readers may elect to read on, however.

Like Yogi said, it was deju vu all over again at Rice Stadium Saturday evening, as the margin of victory for SMU in a 42-31 triumph over the Rice Owls lay in the aforementioned pick-six and blocked field goal. Eliminate those two plays, and Rice wins, 34-28. Once again, for the second year in a row, SMU pulled out a victory over the Owls with opportunistic defense and special teams play. It all boiled down to just a couple of them -- plays, that is.

But then again, it didn’t. The two big turnaround plays can’t entirely explain the 42-17 deficit the Owls were looking at as the third quarter clock wound down. They can’t mask the inopportunistic, predictable play calling, the inverse ratio of effort to results, that plagued the Owls against an opponent with whom they physically measured up quite well, thank you.

(Well, not when it came to matching this June Jones-coached team with its cheap-shot late hits, but otherwise....)

Probably the coup de gras was struck against the Owls as early as six minutes deep into the contest. After the Owl defense shut down SMU on a three-and-out to open the game, Rice set up shop offensively for the first time on the evening with great field position at its own 45.

First play, a post route had Donte Moore wide open down the middle, but the pass was just a bit overthrown, and the play went for nought. That took just a little bit of wind out of the sails of the Owls, but the defense still played with tenacity and fire.

After allowing a single first down to the Ponies, they forced another punt, and Rice again took possession, but this time deep in their own territory. On second and five from his 15, quarterback Nick Fanuzzi threw a pass that simply got away from him, sailing high over Luke Willson, his intended receiver.  Sailing just about as high was SMU defender Sterling Moore,  who speared the interception and proceeded to thread his way down the home team sideline for 32 yards and the score, to make it 7-0, SMU.

That pickoff was like a shot of valium to both the Rice offense and the majority of Owl fans in the stands.

The blocked punt for a TD occurred midway in the third quarter, and it was just as numbing – and even more lethal.

McGuffie rolled, but so did ball -- onto the turf

At the time, SMU was entertaining a 21-10 lead, but the Owls were driving. Starting at their 30, they moved as far as the Pony three yard line, paced by runs of eight, 14 and 15 yards by Sam McGuffie, plus a couple of gutty scrambles by Nick Fanuzzi,  each of them having been attained mostly by force of their own second efforts.

On first and goal from the three, Owl coaches called for a pitchout to Sam, swinging wide. An SMU defender managed in get into the lane, disrupting the pitch. Sam had it on his fingertips for a moment, but the pill managed to fall to the floor. Eleven yards behind the line of scrimmage,  it was all Nick could do to fall on the ball and take the loss.

Two shots in the end zone failed to connect, so instead of 21-17, the Owls lined up for what appeared to be a chip shot, 30-yard Chris Boswell field goal which would have at least brought them within eight. But then out came the yellow flag, and Rice was gigged for a procedure penalty, to which later Coach Bailiff clearly took issue.

But never mind, because with Chris Boswell, 35 yards instead of 30 is still a chip-shot distance. But not this time, because SMU’s Youri Yenga surged in unblocked and smacked Boz’ effort to the turf. It was picked up by Pony Ja’Gared Davis, who took off down the sideline and rambled 77 yards to the opposite end zone, and all of a sudden, instead of 21-17, or even 21-13, the score stood at SMU 28, Rice 10. Game over.

Yep, by the way, that was the same Ja'Gared Davis who had no business being in the game at the time, after he fashioned a flagrant and malicious late hit in the second quarter on a just-enteredTaylor McHargue, reinjuring his newly-rehabilitated collarbone and rendering him once again unavailable to the Owls.

"You take those two mistakes away and this was a winnable football game," Rice coach David Bailiff said of those two fateful plays. "All I know to do is keep working hard, keep showing up our fundamentals, keep believing in these young men and work through the hard times. I don’t know any other way to do it."

Owls would get within a score, SMU would pull away

The blocked place kick marked   not the first time in the game where SMU managed to pull away after Rice got back to within striking distance.

The first time came after the Owls held onto the ball for six-plus minutes and drove 55 yards, midway in the second quarter, to set up a 42-yard Chris Boswell field goal. Klein Kubiak made two key third-down catches on that drive, and Pat Randolph made an impressive, over the shoulder catch on a sideline route for 29 more.

Alas, SMU managed a sack on Owl QB Fanuzzi on second and 11 from the SMU 30, and Kubiak’s second reception of the series, though good for 14 yards, was sufficient merely to set up the Owls in makeable field goal position.

Key tackles by Dylan Klare and Travis Bradshaw shut down the Ponies at midfield on their next possession, enabling the Owls to set up their next drive at the 20, with 3:22 remaining in the half.

Right away, Sam McGuffie and Nick Fanuzzi ripped runs of eight yards apience, and then Donte Moore nabbed one for 12 more yards. In the stands, Owl fans entertained a fleeting notion that Rice might even go into the halftime locker room with a 10-7 lead, but that was not to be.  Instead, three straight incompletions from the SMU 47 resulted in the Owls having to punt the ball back to the Mustangs with a fraction over a minute left.

Immediately, SMU quarterback Kyle Padron lofted a 51-yard completion to his wideout, Al Robinson, who managed to outmaneuver Rice DB Corey Frazier for the ball in a tossup situation. Almost…

"That was a big play," SMU’s two-million-dollar man, head coach June Jones, said afterwards. "We had maybe a minute twenty (actually it was less – ed.) and we were going to take a shot on the first play and if we hit, then I was going to try to score. If we didn’t hit it then I was going to run out the clock."

Well, sure enough, SMU hit, and two plays later, Padron once again found Robinson down the sideline where he connected with him for a 23-yard touchdown strike.

The play, with 26 seconds left in the half, marked the first time in the game that either team had been in the enemy red zone. SMU’s only score, of course, came on the aforementioned interception return, while the Owl defense limited the Mustang offense to three punts and a missed field goal the first 29 and a half minutes of the half.

"With a minute left you have to go out with that killer mindset because you know they’re going to go deep, you know they’re going to get to the sidelines," Owls soph cornerback Phillip Gaines said, post-game. "That’s when you have to be at your finest. That’s when you have to play your technique the best."

"You’ve got to go out there and execute," he said of the 51-yard strike. "I was in the right spot on the post  just didn’t get the ball out. When it’s all said and done you have to do your job and overcome adversity when it comes your way. You have to make those plays."

So instead of leading, 10-7 or even trailing 7-3, the Owls suddenly found themselves behind 14-3 going into the halftime locker room, despite a sterling defensive effort that lasted virtually the entire first half of the game, until Padron connected with Robinson on the bomb.

Owls got second half kickoff, moved, then sputtered

Rice was to get the ball to start the second half, and the Owls did move the ball as far as midfield, thanks to a couple of strong runs by Sam McGuffie and a seven-yard completion from Fanuzzi to Donte Moore. But there the drive fizzled and Kyle Martens came in to punt.

He lofted a beauty that sent SMU deep back Darius Johnson to his five yard line, where Chris Jones laid in a hit on him that jarred loose the football. Phillip Gaines alertly covered it deep in the end zone, and suddenly the Owls, once again, were back within striking distance, at 14-10.

But the rest of the third quarter was a nightmare for the Feathered Flock. A 49-yarder up and over the shoulder to Cole Beasley set up the Mustangs for a quick responsive touchdown to put them back up by 11, at 21-10. And then came Rice’s abortive drive culminating the blocked field goal that spelled disaster.

Down 28-10, Rice came back to within 28-17 after driving 60 yards in 11 plays after the ensuing SMU kickoff went out of bounds. Key on that drive was a 19-yard completion from Nick Fanuzzi to Patrick Randolph on third and ten from the SMU 27.

At the culmination of the play, SMU’s Ja’Gared Davis was flagged for another personal foul (how many cheap shots is this guy allowed to get, and keep playing?), giving the Owls first and goal from the four.

This time, there was no cute stuff on part of the Rice offensive play-callers. Instead, Nick Fanuzzi kept for three and then Charles Ross took it in from one yard out.

Less than a minute had elapsed in the final quarter, and with the score 28-17, Owl fans could begin to entertain hopes, however vague, that this score was the beginning of a three-touchdown rally that would wrest the game away from the Mustangs.

Two quick SMU strikes, and it was 42-17

Any such hopes didn’t last long, however. On the first play, SMU’s ensuing possession, Padron once again connected going long to Al Robinson, and 41 yards later the Ponies were decamped at the Rice 35.

It took SMU seven plays to reach pay dirt, but with 9:18 left in the game, the reportedly fever-ridden Zach Line took it in from three yards out, to make it 35-17.

The Owls tried to reciprocate right away on their next possession, but when Nick Fanuzzi went deep, the ball was picked off by Richard Crawford at the SMU 32. Once again, June Jones elected to go deep on the first play, and Padron again connected with Beasley for 49 yards to the Rice 19. Next play, Padron again found Cole Beasley for 12 more. Then, on first and goal from the seven, Padron hit Patrick Fleming alone in the end zone for six.

Thus, adding it up, one quickly notes that SMU connected on way too many deep balls, despite what Coach Bailiff said he considered a game effort by his defensive secondary.  "They were right there.," he said.  "Philip Gaines was right there. Chris Jones was right there. There weren't broken coverages. We as coaches have to do a better job teaching them how to finish on the top of their routes."

Now the Owls were red-faced and trailing the Mustangs by the frankly embarrassing count of 42-17. But despite the fact that less than eight minutes remained in the game, the Institute boys gamely fought back, traveling 70 yards in 10 plays, then recovering an onsides kick, then immediately covering 57 yards in 12 more plays to make the score 42-31.

A good portion of the yardage on those two drives was traversed by Rice rookies, including receivers Klein Kubiak, Randy Kitchens, Donte Moore and Trevor Gillette. Freshman Jeremy Eddington scored the second touchdown on a short dive from a yard out, as did Sam McGuffie on the Owls’ previous possession

After the game, Rice quarterback Nick Fanuzzi said he had no answer to the obvious question: why couldn’t the Owls move the ball like that earlier in the contest?

"There's no reason why we couldn't have done that in the first quarter," Nick said. "I don't think anything changed. At that point we were much more calm. We went out there and executed. There's no reason why can't do that in the first quarter. There was no change in what we did. It's on us as players and I know it's going to come."

Thus ended the Owls’ win streak of 10 consecutive series meetings against SMU at home, a skein that had endured nearly a quarter-century.

"It’s on all of us," the Rice signal-caller said of his team's too-little, too-late offensive effort. "It’s communicating together, coming together as one, and it starts with me telling the guys and calming them down. Bringing them together and realizing that we’ve got to take it one step at a time and everybody do their eleventh. We’re going to be good if we do that."

--P.T.H.

Moment of truth for Owls as SMU tries to break loss skein

HOUSTON (Sept. 30) – Perhaps the best way to put Rice’s upcoming game with SMU into perspective is to consider it in light of last year’s contest.

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Rice stayed winless in suffering a 31-28 loss to the Mustangs in Dallas, in a game where the Owls clearly were the better team. It was a game, though, in which Rice suffered three blocked place kicks, one of which was returned for a Pony touchdown.

Do the math – the result was an up-to-16-point turnaround that handed the game to an SMU team that, at least on that day, was the clearly inferior combatant. You can check the stats.

SMU enters Saturday’s contest as a solid favorite, despite the fact that the Ponies have not won at Rice Stadium since 1986. But there are several dozen returning veterans who’ll be decked in blue and gray, come kickoff, and who were on the field at Ford Stadium last October. To a man, they’ll know that they feature at least equal, if not superior, on-field talent, compared to the team they’ll be facing.

Be that as it may, self-defeating antics such as the aforementioned blocked place-kick trifecta have been the byword thus far in a frustrating September for the Owls.

"Rice can't beat Rice," Rice head coach David Bailiff said after the Owls beat themselves 30-13 against Baylor last week. "You can't have that. It starts with me and has to filter down. It's unacceptable ... we have to eliminate those mistakes that are costing us points and costing us yardage."

It seems the moment of truth for this 2010 season, for this Rice Owl team, has arrived.

Win would mean Owls have held serve through first 5 games

Cut out the silly mistakes, make good decisions, win the turnover and special teams battles, and Rice walks out of this upcoming contest with a win, making them 1-0 in Conference USA play, with a 2-3 season record that basically equates to holding serve against a tough, non-conference slate.

But play with the same intensity, awareness and intelligence level displayed in their two consecutive home losses against BCS foes Northwestern and Baylor, and it’ll be time to dig out the "Rice can’t beat Rice" mantra, post-game, once again.

Beyond that, the Owls will be 1-4 on the season, 0-1 in conference play – and the rest of the season will be played more or less for funsies. Forget about a bowl game, league crown, higher press visibility, bigger home crowds, all that good stuff.

Lose Saturday, and the Rice coaching brain trust might as well alternate their three quarterbacks at the starter position, game by game, with an eye toward finding the next Chase Clement in time for the 2011 season.

But in order to win, the Owls will need to slow down a confident SMU offense that has displayed reasonably well thus far in the young 2010 season against the likes of TCU and Texas Tech. The Mustangs put up 24 points  in a loss to a Horned Frog team that currently ranks number four in the nation.

Though scoring at an ample rate, the SMU offense has not been the passing juggernaut this since that typically is characteristic of June Jones-coached teams.

In his first four games, soph quarterback Kyle Padron has tossed for 812 yards and 10 touchdowns, somewhat off the pace he set his freshman year.

Padron does have an experienced group of ball-catchers to throw to, including senior Aldrick Robinson, juniors Bradley Haynes and Cole Beasley, and sophomore Darius Johnson. Johnson, Robinson and Beasley together have totaled 51 receptions for 657 yards and nine touchdowns in SMU’s first four games.

Soph bowling ball has been big factor for Ponies

But a big difference in SMU’s offensive fortune, and emphasis, this fall lay in the power running of sophomore running back Zach Line. In his first four games this fall, the big fella (6-1, 235) from Oxford, Michigan, has run for 418 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 7.8 yards a carry and 103.8 yards a game.

Young Zach missed Wednesday’s practice, allegedly with a fever, and his availability status for Saturday is said to be day-to-day.

Yeah, right. Owl fans have been familiar with June Jones’ operations long enough to know that he’s not beyond pulling a little bit of the head game. Expect Zach Line to be just fine on Saturday.

Defensively, the Mustangs are led by something of a youth movement. Sophomore defensive back Ryan Smith leads the team with two interceptions and a forced fumble to accompany his 13 tackles, for instance.

But the Pony defender who’ll have the biggest target on his back, come Saturday, is an immigrant  from Estonia by the name of Margus Hunt.

In last year’s Rice-SMU game, the 6-8, 272-pound Hunt got two of those three blocked kicks, including the kick-six. And he’s already gotten one blocked kick thus far this season.

Ultimately, his heroics last year turned out to be the difference in the game. If the Rice special teams allow Mr. Hunt to get another one on Saturday, they ought to be led on a forced march to somewhere a long way away, like, say, Estonia.

Rice’s veteran offensive lineman Jake Hicks played as a freshman in Rice’s 10-3, 2008 campaign. He suffered through the Owls’ two-win season last year. He’s been around the block a time or two. One may expect he’ll be ready for Margus Hunt and his ilk, come Saturday.

"We’ve seen all the blitzes," he said Monday. "We’ve gone against the best defensive schemes in the nation. We’ve gone against some of the toughest defenses that there are. The learning curve is over. We’ve seen everything; nothing is new. So now we can work on imposing our will and trying to dominate every person every play."

"We’re really just fighting for our reputation and I think we’re getting closer and closer," Owls junior DL John Gioffre added. "Like Coach was saying there’re just these little, tiny mistakes, and none of the scores of the games really justify how much we were in the games.

"An outsider would think that we’re losing and we’re going to have this losing mentality, but that’s not it at all. We have this tough schedule so that we’re already prepared for the rest of our season. Hopefully, ideally, what Coach planned for us to do is we’re not going to see anything we haven’t seen already."

"When you look at our preseason schedule you hope to win them all, and we’ve been in them all," Coach Bailiff insisted. "We talked as a staff that we wanted to come out of that at least 2-2, but we’ve been the underdog every week though. We’re 1-3 and we’ve got to get on a roll like we did in ’08 and like they did in ’06. We’ve been here before."

"Nobody is panicked."

Panic definitely wouldn't be the order of the day.  But a healthy recollection of the way last year's game turned out -- and a firm resolution to eliminate such sort of miscues -- would go a long way toward setting the Owls' minds right, as they enter Saturday's very important game.

--P.T.H.

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