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Rice-Texas A&M week

Texas A&M 52, Rice 31
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Owls start strong, roll on offense, but unforced errors allow Aggies to break open close game, coast to win
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Owl LB Michael Kutzler storms through his blocker and makes solo sack of Johnny Football (Mark Anderson photo)

COLLEGE STATION (Sept. 1) – If Rice head coach David Bailiff's standard for success is to finish each game a better team than when the Owls start it, then Saturday’s neighborhood scuffle with the Texas Aggies can only be classified as an abject failure.

That’s only because there’s no way the Owls could have come out of the starting blocks any better than they did.

Rice gamely took the field before 87,000 screaming fans at Kyle Field Saturday in hundred-degree weather, and picked right up where they left off in the Armed Forces Bowl last December, a 33-14 whipping of the Air Force Academy.

This day, the Owls came out chewing up yardage, with impressive touchdown drives the first two times they touched the ball. The first went 96 yards in only five plays. The second went five-for-57.

Meanwhile, the Rice defense was getting one-first-down-and-outs in two out of the first three possessions by the homestanding, seventh-ranked Aggies.

Hard to improve on that, or even match it. And don’t give us that hooey about A&M’s missing all those defensive starters. Rice was missing its top three defensive starters as well – and Rice’s three were more integral to the defensive scheme than was A&M’s six or 50 or however many.

In fact, the Boys from South Main were only an unforced error or two from going up 21-7 late in the first quarter, and boy, howdy, how that would stunned the local Johnny Football-can-do-no-wrong fanatics.

"I'm really pleased with how this football game started," an obviously satisfied Coach Bailiff said in his postgame press conference.. "But then I thought we lost focus in the second quarter."

Aye, there’s the rub.

The confidence was there, all game long. The capital "E" for effort was displayed from opening kickoff until the final gun. Unfortunately between those two time markers, there were times when the Rice offense regressed back into its typical, early September, discombobulated form, while the defense from time to time began t.o be a bit too ready to bite on fakes, find themselves out of position, and get beat one-on-one. No shame in that, as A&M has talented athletics up and down the depth chart.

But so does Rice, if this game were to be any indication.

Second-quarter lapses notwithstanding, Owls were in game at halftime

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Rice QB Taylor McHargue threads sideline en route to 57-yard run on Owls' first possession (Mark Anderson photo)

 

Despite second-quarter offensive and defensive gaffes which allowed A&M to methodically march to a one-touchdown lead, all the Farmers were able to take into the halftime locker room was a 28-21 lead. After Jordan Taylor’s circus TD catch of a caromed ball brought the Owls to within that one TD, the almost gave the Farmers an even closer halftime shave when Alex Francis knocked A&M scatback loose from the ball on the ensuing kickoff and Zach Patt grabbed the fumble recovery.

However, the wind suddenly swirled up and so with four seconds remaining in the half, Chris Boswell uncharacteristically missed wide right his hurried 46-yard field goal attempt.

The Boz did get into the act with a 43-yarder at the end of a Driphus Jackson-engineered drive which brought the final score to 52-31 – a three-touchdown loss, thought beating the betting spread.

But never mind – at halftime the game was still well within reach and the sense in the stands and on the home sideline was that, come his third-quarter re-entry, Johnny Manziel would have his work cut out for him.

After such a rollicking first-quarter blastoff, the Owls came out to receive the second half kickoff and immediately laid an egg – in fact several of them. Two incomplete Taylor McHargue passes were followed by an interception on an overthrow, picked off by Tramain Jacobs at the Owl 40. Now it was time for Johnny Football to make his 2013 debut, much to the delight of the crowd.

Manziel picked up 12 and seven yards on successive scrambles, but then threw an incompletion and on third and three from the Rice 21, Johnny Football was rudely bumped to the earth by Michael Kutzler, a sack for a loss of five.

Taylor Bertelot banged through his field goal attempt from 44 yards out, though, and the Owls suddenly were down 31-21.

On Rice’s next possession, Charles Ross carried twice for first down yardage up the middle, but then was dropped for a loss of two testing the outside. On second down, T-Mac managed to overthrow his primary received when he tried to mortar the ball over an Aggie linebacker who’d maneuvered into the line of fire. The pass sailed and was picked off at midfield by Clay Hunnicut, who got back as far as the Owl 34.

Two plays later, on third and seven at the Rice 31, Manziel dropped back but then scrambled out of the pocket. Owl linebacker Nick Elder came up to meet him and bring him down but not before he’d picked up eight yards and kept the drive alive.

This appears to be the sequence Nick tweeted about after the game, ostensibly in support of Manziel when the tweet said Johnny just told him, "good hit, Nick," or words to such effect. On the video, it appeared to the media types -- at least the ones who work for ESPN – that he was appearing to mimic signing an autograph as he got up mouth flapping and backed away from the Owl defender. But not so, according to Nick Elder.

The Aggie literati took that tweet to heart and declared it a complete exoneration of all stunts pulled by Johnny Football for the remainder of his time in the game. But check the game film – the tackle of which the tweet refers happened only on the second A&M possession of the third quarter.

It was a possession that got Johnny Football good and going, however, as he found his receiver Mike Evans across the middle at the 10 yard line and despite being shoestringed, the Aggie wideout managed to vault over the goal line and, just like that, it was 38-21, Ags, and the Owls’ chances this day appeared to be quickly frittering away.

"You just can't start a half like that when you are at Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel is coming on the field," Coach Bailiff said afterwards.

Charles Ross came through consistently for Owls

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Derek Brown skies hight to break up pass (Mark Anderson photo)

But at least momentarily, the Owls were able to crank up their offense again behind the running of Charles Ross, reaching midfield before being forced to punt. Rookie punter James Farrimond appeared to be coached to just put the ball in the end zone and avoid the runback, and at least in this case, that’s exactly what he did.

Taking on the Aggie offense at the A&M 20, the Rice defense showed Moxie as they forced an incompletion on first down, whereupon Michael Kutzler nabbed Ag receiver Jeremy Tabuyo for short yardage. Then on third and long, Christian Covington merely whipped his all-SEC defender one-on-one and smothered Manziel for a loss of seven.

Still, A&M at that point once again rose to the occasion, getting the benefit of a 77-yard Drew Kaser punt to the Rice eight yard line where it was returned back to the 19 by Jeremy Callahan.

The Aggies’ played consistently error-free, or at least error-minimized, football like that for just about the entire afternoon. They had only one turnover, the aforementioned strip of a kickoff-returning Ben Malena right before the half, but other than that, turnovers were avoided, guys stayed in position, and mental breakdowns and penalties were few.

Now it must be said that if you are blocking for a scrambling, Heisman-winning quarterback, you do stand to receive just a leetle bit of leeway on the holding front. Like if you grab your defender by the back of the shoulder pads and whack him to the ground and then Johnny scrambles right past your spot in spectacular fashion, you, fair defender, are merely the recipient of a phenomenon known to psychologists as the "halo effect," which is self-explanatory though it hardly seems applicable to a little devil like Johnny Football.

At that point, working from the Rice 19, Driphus Jackson and Darik Dillard came in to spell T-Mac and Charles Ross, who were more than a little sun-dried by then.

The two backups promptly engineered a 13-play, 80-yard drive. Jarrett’s little brother picked up 33 of those yards, but the third quarter ended with the Owls facing second and goal from the Aggie one yard line, and with the change of quarters it was Charles Ross’ turn for some more playing time.

He obliged by vaulting across the goal line first play of the fourth quarter to bring the score to within 38-28. And it could’ve been a lot closer than that, given the fact that both of A&M’s third quarter scores were nine-iron jobs occasioned by those two inopportune pass interceptions, not to mention Chris Boswell’s gust-blown failed field goal attempt to end the first half.

It was at that point, however, that A&M revved up its offense and scores on two quick, consecutive drives to take a 52-28 lead and effectively put the game away.

The first went 93 yards in six plays, Manziel hitting Ben Malena from 18 yards out for the score.

Rice took the kickoff deep in its own territory and advanced as far as the Owl 28, but on fourth and short lined up with the quarterback off the line; a routine handoff to Charles Ross was met by swarming Ags and the ball was turneed over at the Rice 26.

Two plays later, Manziel hit Mike Evans on first and goal from the nine, and it was lights out. But that didn’t mean the game was over by any means, for it was then that the real Johnny Football side show began.

Manziel pointed toward the scoreboard as his jaw flapped away in the direction of two Owl defenders who were merely standing there minding their own business. They replied, though apparently not vociferously and without threatening body language. The officials came in between Manziel and Owl players, and that really appeared to set JFF off. He barked again and was flagged for unsportsmanlike.

At that point A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin immediately rang down the curtain on the day’s performance by his studly quarterback, yanking him off the field and giving him a good chewing out. "He's going to face that every week, with people chirping, and that is not OK," Coach Sumlin said. "Obviously, I addressed that on the sideline right after the play."

Manziel's action took place mostly between plays

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So the final tally showed three Johnny Manziel touchdown passes on the day, but it was mostly short-field work for Johnny Football. And most of the commentary by the TV talking heads after the game was in regard to his pugnacious – make that, "punk"-nacious – in-between-play behavior.

Still, Manziel’s entree did something for the Aggies’ level of enthusiasm, Rice players asserted. "I think he set fire to Texas A&M in the second half," said defensive tackle Christian Covington, who had one of the Owls' two sacks on Manziel. "It is a challenge getting to him. We knew he was going to make some plays. We wanted to limit the big plays."

Even so, with the entry of Manziel’s being eased onto the liftoff gantry by Owl miscues, the game was practically out of reach, with, let’s see, 9:48 left in the game.

But boy did things look different on those opening frist-quarter drives.

The Owls had kicked off to the Aggies, but the Farmers stalled after a single first down after Michael Kutzler nailed A&M quarterback Matt Joekel for no gain on third and six. A 55-yard punt by Drew Kaser had Bryce Callahan signaling fair catch at the 12, but he then had to back up to his own four before hauling in the punt on the fly. Oops. Major rule-of-thumb violation.

T-Mac immediately responded by hitting his tight end Connor Cella doing a Vince McDonald act that carried for 26 yards. He then hit Charles Ross for five more, and next, scrambling out of the pocket on second and five, set out on a 57-yard jaunt down the home team sideline that quieted down the early-game screams and hollers. Two plays later Ross blasted in from the one, and the Owls were up, 7-0.

A&M did respond with a 75-yard, ten-play drive, mostly on the ground, with Ben Malena carrying it over from the four to tie the game at seven with 8:56 left in the first quarter.

But the Owls immediately roared back after a nifty, 38-yard kickoff return by Mario Hull set up the Flock at their own 43. It took the Owls all of five plays to go the distance, including a 14-yard reception by Donte Moore, an 18-yard scramble by Taylor McHargue, and then a 19-yard pass-and-run TD to Charles Ross in which he bowled over several A&M defenders en route to the goal.

A&M’s next possession started at its own 17 after an ill-advised end-zone takeout by Ben Malena was snuffed by Broderick Jackson. Five plays later the Ag had managed to get only as far as their own 31, and had to punt the ball away.

En route, Jordan Taylor had a leaping catch for 13 yards and a first down, one of his two receptions on the day that made the ESPN top 15 plays of the week.

But on second and three at midfield, T-Mac had an open Donte Moore down the visiting sideline but had to get off a quick fling when pressured by A&M’s Donnie Braggs.

Had Braggs been blocked out, Moore was in the clear and it easily could’ve been 21-7 Owls.

As it was, the Rice drive stalled and James Farrimond had to punt the ball away. That was the high water mark for the Owls on the day, although much spunk and no-quit was shown along with the unfortunate slip-ups that allowed A&M to take control of the game.

Box score, statistics....

--P.T.H.

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COLLEGE STATION (Aug. 30) – With regard to this upcoming Rice-Texas A&M season opener, our sympathies go out to you who are betting persons. What on earth does it do to the betting line for Johnny Football to sit out the first half only? How is the game affected by the enforced absence of two Owls who're arguably the team’s best defenders, in Cam Nwosu and Phil Gaines?

What’s the line? 26? 27? Really, as Hillary says, "what difference does it make?" as far as the Owls and their fans are concerned.

Owlook
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Tulsa’s 34-7 shellacking at the hands of Bowling Green (Ky) State University Thursday night looks to be sending notice that the C-USA Western Division race is wide open and winnable, so winnable, in fact, for the Owls, that no outcome short of absolute obliteration Saturday should dampen their confidence and enthusiasm for big things to come.

So what would "taking care of business" in the David-versus-Goliath Texa A&M gmae comprise? Whether or not the Owls go against Manziel, let’s be real: a win on the scoreboad is not necessary in this game. Hanging in for a couple quarters, delving a few "ooh" and "ahh" blows on prima donna A&M backs and receivers..

Not getting blown out early in the game, like with UCLA last year. Being able to line up against A&M offenders or defenders, and winning at least a share of the plays.Clamming up some of the more vociferous Corpsturdsmen by hanging around, and hanging areound, so that the game remains at least in some doubt for the home team, say, midway into the third quarter.

We’re not asing for much.  Playing to the best of one’s capabilities. Using one’s experience in making good decisions.  Do those things, and the final score won’t matter.

The Owls will have to do so without the services of the injured Nwosu and the rules-violating Gaines, such as it is. Their absence, as the cliche reads, wll be giving some other youngsters the chance to step up, but it likely won’t help keep the score any closer. And which game would you rather have them be fated to sit out? This one? Or perhaps Tulsa?.

The fact is, A&M’s beef, speed, tools and skills all outpace those of this veteran Rice team,

In 2012, the Aggies surprised almost all of the prognosticators and many, if not most, of their legion fans by going 10-2 in the regular season and winning six conference games in their inaugural season in the Murderer’s Row Southeastern Conference, including a 29-24 road victory over eventual- national champion Alabama, 29-24. Falling just short of garning a BCS bowl invite, A&M traveled to Dallas where the Farmers tore up former Big 12 rival and 12th-ranked Oklahoma, 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl.

The Aggies come into the season opener ranked number seven in the nation, which is the highest preseason ranking for A&M in over a decade.

"It's a great time to be at Texas A&M," Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin said at this week’s press briefing. . "People ask me all the time what about expectations. There's a lot of expectations on our program. For us, that's a good thing. I think you want to be a part of a situation where you have some relevancy in your own league. We work very, very hard at that. The excitement level is really, really high."

However, as the whole nation has had pounded into its heads by the news boys, they’ll be working Saturday with only the part-time services of Heisman-Trophy-winning Johnny Manziel, who drew a half-game suspension for missteps off the field that either everyone out there knows about or no one know about.

In his temporary absence, the Aggies will employ either junior Matt Joeckel or freshman Kenny Hill in the first half.. Joeckel is the classic drop-back passer while Hill is a dual-threat quarterback in the mold of Rice’s Driphus Jackson. Joeckel has garnered enough game-time experience to have thrown all of 11 passes in his college career. Hill was a four-star at powerhouse Southlake Carroll, but a true freshman is a true freshman.

A&M’s top receivers from last year are de-matrriculated, but sophomore Mike Evans caught 82 passes last year for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. The other two projected starters at wideout, Derel Walker and Sabian Holmes, managed to put together only only 14 receptions last season.

Power back Sue, or rather Christine, Michael is gone, but Ben Malena (that’s with an "a" and an "e," not an "o" and an "i") actually was the Aggies’ top running back in 2012, and he returns ready to go.

On the defensive side, Steven Jenkins (79 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one interception in 2012) leads the way, while the secondary returns a corps of veterans in Howard Matthews (58 tackles), Deshazor Everett (56 tackles, two interceptions) and Dustin Harris (49 tackles, one INT). Julien Obioha is expected to have a big season at defensive end, after starting all 12 games last year.

The Ags and the Owls played each other every year from 1914 through 1995. But when the Southwest Conference imploded in 1995, the two schools took an extended vacay from each other. This is their first meeting since the Owls suffered a narrow, 7-0 loss at College Station in ‘95.

Rice’s last win over A&M occurred also at Kyle Field, back in 1980, when the Flock picked up a 10-6 win despite not garnering a single first down in the second half. Since then, the Aggies have won 15 in a row.

--P.T.H.

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HOUSTON (Aug. 28) – There’s hardly an Owl who's now alive who doesn’t remember that famous day and year.

It was the ‘73 One Day War, the day the earth stood still; Owl band having spoofed precious A&M traditions and icons, Owl team having eked out a stunning, last second victory – Aggie corps having attacked in response with relative fanaticism and staying power, and blowing the whole thing out of proportion ever since.

But surely that Day of Infamy was an isolated occurrence; college rivals don’t attack, attempt to maim, and falsely imprison their opponents over a simple spoof, do they? No such group of former collegians possesses such fanatical adherence to true belief, do they? Well, OK, perhaps LSU fans when they’re roaring drunk – but that’s the alchohol talking, nothing else.

No, it turns out these guys the Feathered Flock are getting ready to meet on the fields of friendly strife Saturday do indeed come from a slightly different cut of cloth. It’s been a few years, but the issue has been tested and proven time after time,   decade after decade. In fact, once upon a time it was an annual rite of passage for your Institute forebears. Truly it was.

Our freshman Year, 1968. This was the first year of the post-Jess Neely era, and on the football field, the Owls were woeful. After tying Washington on the road, 35-35 in game one, Rice didn’t come close to sniffing a victory until that second Saturday in November. Such Saturday was different from the past 14 annual versions, however.

This time, the Owls were going to College Station.

They said it was a deal fashioned personally between Bear Bryant and Jess Neely, but every season between 1954 and 1967 the annual Rice-Texas A&M tilt was played at Rice Stadium in Houston. More Aggies in the Bayou City than in College Station, it was said. And the Farmers just must not’ve traveled well, those Farmall Super C's being so slow in high gear and all.

When the contract expired, the Rice contingent resumed its biennial trek to College Station with no small degree of trepidation. The Vietnam War was in full bloom. True Ags considered the Rice student body to be nothing but a bunch of Hippie Peace Queers, while the Rice contingent looked at the Cadet Corps and saw 5,000 clones of General Earl Rudder, the guy who stormed Pointe du Hoc at Normandy – who just happened to be president of A&M at the time.

In that context, five freshman nerds from Lovett College set out semi-incognito in a flesh-colored ‘66 Ford Galaxy, headed to College Station with a special guest accompanying them – a Great Horned Owl named Sammy the First.

It was the live Sammy’s first foray into enemy territory. He picked a doozy of a place to make his road debut. A phalanx of hoots and catcalls greeted the furtive entry of Sammy and his retinue into the stadium and onto the sidelines.

A&M’s record was scarcely better than the Owls. They’d won a couple of games. The enthusiasm level was so as not to come close to filling up the then two-decked Kyle Field.

But when the Owls started strong and broke out to a 7-0 lead, the natives were restless.

Sammy was restive himself. Held on a tether with a perch composed of a heavy leather, up to the elbow glove, he flexed his talons, stretched his wings, and did the other thing that avians tend to do when left to their own devices.

Down on the scoreboard to the winless Owls, the corpsemen (to use our president’s term) began to devote their attention to something, anything, to bitch about.

Rule 1: no foreign mascot shall defecate or cause there to be deposited defecation upon the holy astroturf of Kyle Field.

Suddenly, th nerds were surrounded by a bunch of senior corpsemen in knee boots and Smokey the Bear hats. "Git that damn thing off our field," the call went out.

"What’s the problem?"

"Look down there, you kin see the problem."

Quickly, a spare football program was procured, and positioned below Sammy’s forearm perch. It got the job done, more or less. But not so well as to be able to avoid strict Corpsturdian scrutiny the rest of the game.

Sure enough, A&M came back, won the game 24-14, and thereby assuaged the Smokey Bear guys’ temperaments somewhat. Post-game, the weanies’ sole goal was to escape Kyle Field and College Station in one piece, with an unmolested Sammy firmly in hand.

Kyle Field at the time was an open horseshoe to the south. Ready escape was available in that direction. The nerds surrounded Sammy and as the hoots, hollers and   catcalls ensued, they quietly hurried down the visitors’ sideline.

Then right at the goal line, in fair territory, on top of the pylon, in fact, Sammy thought it appropriate to leave a parting shot for his Fightin’ Farmer friends. Sploosh!

Vaguely heard by the weanies was a single call of "Kill yer ass!" With that epithet, the retreat broke into high gear, the flesh-pink ‘66 Ford Galaxy was reached, and five weanies and a rather exasperated Great Horned Owl beat feet back to the Rice campus, heaving a sigh of relief as the Hempstead city limits rolled into view..

Sophomore year, 1969. Rice head coach Bo Hagan had just received his walking papers, the Owls were 3-and-5, and those Hippie Peace Queers were on the caper again.

A group of Lovett College sophomores populated the Owl backfield, and they were ready to come into their own. Mike Spruill, Kim Malone, Jackie Laurenzo, Cliff Crabtree and Phillip Wood were all interchangeable parts of a well oiled machine. The only non-Lovett man in the batch was soph Stahle Vincent, who handled starrting quarterbacking chores.

A&M’s defensive line could be manhandled. And the Owl offensive front did just that, providing sufficient cushion  for a ball-control offense to carry   the Owls the entire game. Midway in the fourth quarter, Rice led, 7-6, and secured possession deep in its own territory.

Time to hitch up the mule. Michael Lyn Spruill got the touch, and he got another touch, again, and again, as the clock ticked down. The Aggies stood by helplessly as the Rice offense resolutely kept itself on the field until the final gun.

On the day, Mike Spruill had something like 140 yards to his name, and for his efforts, was named the Southwest Conference Offensive Player of the Week.

These were our classmates, our college mates, our pals. For Mike Spruill to win the SWC player of the week award in putting the quietus on the the despised Aggies was a feat that busted our weanie buttons in pride.

Mike’s the man! He’s a, he’s a....AGGIE KILLER, that’s what he is. So the archi in the bunch, who was handy with a brush and tempera paint, commandeered a white sheet and painted up a nifty cartoon, showing Mike, fierce as a centurion, throttling an Adam’s appled Aggie, eyes bugged and looking for some way to avoid the pain.

"AGGIE KILLER," the cartoon was captioned, and it covered the door to Mike’s room at Lovett College. Tommy Thompson, the Rice beat sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle, caught wind of the sign, and sent out a photographer. Sure enough, on the front page of Monday’s sport section, there was a shot of Mike, standing somewhat bemused, but obviously pleased, as the sign, and his feat thereby was committed to posterity, at least in the Houston Chronicle news clipping morgue, and his mom’s scrap book.

And apparently in the craws of more than a few maroon–pant-suit clad Aggie moms and grandmoms, as well.

Calls starting coming in to the Chronicle immediately. Meanwhile, inside the hedges, the locale was identified but thankfully the perpetrators were not. Toni Paine, the indefatigable Lovett College secretary, presented a forceful defense of more than a few phone callers who found the college office, not to mention a handful of the aforementioned maroon-pantsuit-clad ladies who showed up in the flesh demanding retribution and a piece of that sign.

One may only conclude that in Ag culture, it's OK to use the words "Aggie" and "Killer" in any expression, only so long as it’s the Ags who are doing the killing.

Junior year, 1971. Flash forward to the spring of ‘71. This time the venue was the basketball floor, the recently demised G. Rollie White Coliseum, Jolly Rolly, where the defending Southwest Conference Champion Rice Owls and the up-and-coming Aggies were to slug it out.

Will Rice College sponsored a bus to College Station for the game, and along the way, more than a tiny amount of adult beverage was consumed, and there was an odor of something sweet-smelling and acrid floating through the atmosphere on board. The weanies were quite lively by the time the bus pulled up in front of the old gym, and the Corpsturdsmen were ready, pounding on the side of the bus.

Kind of like the entry-of-the-prisoners scene from "The Shawshank Redemption."

The place was pretty much packed, and the intensity level at a fever pitch. Someone in the Rice contingent decided it’d be a good idea to form a victory line for the team to pass through coming out for tipoff. A line was managed to be formed; apparently since there was no grass growing on the G. Rollie White floor it was not considered sacrilege to tread on it.

But it was an undertaking considered highly suspicious by the local authorities. Several burly campus cops and town police force sidled up to the Rice mini-horde, just knowing that something illicit was about to happen.

The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band struck up the Aggie War Hymn as both teams streamed onto the court. One intrepid Will Riceian, whose name shall go unmentioned for legal liability purposes, raised his arm high and flashed the "V" of index and middle finger that at the time was universally recognized as the "Peace Sign."

"Cain’t do that!" the shout rang out from a particularly porcine-looking peace officer. "Huh? What?"

"Cain’t shoot th’ Peace Sign durin’ th’ Aggie War Hymn!"

Well, that was just considered a challenge by this stalwart weanie. The V-shaped hand signal flashed ever higher, and a number of other Owls picked up the cause.

"Ah’m ‘onna have ta run yew in if you don’t quit that." No answer. "Ah’m serious." Still no response.

With that, on went the cuffs, and this intrepid Owl fan was escorted by a phalanx of men in blue to what his schoolmates thought would be an uncertain future in the College Station City Jail.

It turned out the stalwart was merely sternly lectured and committed to the Greyhound Bus he rode in on, where he spent a relatively quiet evening listening to his transistor radio as the Owls pulled out a 78-77 victory.

So...don’t you people get any ideas. Whatever you do, do NOT shoot the ‘Peace Sign’ during the playing of the Aggie Way Hymn out there at Kyle Field on Saturday.

Got it?

--P.T.H.

 Learning curve banks sharply on Highway 6
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Owls celebrate after '08 Texas Bowl win -- could happier days be here again? (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 24) -- "Football is a game of inches" -- the old bromide was first proclaimed so long ago that not a living soul likely remembers who first said it.

Of course it is a truism. A game played yard-by-yard with a chain and sticks to gauge play-by-play progress inevitably comes down to trivial distances and tiny breaks, big plays notwithstanding. So it is, as it always turns out to be – but not the least of which this season promises to be for the Rice Owls.

During Rice’s two most recent runs of excellence – the 2008 season and the last half of the 2012 campaign – experience, senior leadership, and the simple phenomenon Coach Ken Hatfield used to refer to as "the ability to rise above coaching" prompted phoenix-like skeins in which what previously might have wound up disappointing losses turned into thrilling and elevating wins, one seeming to follow the other with accelerating intensity.

Early season momentum has hardly been a typical feature of David Bailiff-coached Owl teams, which tend to start the season in a slow, lumbering sleepwalk, grabbing their first morning cup of coffee in late September and showing up for work only after the annual retreat of Daylight Savings Time.

Such was the case last year when the Owls lost five out of their first six games, priming the pump against UCLA with a 21-0 first quarter deficit, and ending the nightmare with a 14-10, zero-offensive-touchdown loss to previously winless Memphis on the road and in the rain.

Shazamm. An inch here, an inch there, and the Flock went on to win six of their remaining seven games including a 33-14 smackdown of Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

If recent history is any indication, Rice may be expected to fall flat this season after such a rousing end to the previous one. That’s what happened after 2008.

But there’s a big difference in the two squads. The ‘08 10-game winner was a senior laden team with an experienced first classman at quarterback in Chase Clement. Though the talent level remained static, the experience level fell off substantially in the next season, when the Owls swooned to a 2-10 record.

In fact, Rice has not experienced consecutive winning seasons since 1996-97 under Coach Hatfield.

Went 7-4 both years. Didn’t go to a bowl game.

Numbers add up in the experience column

This year just might break the spell, however, as Rice returns to the field with 23 seniors and 19 – count ‘em – returning starters. Numbers like that don’t pop up all too often in the world of college football.

This time, the quartback returns, in ther person of veteran senior leader Taylor McHargue, amply backed up by redshirt soph Dirphus Jackson.

"We have high expectations this year," Rice head coach David Bailiff told scribes prior to the opening of fall drills. "We've set our goals high. We have those 23 senior leaders that we're quite proud of. We have an experienced football team. We want to win a conference championship and get to the Liberty Bowl."

That present expectation mirrors the attitude brought in by Taylor McHargue when he matriculated with the Owls.

"I was part of the class of 2009 coming off that 10-win season in '08," T-Mac told press the other day. "We came in talking about championships and bowl games."

Alas it wasn’t to be. But the reasons therefor were not particularly mystifying to the knowledgeable observer. The little things just weren’t getting done. Sub-par peformance followed poor preparation. An inch here, and inch there, and would-be wins turned to narrow losses.

But the kids picked up experience along with way. The object lessons piled up, and the perseverance never faltered.

"We never gave up last year," Coach Bailiff noted. "We were in every game and it was just a matter of us continuing to improve each week. We knew we were really talented, we just had to put it all together."

"Winning's fun," he added. "When you win, the world's right, and when you don't, the world's tough. It was fun to see those young men get on that streak because of the hardships they had persevered through earlier in the year."

"We just had to find our identity as an offense and a defense and build some depth."

David, meet Goliath

Now, that identity and that depth are set to meet the sternest of tests in the upcoming season opener. In Texas A&M, the little Davids of Rice are meeting their Goliath, with a healthy dose of Big Bad Wolf mixed in.

Exacting a season-opening win on the road before 100,000 fanatics while facing a returning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in A&M and Johnny Manziel is perhaps a little too much to expect. ("Perhaps"?) But performing at the height of one’s ability and at the maximum level of intensity clearly is not, the Rice mentor has insisted.

"This game can’t be about Johnny Manziel," DB observed.. "It's got to be about A&M, and it's got to be about being a better football team at the end of the game than we were at the start."

After the Farmers, Rice gets a week off to prepare for consecutive, key non-league games at home against Kansas and at Reliant Stadium against the Houston Cougars. The Owls need to come out of that stretch 2-and-1 in order to be fully on schedule to reach their season goals.

And what will that take? A good start, perhaps, would involve not sleepwalking out onto Kyle Field and coughing up a quick three-touchdown deficit to Johnny F’in Football like the Owls did to an only so-so UCLA team in last year’s home opener. And this, against an Aggie team that punked eventual national champion Alabama by a 20-0 mark before the first quarter ended at Tuscaloosa last season.

A few points deficit more or less  frankly won’t be all that relevant Saturday in College Station if this team plays as well as it did in the second half of the Armed Forces Bowl last December 29.

Those  inches picked up in so doing inevitably should come in handy against a Kansas team bent on revenge on account of Rice’s last-gasp 25-24 victory in Lawrence last September. And the momentum acquired via any kind of a win against Kansas can only help against a UH squad that stands to be out-personnel’ed by the Owls a week later.

Inch by inch, as this year’s schedule unfolds, as mundane as  league competition may be, the results could turn out to be considerably gratifying to the Owls, not to mention their long-suffering alumni and fans.

But there’s a big "if." Get blown out to a demoralizing degree in College Station; take nothing out of the game, and there’s no springboard for improvement and increased intensity for the next two crucial, and very winnable contests.

It’s going to be a season of inches for the Owls, if there ever were one.

"We feel good about that,"Coach Bailiff insisted. "What we have to make sure we do is just keep working. The expectations are high. We've got to learn now, with the expectations, how we're going to play the game."

This Saturday, the learning curve banks sharply on Highway 6, just about 90 miles north of South Main.

--P.T.H.



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Rice's preseason league Defensive Player of the Year Phillip Gaines fears no man, including those with bellies of yellow (PTH photo)

Pre-season honoree Gaines
primed for breakout campaign


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Preseason C-USA Defensive Player of the Year and Rice senior cornerback Phillip Gaines is primed for a marquee campaign (PTH photo)

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (August 7) – It’s been a wild ride the past few months for Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines.

After moving to the head of the class with a monster second-half- of-the-season last year, the senior defensive leader for the Owls in July was named by league coaches as their preseason pick for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.

That 2012 season, and especially the part where Rice won five out of its last six games and then tromped Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, was a tour de force for Phillip, as he forged the Owl defensive secondary into a well-respected unit seemingly by sheer force of will – and this, after missing most of the 2011 campaign with an injury.

Gaines was a consensus 2012 All-Conference USA selection after leading the league and finishing second nationally with 18 pass breakups. His pass breakups saved 38 points from scoring, including six touchdown pass attempts plus a two-point try that would have sent the Rice-Tulane game into overtime at the Superdome.

Phillip has proven to be a major asset for a beleaguered Rice defense since the day he walked onto the Rice Stadium turf  for the first time. Now a seasoned—and tested—veteran, Gaines brings not only skill, but leadership and intensity to the Owls’ defense for the 2013 season.

But don’t expect histrionics from the quiet man from Converse Judson. On the practice field and on the sideline alike, Gaines eschews the rah-rah approach. “I just try to do my thing on the field,” he told us, “and hopefully the others try to match my intensity.”

For Phillip, a workable leadership philosophy boils down to simplicity. “When you see your teammates doing well, you want to do the same,” he said. “You lead by example.”

'He's the best coach I have ever had'

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Phillip's breakup of two-point try at Tulane last season pulled fat out of the fire for Owls

And Phillip Gaines does exactly that, not the least of which occurring in his  relationship with Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond. “I give all the credit to Coach Thurmond,” Gaines said of his friend and mentor. “He’s the best coach I have ever had. Mentally, we just know each other, and he lets me do things.”

On the first day of practice, that was clearly evident. When Gaines came off to the sidelines late in practice, the person he went and stood beside was not one of his teammates, but Coach Thurmond, where the two spoke with measured intensity of a shared philosophy.

Phillip is quick to credit his coaching in helping hone his all-conference talents, but he’s also ready to credit the skills and tools of the Owl receivers he has to go up against day after day. “When you go against guys like Donte Moore, [Dennis] Parks, and Jordan Taylor every day—J.T. [Taylor] is 6’5,” Donte is one of the best, and Dennis, he’s great with his route running,” Gaines pointed out, “I just work hard in practice and let the rest take care of itself.”

Gaines sees it all in practice, from the speed-burning Moore, to the precision of Parks, and the physical play of Taylor. If going against these receivers every day does not make you a better cornerback, he noted, nothing will.

Phillip is especially known for his ability to separate ball and receiver – and usually in rather spectacular fashion. Game films showed that last season, he was able to break up 12 passes that had “completion” written all over them. “When the ball is in the air, you don’t want to get caught, so you do anything you can,” he emphasized. “To get the ball out -- that’s just my mentality.”

The mild-mannered senior’s competitiveness comes into play when the ball is thrown his direction. “When the ball is in the air,” he said, “it’s either me or the receiver’s ball. So I just try to make a play.”

Approach paid off with impressive stats

That approach certainly paid paid off when he returned to the field in 2012. For the year, Phillip led the conference and was tied for eighth nationally with 1.50 passes defended per game. His career pass-breakup total of 29 coming into this season is the most in school history.

The 29 PBU’s are tied for the 10th-most in NCAA history since the statistic was first tracked in 2003.

But Phillip has gotten results beyond that of simply making the breakup. More often than not, he’ll do so, but in so doing, frustrate the dickens out of the opposing quarterback.

Gaines’ leadership and play has not been without it peaks and valleys. When he was injured and out most of the 2011 season, it was a time of testing for Phillip. But during that time, he says he also made an important discovery.

“It wasn’t fun sitting out,” Gaines said of the 2011 campaign. “Still, now, looking back, I definitely take it as a good thing -- because I got to sit back and watch a game from a different aspect.”

“You can get experience on the field, but you can get experience off the field too. Injuries are a part of football. I kept pressing and trying to get better.”

But Gaines is not about collecting stats. When asked about individual goals, the soft-spoken Econ major said he had none. But when asked about the team, he had a quick answer. “We need to play as a complete team,” he said, “and not make as many mental mistakes.”

With Phillip Gaines guiding the Rice defense in 2013, that stands to be a realistic proposal. With a tested leader like Phillip, the outlook for the Rice defense is as good as it’s been in many a season – and so testifies Coach Thurmond. The crusty Owl defensive mentor is quick to observe that his star corner tends to lead the way not so much with words, but with his actions.

That’s the best thing you can ask of a leader. And that’s what Phillip Gaines stands to bring to the table for the Rice Owls in 2013.

 

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