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Western Kentucky 46, Rice 14
Mistake-prone Owls can't handle WKU's precision bombing attack

APROPOS THE GAME -- Rice TE Connor Cella hauls in pass but is immediately swarmed by Western Kentucky defenders (David Speed Elder photo)

BOWLING GREEN, Ky (Sept. 2) -- It was an achingly familiar pattern.

Incipient drives stalled by inexplicable penalties, a breakdown in execution on both sides of the ball, and the usual deer-in-the-headlights approach to deep pass coverage – in all, an off-observed recipe for failure was dished up for the scattering of Rice fans in the stands who dared to make the weeknight trek to the Bluegrass State to watch the Owls fall to WKU, 46-14.

Granted, this was a superior football team in Western Kentucky, winners of 12 games, league champions, and a Top-25 finisher last season. This time around, the Hilltoppers were true to their form chart, as WKU quarterback Mike White, a transfer who’d started 13 games for South Florida, played like the thoroughbred he apparently is, picking apart the Rice secondary for 517 yards passing on 25-of-31 completions in three quarters of play.

"We knew to come into their home, that we would have to play a great game right out of the chute, to eliminate costly errors, to eliminate penalties, and we couldn't do that," Rice coach David Bailiff said post-game. “They played hard, but when you don’t play with the fundamentals and techniques that you work on in practice, things happen to you.”

Early indications that Rice might be able to stifle a run-oriented WKU attack came when Owl defenders stopped the Hilltoppers cold on their first two possessions.

First possession, first SNAFU

D'Angelo Ellis breaks up pass (David Speed Elder photo)
Unfortunately for Rice’s offense and special teams, the Keystone Kops routine started with their own first possession, as, on third and short, Sam Stewart’s pickup of a first down was nullified by a holding penalty. The ensuing punt never happened, as the snap sailed high over punter Jack Fox’s head, and, in a bit of ironic luck, the ball tumbled for nearly 40 yards, completely out of the end zone. Result: a safety making it 2-0, WKU, instead of an ultra-cheap touchdown for the ‘Toppers.

The Owls appeared to have it cranked up on their ensuing drive when, after an initial first down earned by a 14-yard completion, Tyler Stehling-to-Nate German, TS connected with the German once again on a nifty sideline route for 20 yards and a first down at the WKU 35. However....

The play was nullified when officials ruled Nate had placed a foot out of bounds en route to his reception; thus endeth a promising drive.

That’s when WKU came back with a Number 28. Thing is, that’s a shorthand we’re going to have to use to describe this type of enemy scoring drive for the rest of the season. That’ll save us some electrons.

This one went 86 yard in four plays, first chewing up 45 yards at a pop when WKU’s Taywan Taylor got behind his Rice defender. Next play, a double-reverse flea-flicker froze the Owl defense as White hit his receiver Shaquille Johnson at the Rice five.

Next play, all-league running back Anthony Wales wailtzed in untouched, and it was 9-0, Western Kentucky. Eighty-six yards, four plays.

"They spread you out and worked a lot with the field," Rice’s J T Blasingame told us after the game. "They have a lot of good players, but we beat ourselves." Indeed.

The Owls’ next possession reached midfield before fizzling, but from there Jack Fox’s punt pinned the ‘Topsters back at their 13.

Didn’t matter. In fact, it set the table perfectly for another Number 28. On second and ten, WKU QB White hit his receiver, Nicholas Norris, on the dead run for an 87-yard touchdown romp. Eighty-seven yards, two plays.

“Our issue was when they went into ‘max-protect’; it really wasn’t the trick plays,” Coach Bailiff said. “It was when they went max-protect in play action and then threw the ball down the field. And we’ve got to be able to puncture some of that protection and force their quarterback to throw the ball earlier and we couldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter in that case whether you’re in ‘man or zone.”

Owls piece together 80-yard TD drive

Jowan Davis strides in for Owls' first TD (David Speed Elder photo)
But the Owls came back with a creditable 80-yard touchdown drive of their own, aided by a couple of mugging, er, pass interference penalties against the ‘Toppings.

Tyler’s pinpoint toss to Parker Smith was the key play, setting up the Owls with a first and goal at the four. Jowan Davis drove over from the two, and we had ourselves some semblance of a ball game – WKU 16, Rice 7, three minutes deep into the second quarter.

Alas, WKU’s next possession, although a slight variation on a Number 28, amounted to the same result, as on the very first play, Mike White connected wth a wide open Taywan Taylor for 44 yards to the Rice 21.

Five plays later, WKU’s Nicarius Fant hauled in a quick flip five yards deep in the end zone, and it was 23-7.

The Owls started at their own 35 on the next possession when the kickoff went out of bounds. Again, though -- pull revolver, shoot self in foot, as a false start penalty gave Rice a first-and-15. A plunge into the line yielded zero on first down, and then a Tyler Stehling pass caromed like a pinball into the scooping hands of WKU defender De’Andre Simmons at the Rice 46.

This time it took the ‘Topsiders six plays to cover the necessary yardage, but when Anthony Wales again punched it in from the Rice one with 7:03 left in the half, it was 30-7, WKU, and the game effectively was over, 22 minutes deep into it.

Rice failed to cross midfield in two ensuing second-quarter possessions, and so that’s the way the half ended – WKU 30, Rice 7.

WKU turns semi-conservative in second half

Lyons, Peterson envelop would-be receiver (PTH photo)
The ‘Topsters managed a field goal at the end of two long drives, significantly more conservative in the effort, but that gave the locals a 36-7 lead with four minutes to go in the third.

But the next Owl possession resulted in their only ‘Grade A’ drive of the game, as Tyler Stehling scrambled for 20, hit James Mayden twice in a row for completions of 22 and 11 yards, and then scored himself on a 22-yard scramble to make it 36-14.

Maybe this next turn of events deserve a number, too, but we’ll defer that for the time. For just as the Owls looked as if they might creep back into the game despite a huge disparity in total offense, the kickoff team gave up a 54-yard Kylen Towner return to the Rice 45. Ugh. Deja vu all over again.

With the short field, Western scored again in six plays, White again hitting Norris from 19 yards out – 43-14, ‘Tops.

After WKU tacked on another field goal to make it 46-14, the Owls got off a creditable drive, moving 74 yards in 16 plays against mostly second-string defenders.

On that final drive, the Owls managed to pick up six first downs, but on first and ten from the WKU 12, Tyler Stehling threw a into a crowd beneath the goal post, and the pass was picked off by a leaping A J Jackson.

“I’d like him to take that last one back when he was late on his read, but I thought he did some nice things and he’s going to do nothing but improve,” Coach Bailiff said of his senior quarterback. “He delivered some balls tonight that were also dropped.”

That was it. Thankfully.

Behind Mike White, for the game WKU picked up 649 yards of total offense, 552 through the air, on 10 yards per play.

Meanwhile the Owls were held to 4.1 yards per play and 288 yards total offense. Tyler Stehling was the lead rusher with 11-for-86 yards, including only one TFL for a single one yard loss. But of course, he’s not supposed to be a running quarterback.

The Owl backfield corps looked as if they were slogging through the mud pit of an Army obstacle course, as the Big Four – Dillard, Stewart, David and Aston Walter – accounted for only 43 rushing yards.

Top Owl receivers were James Mayden with four-for-56, and Parker Smith with three-for-60.

J T Ibe and Emmanuel Ellerbee led Rice defenders with eight solo or assisted tackles apiece. For the umpteenth straight game, the Owl defense garnered zero turnovers.



HOUSTON (Aug. 31) – As the Rice Owls prepare for Thursday’s season-opening road tilt at Western Kentucky, a quick quiz.....

When was the last time Rice football won a season opener?

Answer: 2008. Eight years ago. Not even in the championship season of 2013 did the Owls replicate their feat of a Chase Clement-led 56-27 victory over SMU at Rice Stadium in 2008 while the nation’s economy was on its way straight into the tank.

Since the Owls dropped a 14-10 home opener against Division Ten Nichols State in 2007 in David Bailiff’s inaugural game as Rice head coach, that makes the Owls 1-8 in season openers under Coach Bailiff’s administration. Of course, a lot of that was because the season openers almost uniformly were body bag games on the road against the big cheater-bullies of college football.

So maybe that line of discussion doesn't relate logically to the task the Owls find themselves facing in their season opener.  Now, there’s Western Kentucky, a team that themselves bullied the Owls plenty enough on the turf of Rice Stadium last season, taking home a 49-10 victory that some might say wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

It was a game in which Rice’s injury woes fully came home to roost. The litany of walking wounded who were forced to line up in that game is too long and too depressing to go into here. Not with a Thursday night kickoff looming.

"There's power in failure," Coach Bailiff said at his Monday press briefing.  "It forces you to narrow your focus. It forces you to analyze everything in the program. Also, our players now have a bigger chip on their shoulder because nobody enjoyed it, from the president of the university to our fans."

In the loss to WKU last year, the Owls admirably, maybe, stopped the Hilltopper running game with 80 yards total on the ground. But in the meanwhile, Western Kentucky’s senior star quarterback Brandon Doughty passed the Rice secondary silly, picking up 424 passing yards on 28 of 38 completions, including four, count ‘em, first-half touchdowns.

It was a precursor of grim things to come for the Rice defense last season. With the defensive line, thin to begin with, patched up and with its best players injured on the sideline, the Owls wound up allowing more than 3,000 passing yards and 36 touchdowns through the air – a lot of those in the form of the el cheapo long bomb

The Rice offense would drive, say 50 or 60 yards in 10 or a dozen plays, mostly on the ground. Maybe they’d score, maybe a field goal try was made or went awry, but in any case, typically the oppenent would blow right back and score on a bomb, going, like, 78 yards in three or four plays.

That was tought to watch, week in and week out. Will it happen again this year? Not if the Rice coaches and players have their say-so.

"A lot of those freshmen are now sophomores who are a lot more disruptive and understand the game and the scheme better," DB said. "I'm really pleased with where we are defensively, and I'm really pleased with where we are offensively. All systems are go.’"

Owl and Hilltopper fans will soon find out whether Brandon Doughty was the engine behind the WKU offense last year, or just a gear in the transmission. Doughty has moved on to the NFL – Miami– and after trying out four quarterback hopefuls during August drills, WKU coach Jeff Brohm – an old Louisville QB himself – settled on fifth year senior Mike White to call the signals.

White is a transfer from South Florida, with no insignificant amount of game experience. The guy is not a greenhorn. "Mike has done a nice job preparing himself for this moment and operates our offense well," Coach Brohm told press this week.

White has seven returning WKU offensive starters lining up around him, including all-league wide receiver Taywan Taylor and running back Anthony Wales.

Meanwhile, the Owls will be throwing their own fifth-year sentior quarterback into the fire in the personage of 6-6, 225-pound Tyler Stehling, who has seen limited action in previous seasons, passing for a total of 479 yards in 10 games in relief.

Ah, but one of those tosses was a beautiful TD bomb at the expense of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Owls’ 2014 road opener, right before Touchdown Jesus and everybody.
"It's his turn, and I think he's made the best of his opportunity," DB said.. "He's made great decisions with the football in his hand and that's what he needs to do. He doesn't need to be great the first game. He needs to be consistent and get the ball to our playmakers on the edge or in the backfield."

Kickoff is at 7 p.m Thursday night, with national coverage on CBS College Sports.

Here we go.