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Rice 30, Fresno State 6Owls turn bowl tilt into just another luau in completely outpacing listless Bulldog team; DJ has 300-plus yards, 3 TDs while defense keeps Fresno out of end zone

FOR MY NEXT TRICK...FLAMING BATONS -- Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson took bowl MVP honors; "at times taking the game over," his coach said (Hawaii Media Source photo)

HONOLULU (Dec. 25) – When senior Rice wide receiver Mario Hull gave his chirping Fresno State defender a pop to the chops for mouthing off first series of the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl game, he drew a personal foul infraction that fairly well backed the Owls out of field goal range. By any generally accepted rule of thumb, it was a bonehead move.

In retrospect, though, it was totally in character with the message this Rice team was bent on jamming down the throat of its opponent, reverberating from the opening kickoff.

After a week of R&R on the beaches of Waikiki, when the South Main regiment returned to the barracks, it was, “you touch my footlocker, I’ll mess you up.”

Showing an unusually sharp attitude and edge, the scholars from South Main made it clear to their agriculturalist cohorts from the Valley of San Joaquin they didn’t come to this 4,000-miles-distant bowl game just to make nice.

By the time the sun set over the Pacific and final seconds ticked off the game clock, the Owls had been flagged for a dozen penalties and a hundred yards’ walkoff.

They also won the football game, 30-6, with an asterisk attached, saying “not as close as the score indicated.”

“Everybody had kind of a chip on their shoulder," senior Owl safety Julius White said afterwards. "That was the way we wanted to go out in the regular season. We didn't really play much like ourselves at our last game, so we made this game something that we had to prove. We felt like we had to make a statement."

Julius was referring to a 76-31 beat-down the Flock had suffered at the hands of Lousiana Tech in its final game of the regular season, a loss that had left Owl fans contemplating the Slough of Despond.

But what a difference a game makes.

Driphus put on a show, raised future expectations

Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson gave his teammates -- and Owl fans -- a tantalizing look at what he might have in store for them come next season, given a clean bill of health and the momentum generated by an eight-win campaign in 2014.

The junior from Cedar Hill connected on 15 of 24 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also picked up 41 net rushing yards, thus accounting for roughly 80 per cent of Rice’s total offensive production on the day.

Opening series straightaway, Driphus hit Mario Hull for six and Jordan Taylor for 12 and a first down. Next play, Jowan Davis took the handoff and beat it to the outside for 24 yards. Two plays later, the Owl signal caller scrambled for 15 more and the Owls were in the red zone.

Luke Turner came in to run the Wild Owl and immediately connected with Dennis Parks for nine, then rushed for two more and the first down. But next came a rather weird double-penalty call whereby the Owls were flagged for a hold – plus Mario Hull’s little indiscretion after the play was dead.

That made it first and goal from the Fresno 34 yard line. Tall order, but the Owls showed yet more moxie as Driphus found Zach Wright for 17 yards on first down and then scrambled for another 13 to make it a very doable third and goal from the four. A fade route in the direction of Mario Hull was just beyond his fingertips, however, and Rice had to settle for a 21-yard James Hairston field-goal.

Rice moved the ball its next possession, as on third and 10 from the Fresno 44, Driphus scrambled for 9 yards to make it fourth and short. On the ensuing attempted quick snap, however, the ball popped from the Owl quarterback’s hands and his knee touched the turf as he bent down to retrieve it.

At that point, Rice head coach David Bailiff fairly well exploded, in a manner, frankly, a lot of Owl fans would like to see happen more often. For on the miscued play, it looked as if the Bulldogs had 13 men on the field, as two of them were scrambling mightily to get off the field before the quick-count snap.

The first might’ve made it, but the second Bulldog player had barely passed the hashmarks when the errant snap went down. Coach Bailiff challenged the play, but the press box boys weren’t able to count more than 11 heads on the field from the video view they had, so the play went as a loss of yardage and a turnover on downs.

Fresno followed with a 37 yard drive and a 44-yard Kody Kroening field-goal to tie the game at three with two minutes to go in the first quarter. But the Owls came right back and threatened to put the game out of reach with two scores that consumed only 19 seconds' elapsed time.

Boom, boom -- 19 seconds elapsed, 13 points for the Owls

First, Driphus connected with Dennis Parks on a sideline screen and he rambled 53 yards to the Fresno State 17. Two plays later, DJ found Jordan Taylor wide open in the end zone, and the Owls had their first touchdown which, it turned out, would have been all they needed for the win.

But they came right back and got another when on the ensuing Fresno possession, first play, J T Blasingame played center field and stepped in front of ace receiver Josh Harper to pick off a deep ball toss from Brian Burrell.

Next play, Driphus dropped back and found Mario Hull down the home sideline. The pass was a bit underthrown, but Mario adroitly ducked underneath his receiver and hauled in the pass, sidestepped another would-be tackler, and zipped in 69 yards untouched for the score. That made it 16-3 as the first quarter ended.

"You couldn't ask for a better momentum shift," Driphus said after the game. "It almost reminds me of basketball, where it’s a game of runs; you have highs and lows. We were on an extreme high at that moment. When you have two scores in 19 seconds, and then on the kickoff return we have a great hit, emotions are running high -- and we responded OK."

“Driphus did an incredible job of not only managing the game but at times taking it over,” Coach Bailiff said, “With his big plays and some of the reads he was able to do;  seems like every time we needed a play, Driphus made one for us -- either got the ball to James or got the ball to Mario, or got some yards on the option.”

The Bulldogs managed one more scoring drive late in the second quarter, abetted by a defensive holding call against the Owls which negated a turnover on downs on fourth and seven at the Rice 36. That gave the ‘Dogs new life, but Brian Nordstrom nailed Josh Quezada for a loss of five, and then Dylan Klare came back and tackled the same guy again for a loss of two.

Once again, Fresno State had to settle for a Kody Kroening field-goal from 40 yards out, which made it 16-6.

That score remained unchanged for the remainder of the half, as Fresno State altered its defensive strategy, resulting in the Owls’ getting only one first down and four yards of total offense in the second quarter.

The Bulldogs threatened again late in the first half, reaching the Owl 18 yard line before Bryce Callahan came up from his corner spot and nailed Fresno’s Greg Watson for a loss of three to end the threat. Bryce also had an interception, the 13th of his Rice career, and generally showed up well for the pro scouts.

So it was halftime; Rice 16, Fresno 6, and the feeling was that it would’a, could’a, should’a been somewhat more one-sided.

 'It was just a game of momentum'

“It was just really a game of momentum,” Coach Bailiff explained. “Fresno was adjusting to what we were calling and doing. They were fitting it well. It was just a game of momentum tonight and a game of runs.”

“We had a streak where we just couldn’t run the ball. We ran the ball well in the first quarter and all of a suddenn we just couldn’t run it. All of sudden their “D” line was beating our “O” line. All of a sudden the balls were thrown by Driphus just a little behind. But when you lose your momentum, just change your attitude, and I think that’s what we did.”

The Bulldogs got the ball to start the third quarter, but Brian Nordstrom and Bryce Callahan stopped the wild-haired Josh Quezada for short yardage on consecutive plays, and then Alex Lyons blew in from his linebacker position to sack QB Burrell for a loss of nine. That three-and- out gave the Owls the ball with the lead, but they failed to get anything going on their initial second half possession.

Things got a little hairy the next turn, when Fresno’s Marteze Waller broke free for 41 yards to the Owl 24. But on first down, Dylan Klare blew int o sack the Fresno quarterback for a loss of one, followed by Nick Elder’s open-field tackle on Josh Quezada catching the ball out of the backfield for a loss of four.

That TFL made it fourth and 13 at the Rice 27, and on the ensuing field-goal attempt, Matt Nordstrom got a hand on the ball and spiked it harmlessly into the defensive secondary.

Starting at their own 27, the Owls next drove 73 yards in seven plays, the final 40 coming from a quick screen pass to Dennis Parks who, aided by a key block from Cole Hunt, shot down the Rice sideline for the score. That made it 23-6, Owls, with six minutes left in the third quarter.

A couple of possessions later, early in the fourth quarter, Rice struck one more time, after shutting down Fresno on fourth and four at the Owl 41.

Immediately, Driphus connected with Darik Dillard on a screen in the flat, and he dashed straight ahead for 58 yards, diving for the pylon and narrowly missing it, but it gave the Owls first and goal at the Fresno one. Then fittingly, he got the handoff, next play, and plunged in for the score to make it Rice 30, Fresno State 6.

As is his wont, coach Bailiff then settled into a clock consuming offense for the entire balance of the fourth quarter, which turned out to be a good call, given the fact that the Bulldogs wound up generating zero offense at the same time, neither from starting quarterback Brian Burrell nor his backup, Zach Greenlee. Not with the way the Rice defense was dominating.

“This was an important game for us, after losing out the western division championship,” Coach Bailiff summed up. “These are prideful young men. Nobody really likes to be embarrassed, and I thought after that game that we would respond the way we did today.

“That’s what we expected from these guys, and that’s how we worked. When we came over here to the islands, it was about the work. I mean, we worked. I knew we were focused at all our workouts. And they played hard. It was one of those games where we talked to them all week, too, about words. Words are empty. At this point in the season it’s all about desire.”

--P.T.H. in Houston with call-in reports from Honolulu


HOUSTON (Dec. 23) -- Back when the Rice Owls were members of the far-flung Western Athletic Conference, their biennial trips to Hawaii to take on the local U were hardly occasions for rest and relaxation.

Then-head coach Ken Hatfield was in the habit of spiriting off his team to some remote-island resort, away from the hubbub of Waikiki. The locals were quite adept at making the visiting team concentrate on distractions, rather than the task at hand, and the old coach's approach took such a tactic out of the hands of the alaka'i.

Not a possibility, of course, in the midst of a week-long series of pre-bowl game festivities, which is the position in which this year's Owls find themselves.

Even so, Rice head man David Bailiff says he's pleased at the degree to which his team collectively has been able, like Roy Hobbs,  to keep their minds always on the game.

Take, for instance, the luau night before last. Their minds didn't waiver for a minute, you can bet.

"The luau was spectacular with the native dancers and the fire dances," Coach Bailiff said. "It was a great experience for this team."

Next day, the boys were up and at 'em bright and early for a 7:00 a.m. workout that left time for being a tourist the rest of the day.

"We were really focused today and had 16 sharp periods that had a lot of effort and a lot of enthusiasm," DB said afterwards. "I am really thrilled with the way things are going with the attention to detail we are getting out here at practice with all the distractions that are available," Coach Bailiff insisted. "They're doing a great job."

And afterwards?

"We keep reminding them to put on a lot of sun screen before they hit the water park because you don't want to get sunburned and not be able to put your shoulder pads back on."

You say you remain somewhat unconvinced? Granted, the distractions are unavoidable, and who can begrudge these guys for having a little fun after a sixteen-week-long season's grind? Besides, the foe is being treated to exactly the same enticements.

Perhaps that's the whole point. Maybe it is simply a matter of which team is less preoccupied, come game time, and for Fresno State, apparent lack of concentration has been a season-long bugaboo.

Come to think of it, though, inconsistency was not a problem for the San Joaquin Valley Boys in September. They were consistent. They were consistently outmanned by their first three opponents, giving up 52 points each time in losing efforts to big boys USC, Utah, and Nebraska.

That's a pretty stout "pre-season" dance card, though, and once the Dogs got off of that cloud, they got well in a hurry against BCS-level Southern Utah (56-16), followed by two hard-fought Mountain West league wins against New Mexico (35-24) and San Diego State (24-13).

So it's clear that once the Fresno bunch found themselves going against Conference USA-level opponents, they did just fine.

Well, they did so, anyway, until they reached the red meat of their schedule, then losing to a relatively soft UNLV team, 30-27, followed by a strong losing effort at Boise, 37-27, capped by a 45-17 loss at home to Wyoming.

Never mind, they righted the ship once again, closing out the regular season 6-6 with wins over San Jose State, Nevada and Hawaii. They took a 28-21 home victory against the Rainbow Warriors, compared to Rice's 28-14 margin of victory at home against the same bunch earlier in the season.

That Hawaii win propelled the Dogs into the MWC championship game, where, on the smurf turf at Boise, they were beaten 28-14 while putting up a game fight against the Broncos.

When the Bulldogs were ‘on,’ their offensive attack featured top performances by quarterback Brian Burrell and running back Marteze Waller.

Burrell, the junior signal-caller, has averaged right at 200 yards per game pass, and has thrown 22 touchdown passes, but also has suffered 16 interceptions.

After being benched for the Nov. 1 loss to Wyoming, he came back and started the next game against San Jose State and threw for 207 yards and three touchdowns. He has four 300-yard games this season, the most recent coming in the league title game when he threw for a career-high 332 yards on 30-of-45 passing with one touchdown and three interceptions.  And he does have a strong arm.

Meanwhile, the junior RB Waller has racked up 1,292 yards rushing and scored 11 rushing touchdowns, both figures leading the team. He’s had seven 100-yard games this season.

Among the receiving corps, Josh Harper's 86 receptions this season rank as the fifth-most in Fresno State single-season history. But it’s also 55 more catches than any other Bulldog has this year. The comparison to Rice playmaking pass-catcher Jordan Taylor is thus obvious.

Defensively, and bearing in mind that the ‘Dogs gave up 52 points to three very stout offenses to open the season, Fresno State’s season stats may be deceiving. The ‘Dogs rank 108th in hte nation with 455.5 yards per game allowed and 102nd in run defense at 207 yards per game.

Among leading defenders are Kyrie Wilson’ who led the team with 88 tackles, plus six TFLs, two picks and two forced fumbles.

Then there’s nose guard, Tyeler Davison, a player with Christian Covington-like characteristics – only Davison is healthy and ready to go for this contest. He’s earned first-team All-Mountain West honors having garnered a single-season career highs in tackles (58), tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8.0) going into the bowl tilt.

Over the last three games Davison has posted a sack in each contest, with a single-game career-best effort on Senior Day vs. Hawaii -- 3.0 sacks -- the most sacks in a single-game by a Bulldog in four years. His 8.0 sacks leads the team. He’s led the team in tackles in two games, and at UNLV, registered a career-high 14 stops.

All in all, Fresno State adds up on paper to the equivalent of an upper-echelon C-USA team, and you know how much trouble the Owls had with guys like that,  LaTech and Marshall, f'rinstance. A business-like approach, and one of the seasoon’s better all-around efforts, with the emphasis on ‘all-around,’ will be necessary in order for the Owls to bring home a bowl-winner’s trophy.


By Mark Anderson

Rice AD Joe Karlgaard makes bowl game announcement Sunday (Mark Anderson photo)
HOUSTON (Dec. 8) – Aloha!

That was the word Rice head coach David Bailiff heard on the other end of the phone when Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard informed him Sunday that the Owls would play their third consecutive bowl game, this time in Hawaii at the Sheraton-Hawaii Bowl on December 24.

But Karlgaard also had a word of warning with the call. “You cannot tell anyone for the next hour,” the Rice AD told his head coach. Now that may seem simple. But it is not so simple when you have two teenage boys in the house with cell phones and social media available.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Coach Bailiff immediately retorted. But had a ready solution. Once his boys had heard that Rice was going to Hawaii, he
held his hand out and said, “Give me your phones.”

That solved that problem.

The Rice Owls face a problem of a much different sort on Christmas Eve when they meet the Fresno State Bulldogs for the seventh time in their history.

The first six meetings occured when both were members of the Western Athletic Conference. Rice went 0-6, but most of that was during the final years of the Ken Hatfield era, when the Owls seemed to invent ways to lose.

That’s not the case any more. This team, and especially the seniors, have found ways to win. And Coach Bailiff says he intend end the season on an upbeat note.

“We’re going to play our best, and I know that Fresno will play their best,” Bailiff said Sunday at the press conference announcing where the Owls would be playing.

“It’s an exciting time for us. We can’t wait to get fired up,” Bailiff said.
“We have high expectations to win, to be conference champions and go to bowl games.”

“When you do that, it makes it easier on the next class,” Bailiff said.

Bailiff also gave thanks to those behind the scenes--including housing, the food service, and those that clean. It was clear that he sees this bowl appearance as a big team effort by the entire Rice athletics community. “You cannot imagine how many people are involved logistically, and we appreciate every one of them,” Bailiff said. “We want to thank everyone at Rice. What a great Christmas present for this football team this Christmas.”

Bailiff was asked how he would mix in some of the pleasures of Hawaii with preparing for the game.

“I know there will be special moments for them. But as we get closer, we will narrow our focus from a pleasure trip to a business trip,” Coach Bailiff said.

Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard indicated he was equally pleased. “I’m really excited about it I know our kids are and our coaches are, too,” Karlgaard said.

Karlgaard was asked to contrast the jubilation of Rice’s going to a third straight bowl with the news out of Birmingham this week that UAB had ended their football program--something that may have been considered on South Mainl in years past.

“It’s a great cap to our season to end up in a third straight bowl. If you look at the teams that have played in Hawaii, there have been some very good football teams, so we’re honored,” Karlgaard began.

He contiued, “The situation at UAB--obviously disappointed that could happen in our conference, and I feel for the folks there. I know their athletic director Brian Mackin pretty well. I really respect what Gary Patterson said yesterday after the game when someone posited to him that it was really tragic they might be left out of the playoff.

“He said, ‘No it’s not tragic--it’s sad, but it is not tragic. What is tragic is what happened at UAB this past week, and that’s how I feel as well.’”

“We’ve lost a number of partners o er the years, from the breakup of the Southwest Conference our time in the WAC to the migration of other teams to the AAC,” Karlsgaard pointed out. “This is just another relationship that looks like it may go away.”

“Its another partnership that may be lost, and that’s sad,” Karlgaard said.

Coach Bailiff said his staff was ready and raring to get going on the Fresno State game plan. “We’ve got the coaches coming in now,” he said, “and we’re going to go to work on them.”

Coach Bailiff gave a peek as to how excited the players are at going to the Sheraton-Hawaii Bowl. “Well, I know I talked to Matt Simonette, and he was beside himself,” Bailiff said.

“The senior class set its goals to go to a bowl game. We didn’t put a destination on it--we just put bowl game,” Bailiff said. “So we’re achieving that goal; we want to win a bowl game. It’s a nice way to end the season.”

“It’s about making memories. It’s the last time these seniors will wear that Rice Owl jersey,” he added.

When asked the same question about contrasting the joy of the Sheraton-Hawaii Bowl with what happened with the dissolving of the football program, Coach Bailiff appeared moved.

“Well, I don’t know,” Bailiff started. “You feel for those players. They all fell in love with UAB and that program and now it’s not going to be there any more. That’s a tough spot to be in.”

Thankfully, Rice never reached the point of no return regarding the future of its football program. A decade ago, nobody then would have predicted five bowl games since 2006. Nobody would have anticipated a 2-2 record
in those games, with a fifth game to be played on the upcoming evening before Christmas, as families gather before the dinner, and then the TV.

Little did Rice administrators, sports and otherwise, realize just how unconventional the wisdom of giving it another shot in the gridiron wars, and the results that would stem from it.

But two things are certain.

First, the Bailiff boys did get their phones back. That, we confirmed.

Second, the university switchboard has changed the way the phone is answered. The obvious would have been to change the greeting to “aloha.” But they’ve come up with a better idea.

It’s “OWLoha!”

That has a nice ring to it, wouldn’t you say?


HOUSTON (Dec. 4) – Not bad for a one-time walkon.

Rice junior defensive end Brian Nordstrom, who ranks among the national leaders in tackles for loss this season, has been named to the 2014 Capital One Academic All-America Division I football team as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). The team was announced on Thursday.

Nordstrom, a 6-3, 230-pound redshirt junior who originally walked on to Rice before earning a scholarship and a starting spot at defensive end, carries a 3.63 GPA in Civil Engineering. He was named to the second team.

Brian’s a two-time Rice Honor Athlete, a four-time member of the C-USA Commissioner's Honor Roll and was a recipient of the C-USA Academic Medal in 2012. He is the 15th Owl football player to be honored by CoSIDA since the program began in 1952 and is the first since Travis Bradshaw in 2010. He joins Bradshaw and James Casey as honorees who have played under head coach David Bailiff.

In his first year as a starter, Brian leads the Owls and is tied for 10th nationally with 18.5 tackles for loss, which ranks second in school history behind Brandon Green (21 in 2001). He has 7.5 sacks this season, which matches the sixth-best total in school history.

He has 43 tackles this year, with nearly half of them resulting in yardage lost. His top individual game came in a 17-7 Homecoming win over UTSA when he was credited with a career-high six tackles, including 2.5 sacks and forced fumble. He was named to Phil Steele's All C-USA Midseason second team.

If, when you see number 47 on the field with the name “Nordstrom” on he jersey, and the first name that comes to mind is “Matt,” well, there’s a reason. And this is the kicker.

Brian’s older brother, Matt Nordstrom, was also a former Rice walkon who likewise earned a full scholarship and two varsity letters as a 6-0, 210-pound linebacker in 2009 and 2010. Like Brian, Matt also was an engineering major.