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 Texas A&M 38, Rice 10

Rice's Dylan Klare chases down and sacks A&M QB Kenny Hill for a 17-yard loss back to his own three yard line (PTH photo)
COLLEGE STATION (Sept. 14) – So that’s what the Ags are talking about when they say, “we didn’t lose, we just got outscored.”

The Rice Owls did get outscored by the Texas Aggies here Saturday night, and by a considerable amount, for that matter, falling to the Farm Boys by the seemingly lopsided tally of 38-10. Which leads one to question: how can a team lose by four touchdowns when it outpaces its opponent in total yardage, first downs, rushing yardage; when it wins the time of possession and controls the clock for almost 44 minutes of play?

The Feathered Flock did in fact roll up such a statistical superiority here Saturday, as the Owls stood toe-to-toe with the seventh-ranked Aggies before a mere 103,867 mostly maroon, or khaki, clad fans – all making noise, a lot of it.

They did so despite the fact that the linchpin of their defense, DL Christian Covington, went down with a sprained knee on the first defensive play from scrimmage, and a total of three defensive linemen and a key defensive back all fell to injuries early in the game.

They managed such a feat despite the fact that the SEC officials took Rice points off the board on the last apparent play of the first half, nullifying a 53-yard James Hairston field goal on account of the zebras’ after-the-fact observation that A&M had too many players on the field .

They played on a recently-sodded natural grass field that gave up chunks of turf and deep divots play after play, something the home team might have been used to but the visitors were not.

They struggled on despite a talent differential that, in retrospect the smart guys showed wasn’t all that much of a deficit, after all.

Rice's determination evident from outset

The relative semi-parity in talent – or, if you would have it so, the Rice squad’s dogged determination -- was made clear from the onset, as the Owls shoved the ball right down the cloaca of the Aggie defenders with every first-half possession, starting with the opening kickoff.

Jowan Davis and Derrik Dillard shared the initial honors, taking the Owls from their own 18 to the Aggie 48 on the opening possession of the game."It was just old-time football," Jowan said later.  "You just have to take what they give you, and pound it down their throat." 

At that point, a quick-out from QB Driphus Jackson to Dillard on third and one was inches short of the first down — oops, mind your spot, Derrik – so the Owls, not wishing to gamble at the onset, punted away on fourth and one.

The Rice defense promptly rose up and forced a three-and-out upon the vaunted Aggie offense – in fact, it was a three-and-out that traveled a total of minus 17 yards, as on second and 10 from the A&M 20, Aggie quarterback Kenny Hill was chased down and sacked at his own three yard line by senior defensive end Dylan Klare, who had a monster game.

After the ensuing punt gave the Owls good field position at the A&M 40, Driphus & Co. cranked up the rushing game again, DJ scrambling for 15 yards on first down. Next, three quick completions from Driphus to Dennis Parks and Mario Hull added up to a first down at the A&M 13.

Two plays later, facing third and two at the five, the Rice offensive dcision-makers ran another halfback dive to Dillard which fell a couple of feet short of reaching first and goal. The Owls decided to settle for a chip shot field goal, and the decision came back to bite them, as James Hairston’s attempt from 22 yards out was straight and true. Unfortunately, being launched from the right hash mark, that meant the attempt went wide of the corresponding upright by a couple of feet.

It was a grand opportunity to wrest a 7-0, or at least 3-0 lead, over the home boys, which would have gone a long way to quiet down the boisterous crowd.

Rice head coach David Bailiff afterwards defended his choice to go for the field goal. “At that time, I thought I was trying to win a football game,” he said. “When you use hindsight, it’s always an incredible tool. Actually I told Driphus, ‘from now on, we’re going for it.’ But early in the game, you want to get points and be the first to score.”

But the missed field goal seemed to energize both the Aggie fans and their team, for in response the Farmers launched a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Hill to Speedy Noil to give A&M the initial 7-0 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter.

The Owls held onto the ball for eight plays on their ensuing possession, reaching the A&M 31 yard line before faltering when Derrik Dillard was assigned to attempt a halfback dive on fourth and two. Do we begin to detect a pattern here?

“Where it went wrong,” Coach Bailiff alluded, “was that we had six drives go over eight plays, where we only got three points out of it. We had a drive that was 14 plays where we didn’t get points.”

“Time of possessioin is important when you’re getting points out of those drives. But when you’re not scoring points, then it really doesn’t help you.”

Re-energized Ags came right back

Once again energized by the turnover on downs, the Farmers came right back scored again quickly, striking for big yardage through the air and on the ground. Sealy’s Ricky Seals-Jones sealed the deal with a 13-yard touchdown reception to put the Owls behind by two touchdowns with less than two minutes gone in the second quarter.

This time, the Owls were nonetheless resolute on their ensuing possession. Driphus Jackson hit Jowan Davis for 17 yards coming out of the backfield to get things going. After a personal foul penalty set up the Flock with first and 10 at the A&M 36, DJ found Mario Hall all alone after he’d crossed up his defender, and the resulting 35 yard touchdown pass brought the Owls to within seven. The drive covered 75 yards in five plays, and ran only a minute and a half off the clock. Sammy was cookin.’

With their own energy level thus restored, Owl defenders came out cooking themselves, as Derrion Pollard nailed A&M’s Trey Williams for a loss of two on a flare pass, followed by Nick Elder’s stopping Seals-Jones for no gain, and then an incomplete third-down pass attempt from Hill to Malcolme Kennedy, broken up nicely by the Owls Tabari McGaskey.

With the forced three-and-out, the Owls found themselves in possession of the ball at their own 20 with 10 minutes to go in the half, down by a single touchdown. At that point, they had outplayed A&M in every phase of the game, except for a couple of’s quick-strike drives where Aggie receivers were able to get isolation on Owl defenders.

And Rice did move the ball once again, as Driphus took to the air, hitting Zach Wright for 10 yards, and Dennis Parks for 12 more. When the drive stalled at the A&M 39, JamesFarrimond’s punt was downed at the A&M nine, and it looked as if Rice had maintained advantage in the field possession game.

But this time, the Owls let their opponents of the box, as the Cadets ground out yardage as far as midfield, whereupon Kenny Hill hit Josh Reynolds downfield for a 48-yard pass and run to quickly bring the score to 21-7, with just over three minutes remaining in the half.

The two-touchdown deficit easily could have been taken as “save the equipment” time, but Rice simply didn’t let up, despite the near eardrum-breaking crowd noise.

After Davis and Dillard ground out an initial first down, Driphus scrambled for 20 yards to the Aggie 44, and the Flock, despite being out of timeouts,  was in business as the halftime clock ticked down. But the SEC officials managed to find a holding call on the next play, and with the field and line-to-gain thus extended, and the Owls running out of clock, it looked as if the prudent thing might be to take a knee and hit the halftime locker room.

But Derrik  Dillard immediately cut outside for 18 yards to the Aggie 42. Next play, Driphus hit Derrik for 11 more yards to the A&M 31 where he was able to get out of bounds, preserving the remaining 38 seconds on the clock.

A couple of quick pass attempts failed to connect, and then on third and ten Driphus was dropped for a loss of five by A&M’s Myles Garrett. With that, the only remaining scoring option for the Owls was a long -- and one would have thought futile -- field goal attempt.

Rice placekicker James Hairston obviously had no time to think about it at all as he sprinted onto the field to make his try. He got off a booming kick that would’ve been good from 60 yards out, and true from 53, it put the Owls to within 21 to 10 as a halftime clock expired.

21-10 halftime deficit looked surmountable, but...

However, the SEC zebra stripers had different ideas. After a brief conference came the announcement that A&M had 12 players on the field; that the infraction was a dead ball foul, and thus there was no play. The points were taken off the scoreboard, the clock was moved back to four seconds, and the Owls picked up a 5 yard penalty for their trouble -- but had to do the field goal try all over again.

There were a few problems with the muddled conclusions reached by the SEC officials, though. First, the zebras never whistled the play dead – not before the snap; not after. Second – and of course this is trivial -- but subsequent video replay showed that A&M did not in fact have 12 men on the field. They had 11. It’s a big number to have to deal with, we know, but....

Be that as it may, the play stood – or rather, it un-stood -- and on Hairston’s next attempt, the six-foot-five Ricky Seals-Jones got a hand up and partially blocked the kick. The ball slithered around apparently harmlessly, a few yards short of the A&M goal, but Aggie freshman Armani Watts ran right down, picked up the pigskin, and ran with it down the home sideline, reaching the opposite end zone as new, state-record decibel levels were accomplished by the home crowd.

With pretty much everybody else on the field it, on the sidelines and in the stands believing that the half was over, Watts scooted in untouched for what he, and the Cadet Corps, and the ladies in maroon pantsuits,  thought was a touchdown, which would’ve turned a 21-10 game into a 28-7 halftime deficit for the Owls – shades of the Notre Dame late second-quarter debacle.

But one of the SEC refs did observe that half of the A&M squad had vacated their sideline area and headed toward the dressing room, and a couple of the A&M assistant coaches had in effect thrown pretty decent blocks against Owl defenders as Watts scooted down the field. Thus, the gendarmes voided the return, and a half ended with the Owls down, not 28-7, not 21-10, but rather 21-7 – but with halftime head-scratching instead of locker room momentum being visited upon the Owl team by way of the bizarre ruling of the officials.

Second half?  Slow it down, good D, but only 3 points

Not too much good to report about second-half action, except that the Owls held their own, managed to get on the scoreboard at least one more time, and continued to dominate time of possession and the stat sheets.

The Aggies did have two quick-strike third-quarter drives, traveling 74 yards in five plays, and 79 yards in three plays, to take a 35-7 lead midway through the third quarter.

It was at that point that Rice offensive strategists slowed things down even more than they had in the first half. The Owls took seven minutes to travel 66 yards on the ensuing possession, stalling at the A&M 16, where James Hairston this time nailed his field goal attempt from 33 yards out.

Jowan Davis, Zach Wright, Mario Hull and Darrion Pollard all had pass receptions during that drive. On the night, ten Owls in all, were pass recipients – check the record book on that one.

A&M drove for one more field goal, and then the fourth quarter then played out along the following lines:

--A&M, three and out. Rice, 12 plays 38 yards; time of possession over seven minutes, no points.

--A&M three and out. Rice 13 yards, four plays; time of possession 1:37, no points.

-- A&M three and out. Rice 10 plays 46 yards, time of possession, three minutes 45 seconds, game over with Owls at the A&M 38 yard line.

So that’s kinda how a ball team controls the football for 44 minutes of a 60 minute game, and still manages to lose by four touchdowns.

Word filtered out among the hundred thousand-plus spectators that many Aggies of a betting inclination had laid down the 35 points and put heavy money on the game. One online commentator had prognosticated that A&M would win 75- 10. Another wag commented that Rice’s defense consisted of "Christian Covington and 10 tomato cans."

Those tomato cans held A&M to its lowest point total of the year, beat the spread, and resulted in more than a few poorer Aggies filtering their way out of the massively reconstructed stadium and in to the post-midnight darkness.

“You know they’re the seventh ranked team in the country,” Coach Bailiff mused afterwards. “But you come in here dreaming big, hoping to win this one, and our players really prepared to come in here and win a football game. I was extremely proud of the effort.”

“They’re the seventh ranked team in the country; we just got 400-plus yards. We’ve got to just finish drives and get points.”



HOUSTON (Sept. 12) – Football foes this coming Saturday, both Rice and Texas A&M have been much concerned with national rankings in the past week or so.

After beginning the season with a 58-28 walloping of the then number-nine-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, topping that off with a 73-3 home win over Lamar before 104,000 fans in Kyle Field last Saturday, the Farmers have risen to a consensus number seven in the national football polls. With that, they’re solidly within the four-team national championship playoff picture. Their stock is a definite ‘buy.’

Meanwhile, Rice aficionados have been focused on a ranking of another sort. The U.S.News rankings of national universities was out this past week, and the long-established metric for national collegiate prestige dropped the venerable Institute from 17th to 19th in its poll of top American universities.

When the magazine’s annual college ratings first took place 30 years ago, Rice was ranked as high as eighth in the nation. The trend has been steadily downward over the years, however. It was one thing to fall behind Duke or perhaps Northwestern in the editors’ esteem. But now Rice has slipped a couple of slots below Vanderbilt, and is in danger of falling out of the top 20 altogether.

Vanderbilt? Do they even bother to attend class over there in Nashville on their occasional breaks between cotillions and frat parties?

Said ostensible decline in academic status and prestige brings us, in a roundabout way, to consideration of this week’s football opponent. The context? When Rice was ranked eighth, or twelfth, in the nation by U.S. News, it was in an intercollegiate athletics league with Texas A&M, the University of Texas, Arkansas, and similarly situated institutions. At such time as it slipped to the mid-teens, it was in league with gridiron opponents such as Air Force, S.M.U. and Tulane.

Now that it has fallen to the bottom of the top 20, is it merely coincidental that its conference opponents include the likes of Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky, Texas-San Antonio and Florida International? Is it somehow untoward that when Rice faces old opponents like A&M, it’s of necessity going to be on the road, before a hundred thousand hostile fans, in a so-called “money game”?

Needless to say, the college football landscape has changed massively since the mid-80s, those days of Rice’s ostensible academic zenith. But what’s worse, in the national mien, so much in the way of accomplishment and prestige, and the ranking that comes with it, has become so much a matter of “optics” (a gawd-awful expression).

Despite an obvious improvement in competitiveness, Rice’s “optics” on the gridiron have failed to keep pace. Sure, the Owls won their first outright conference championship in half a century last season (the “optics”: “fifty years! you mean they were that bad for that long?”). But they followed it up with a cream pie in the face performance in a major national bowl with the 44-7 shellacking suffered at the hands of Mississippi State, which the opticians proclaimed was a third-rung SEC school.

Last week, the Owls earned the respect of 80,000 Notre Dame fans with their gutsy, heads-up play. But a couple of blown assignments turned a quite respectable, say, 34-24 loss into a 48-17 pasting. And that one-sided score is all any non-attendee is going to see of the game. “Optics.”

Now it’s the Aggies’ turn. This is a team with a sophomore quarterback in Kenny Hill who, in a matter of weeks, has made his fanatical fans lose their swoon for Johnny Manziel, his Heisman-winning predecessor.

Against the Gamecocks, Hill merely broke an all-time school record in tossing for 511 yards while throwing three touchdown passes against a Top-10-ranked team. He then threw for four more first-half TD’s en route to the rout of lowly Lamar.

And he says he’s just getting warmed up. "The more reps you get the more comfortable you're going to be in the offense," Hill insisted earlier this week. "The more snaps I get, the more reps I get that's more time I get to be out there with the receivers and get a better connection with them."

Well, 790 yards passing, seven TD tosses and zero turnovers in the first two starts of one’s career just ain’t too shabby.

“Kenny Hill isn’t playing like a young kid,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said in his Monday press briefing, adding, “Ricky Seals-Jones and the receivers, they’re just big and physical. I’m impressed with everything they’re doing.”

The acrobatic Seals-Jones has eight catches for two touchdowns thus far, but he’s surpassed by Malcom Kennedy, who’s caught 17 for 170 yards. The receiving corps is deep. Speedy Noll has nine catches, Edward Pope eight, and Josh Reynolds nine, all for 100-plus yards.

“If you watch the perimeter blocking by Ricky and by Speedy, they are a very physical receiving corps,” Coach Bailiff said. “You can tell they love catching the football but they’re also not afraid to stick their face in there to get the extra yards for the running backs.– or for each other.”

“It all starts with their offensive line,” DB added. “Their tackles are so athletic; they’ve done a really nice job of protecting Hill, and then he’s done a really great job of extending the play with his own feet, when he needs to.”

On the ground, the leading rusher is Trey Williams, who in a mere 20 carries has produced 132 yards and two TDs. In all, the Ags have picked up eight rushing touchdowns in their first two games.

“Anytime you play a former Southwest Conference opponent there’s more enthusiasm at practice,” the Rice mentor observed. “There’s a little more interest from the guys on the team and we enjoy going there."

“We learned a lot in the Notre Dame game, and we’ll be a better football team headed into College Station because of it.”

Casual observers are predicting that the additional speed, along with the talent of Hill and his receiving corps, will be borne out Saurday via the long ball, over and over and over again. The Owls were vulnerable to the deep pass against Notre Dame. Unless the Rice secondary has been able to improve markedly during the off-week, A&M might just be able to name the score, and win the optical war in so doing.

And they did punch across four, fourth-quarter touchdowns against Lamar. Was that really necessary?

Players gotta have their reps, Coach Bailiff noted. “So for us to go there and compete, and have a chance, we have to execute, all 11 men, for every play that’s called, better than they do.We’ve got to play at our highest level that we are capable of, because they are a little bigger, they are a little faster– so we’ve got to be the best team.”

Veteran Rice OL Nico Carlson told press he’s aware the Rice offense is going to have to roll up the points to have a chance against A&M.

“If we score 35 points, that’s not going to be enough,” he emphasized. “To really help out our defense, we’re going to have to score points. Especially up front – we’ve got to get the running game going, and help out Driphus, give him time to make throws.”

“We just have to play with a chip on a our shoulders. We did that against Notre Dame; mostly now, we just have to cut down on the errors.”

With such household names as UTSA and FIU looming on the Rice schedule, the “optics” are stacked against them. Would it that the Owls could pull out at least an “optical,” if not actual, victory on Saturday.