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Rice 41, USM 23

Davis relentless as offense dominates behind 'one-armed man' QB while defense shows aggressive side, makes big plays to offset continued deep-ball bugaboo

Brandon Hamilton gets a solo take-down of USM's Casey Martin, with textbook form, by the way (Bobby McDuffie photo)

HATTIESBURG (Sept. 28) – The Rice Owls claimed their first victory of the 2014 season here Saturday, 41-23 over the homestanding Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, in a game that was never in doubt, except when it was maybe a little in doubt.

That is to say: the Owls broke out in front at the onset, never trailed in the game, rang up more than 40 points for a second consecutive week, and, with an 18-point lead, wound up shutting down the offensive engine deep in enemy territory as the clock wound down to zero.

Be that as it may, the Institute Boys did exhibit some of the tendencies which factored in losses in their opening three games, among them a weakness in defending the deep pass, a general lack of coherency in the defensive secondary, a difficulty in completing drives, and, for want of a better description, a wee lack of a killer instinct.

But that’s splitting hairs, as the Blue and Gray in fact this night rolled to the kind of win that before the season began Owl fans had been hoping for, and frankly expecting of them, against the rank and file of this fall’s competition. The relatively decisive victory rekindled hopes for a successful run through the conference schedule, although at the same time raising the question, “how in hell did we lose to that bunch at home last week?”

Well, one difference was the more aggressive level of play exhibited by Owl defenders. Last week, the Rice defense, as depleted as it was, also seemed to be going through the motions at times, especially in the first half.

This week, the interplay among the Rice defense and USM offense was a bit “chippy,” with a handful of tussles after play, some words exchanged, even more than the usual roughness, “unsportsmanlike” or pass interference calls.

Normally, that tendency might be cause for alarm, but in this case, rather it appeared to show that this Owl squad henceforth ain’t takin’ no guff offa no-body. And in fact they refused to get out-farm-boyed by the Golden Eagles on either side of the ball.

Each time the Rice defense managed to get burned by the deep ball or some other manner of breakdown, the Flock was able to jump right back off the mat and make a big play – interception, forced fumble recovery, stop on fourth and short.

And each time those USM fellers managed to score to move within striking distance, the Rice offense marched right back onto the field and got some more points of its own.

Those were encouraging trends, and although they were not in evidence 100 per cent of the time, they were operative for most of the night, right from the opening kickoff.

Driphus not his usual self, but tough enough

One thing, too, that was apparent from the start was the extent of discomfort exhibited by walking-wounded, but still starting-, quarterback Driphus Jackson. Having been brought down by a dislocation to his non-throwing shoulder last week against Old Dominion, DJ was sporting some kind of a harness-and-padding gimcrack that practically mummified him from his left collarbone to elbow.

Certainly it was a necessary and appropriate precaution, but, apparently, the apparatus made it impossible for him to raise his left arm beyond a certain point, and beyond that, affected negatively his throwing action.

So garbed, Driphus looked about as comfortable out there as your pet cat with a sock over its head.

Rice’s well-executed opening drive, in fact, was trimmed from a 7 to a 3 by virtue of a bad pass an unencumbered Driphus Jackson never would’ve made.

“I had a few bad throws,” Driphus said afterwards. “But we made plays when we needed them and we took advantage of our opportunities.”

“We're looking forward to putting up more points next week.”

On that opening possession, DJ successfully combined a couple of quick-out passes with positive rushing yardage from Jowan Davis, Darik Dillard and Luke Turner. The Owls faced third and five at the USM 10 when Mario Hull briefly appeared open at the flag. But Driphus’ pitch came up high and inside, where it was almost picked off by USM’s Picasso Nelson.

So the Flock had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by James Farrimond, which put Rice on the board, 3-0, four minutes deep into the game.

The teams exchanged possessions before Rice cranked up a second impressive drive, once again combining the quick sideline pass with Dillard and Davis rushes right up the gut. But on second and nine at the USM 23, Driphus misfired on a crossing route and this time was intercepted by USM’s Nelson, who followed with a 45-yard return across midfield and into Rice territory.

From there, the Rice defense stiffened after allowing a single first down, but USM’s kicker, Corey Acosta, nailed a career-long, 52-yard field-goal attempt to knot the score at 3 with two minutes gone in the second quarter.

Turned out those were the only points off turnovers USM was going to be able to garner the entire game (Rice got 10), and Acosta’s record-breaker was followed up by a precise, 12-play 69-yard drive that consumed just over six minutes of clock. This time, when facing third and 13 at his 42, the crossing route worked, as DJ connected with Dennis Parks for a 23.

The Flock traveled the remaining 35 yards on the ground, going the distance in seven plays, Jowan Davis carrying it over from the six on third and goal.

All in all, it was a productive day at the office for Owl rushers, who netted 215 yards after counting in several tackles-for-loss. Much of that was garnered by the pile-driving Jowan Davis, who netted 131 yards in 29 carries, the vast majority coming after first contact.

“They gave us a 4-1 box,” Rice head coach David Bailiff pointed out afterwards. “When you've got five guys in the box, you're supposed to be able to run the ball. They're very athletic, very fast. I thought the offensive staff did a great job of mixing it up and spreading the field.” True dat, perhaps with the exception of a good part of the third quarter.

Southern Miss countered with a drive of its own, made successful on the basis of a couple of not-so-well-defensed downfield pass plays, Nick Mullens to Marcus Triplett for 21 yards, and then a deep ball from Mullins to an open Michael Thomas for a touchdown from 30 yards out.

That touchdown pass appeared to be of the “here we go again” variety. But once again, Rice tossed another counterpunch, as Brandon Hamilton took the return kickoff and raced 43 yards to near midfield to set up a relatively short field for the Owl offense.

USM defenders obviously had paid attention to Driphus’s bandaged left arm, and noticed that he hadn't used it to carry the ball on the read play, instead optioning to the pitch man each time.

But on first and 10, he adroitly observed the tendency, and so dashed down a wide open running lane for 43 yards to the USM 13 yard line. The Owl signal-caller couldn’t hold his left arm above the shoulder, but on that play, he didn’t need to, as he cradled it securely near the belly button for the entire ride.

Two plays later Jowan plowed across from the six and put the Owls back up by a touchdown, 17-10 with 2:55 left in the half.

The Owls were able to get more points before halftime as Garrett Fuhrman picked off a tipped Nick Mullens pass and return it 25 yards to the USM 15.

At this point, finally back in the game, Jordan Taylor had his opportunity, as on third and six from the 11, Driphus lifted a perfect fade route to a wide open JT in the corner of the end zone. Sure enough, Jordan was unable to shake off enough rust to be able to haul the ball in, bobbling a ball that he’d normally catch in his sleep, with his hands tied behind his back.

Instead, Rice had to settle for another James Farrimond field-goal this one good from 33 yards out.

Guess we have us a new field-goal kicker.

USM attempted to hurry up drive of its own in response, however, moving down the field via seven straight short passing plays in the last 1:20 of the half. Make that eight passing plays, if one counts the desperation Tyler Zarafin’s desparation pass which was intercepted by Ryan Pollard after the snap and hold went awry on a Corey Acosta field-goal attempt from the Rice 31. That was a fun way to end the half.

Slow third quarter for both squads

To open the second half, Rice three-and-outed the Eagles with pass breakups byTabari McGaskey and Bryce Callahan. Rice’s next possession netted nothing, however, setting up a quarter-long “phony war” series of futile possessions, where each side managed to pick up a first downor two , but thereafter faded and had to part away.

USM coaches obviously had made the halftime decision to creep up to the line and dare wounded-warrior Driphus Jackson to throw the ball. In response, the Owl signal-caller’s accuracy still wasn’t up to his usual standards, but it was good enough to make that gambit hit the Eagles like a pie in the face.

First, it took a while for Rice offensive coaches to counter with adjustments of their own. In the meantime, the Eagles crept up to within a single score, having obtained the ball via the field possession game at their own 46.

Three plays later, Nick Mullens bombed away, connecting with his James Cox sandwiched between two Rice defenders at the 1 yard line. The play was good for 41 yards and a first and goal. In effect, it was another deep ball fail, for USM’s George Payne scored the next play.
Strangely, after Acosta had made his 52-yard field goal in the first half, he hooked his extra point attempt, caroming it off the upright, so the Owl lead was four instead of three.

And they soon set about putting the game out of reach. Next possession, Driphus connected with a leaping a leaping Mario Hull for 34 yards to the USM 37. Next play, he played pitch and catch with Zach Wright for 15 yards down to the Eagle 21, but was flagged for being past the line of scrimmage.

That put the ball back at the USM 40, but DJ was feeling his oats by now, and next play, completed a 41 yard stee-rike right down the middle of the plate to a leaping Mario Hull five yards deep in the USM end zone.

“We needed those two big plays with Mario,” Driphus told press after the game. “He came through. At that end of the day, that is what we expect of him. Obviously he is a great receiver for us, we just have to be able to capitalize off of all of the opportunities because we not be able to have those opportunities again.”

That made it 27-16; and the Owls were ready to pour on some more.

"That touchdown pass from Driphus to Mario gave us the momentum,” Coach Bailiff told press post-game. “From that point on we settled in offensively.”

First, an energized Owl defense shut down USM cold on its next possession. On second and 10 from the USM 37, Grayson Schantz blew up his blocker and roared in to hogtie QB Mullens behind the line, forcing the ball loose on his way down. Dennis Parks had a chance for a scoop and score, but barely missed it, but Bryce Callahan managed to cradle the ball and scramble for 6 yards to the USM 25.

From there, it took the Owls six plays to go the distance, Luke Turner bowling over from the one with 11 minutes remaining in the game to make it 34-16, Rice.

The fact that Southern Miss was able to come back and travel 75 yards on its ensuing possession was in no small part owing to a couple of admittedly rather blatant pass interference penalties on the Owls. But this time, take that faux pas as a “plus,” for it showed that Rice pass defenders were getting into the bread basket of their foes and contesting for the ball.

Quarterback Mullens did cause a minor bit of consternation when he hit James Cox for the score from 10 yards out to make it 34-23 with nine minutes showing on the scoreboard clock.

Once more, Rice offense responded

But as it had done twice before in the game, the Rice offense immediately responded with a crisp, well-executed touchdown drive. The series began with a 38-yard pass-and-run from Driphus Jackson to a wide open Jowan Davis rolling out of the backfield.

From there Davis and Dillard alternated to pound the ball as far as the USM 5 yard line. On third and goal from that point, Driphus executed the play fake, USM bit, and Connor Cella was wide open in the end zone for the touchdown reception.

The Owls put their fellow raptors out of their misery with a four-and-over stop on the next series, compliments of an 11-yard solo sack of Mullins by Brian Nordstrom, followed by a textbook tackle by of Alex Lyons on receiver Michael Thomas, well short of the first down marker.

Coach Bailiff put in Mississippian reserve quarterback Guy Billups as the game clock ticked down, and had he wanted to, he could have rung up another score against the tired Eagle defense, but shut down the engine at the USM 8 yard line where a victory-formation play ended the game.


HOUSTON (Sept. 25) – Time to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, as the Rice Owls take on the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles Saturday in Hattiesburg, kickoff at 6:00 p.m. (FCS).

It’s a virtual certainty that the Owls will show up in a bad mood when they take on the 2-2 Eagles on the road Saturday. The question is, how many Owls, especially on the defensive side, will get off the bus not only in a bad mood, but suited out and cleared to play.

If the Owls pull this one out, it would appear that the MVP on this week’s team most definitely would have to be the team doctor, as Rice sported as many as seven defensive starters missing in action, and five offensive starters off the field, at some point during last week’s debacle against Old Dominion.

How many will return? That’s apparently for Herr Doktor Winston to know, and the USM offensive and defensive units to find out, one would hope the hard way.

Even with red crosses remaining planted firmly on the backs of the Owl wounded, the Rice bunch should be able to score points against the Mississippians.

Granted, the Eagles’ two losses have come against Mississippi (49-0) Alabama (52-12), but even so, USM opponents are averaging over 486 yards rushing per game. That’s good for number 117 in the FBS ranks, and, considering USM’s two other games were homestanding narrow wins over Alcorn State and Appalachian, that’s a figure which should catch Rice coaches’ attention.

After all, Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson is healthy, and running backs Jowan Davis, Derek Dillard, and “Bob” Turner are all in tune and ready to go.

Too, the Rice offensive line turned in a creditable showing against ODU last week – the play of monster 6-8, 320-pounder Ian Gray stood out --  so it would be to no one’s surprise if the Owls just took the ball and told everybody, refs and all, “No, you can’t have it,” as they march up and down the surface of M. M. Roberts Stadium Saturday.

On the defensive side, the Eagles have allowed their opponents over 35 points per game, while scoring just under 15 themselves, and lack game breakers on the defensive unit. Upfront, the best pass rusher is Rackim Nunez-Roches, who thus far has recorded four sacks and two quarterback hurries on the year. USM is led on defense by Brian Anderson with 34 tackles, including two for loss, and one fumble recovery.

On the offense side, an interesting stat has the Eagles averaging less than 100 yards per game rushing (98.8). They have two rushing touchdowns all season, both scored by soph running back George Payne last week against Appalachian State in the Eagles’ narrow, 21-20 win.

At the same time, USM quarterback Nick Mullens is capable of putting the ball up in the air – and, if last week’s performance would be any indication, that may be all it takes to set the Owl defense back on its heels. Against Appy State, Mullens completed throws to eight different receivers for 268 yards and one score.

Given the Mountaineers’ propensity to turn the ball over last Saturday, that was just enough for the Eagles to have garnered their second straight home win, after opening the season with a 26-20 trimming of FCS foe Alcorn State.

Southern Miss will come in hungry for a win as well, having only won two out of 25 games the past two seasons, a bitter pill to swallow for USM fans used to following a program that has tended to be competitive year in and year out – up until the past couple.

A win against the Owls would make them 1-0 in league play, but more importantly 3-2 on the season, a mark which scribes have pointed out would put the Eagles halfway to bowl eligibility.

Given the college football Sahara desert USM fans have been forced to traverse the last couple of seasons, that would look like full cardiac resuscitation out of an extended “Code Blue,” or at least one hell of an oasis.

Sheep or goats? No question that this Owl team opened the season with sufficient talent to compete strongly for the conference crown in this benighted league, Conference USA. As depleted the Flock was on defense last week against ODU, it might just well turn out that their poor performance was an outlier.

Get a couple players back, register a win on Saturday, and David Bailiff’s Owls just may have their fans thinking in that direction.

That, after all, is quite the whole point entering into this contest. The Owls are 0-and-3, one of only seven FBS teams in the country to remain winless thus far.

“We need to go on the road and get a win,” Coach Bailiff said Monday. “I think our football team will be hungry for one.”

Short takes:  JDuarte tweets WR Jordan Taylor and DT Christian Covington cleared to play Saturday at Southern Miss, coach David Bailiff said after today's practice. Destri White as well....