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Rice 31, UTEP 13

This Friday night fight won by Owls in TKO as defense completely shuts down Miner running attack while deep ball passing game clicks

SIENTESE! -- Rice defense held prolific UTEP running game in check; longest Miner rushing play of night carried for but eight yards (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 22) – The Rice Owls used a crushing defensive front to shut down UT-El Paso’s rushing attack while quarterback Driphus Jackson found success virtually every time he pushed down on the gas pedal as the Institute Boys broke open a tight game with Miners to win going away here Friday night, 31-13, preserving for Rice a possible shot at the Conference USA division crown.

A game that started out slower than slow for the Rice offense picked up considerably when the Owls went from Plan A predictable to a more wide-open attack paced by the downfield pitch-and-catch combination of Jackson and senior WR Mario Hull.

Meanwhile, the Rice defense came to play from the opening kickoff, putting on a display of flying to the ball, hunting as a pack, call it what you will, but the effort was relentless, and it resulted in a relatively puny offensive production on part of the visitors.

The Miners hit town strutting over the recent success of their running game, featuring thousand-yard rusher Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffrey, who’d run for four touchdowns in UTEP’s 355 yards-rushing, 35-17 win over North Texas a week earlier.

That run game was simply stuffed, netting a grand total of 53 yards on the night. Jeffrey managed seven carries for 27 yards, while Jones wound up with 23 on the same number of totes. UTEP’s longest run of the night gained 24 feet.

“You know, UTEP came in here averaging 225 yards a game rushing. In the last three quarters, we only gave up only eight yards rushing,” recounted Rice head coach David Bailiff, musing over the stat sheet, postgame. “You know, that's spectacular, because they really give you some leverage problems with the structure that they use.”

The Miners failed to mount any long touchdown drive, their only points of the game coming from a 38-yard, five-play procession coming off the heels of a rare Driphus Jackson interception, plus a couple of Jay Mattox field goals.

At the onset, however, it looked as if nobody around here on offense knew how to play this game, as the first six offensive possessions resulted in unvarnished three-and-outs, the same number by each team.

UTEP was the one to finally pick up a first down, but that didn’t happen until 2:56 of the first quarter. The nascent Miner drive was quickly shut down as Owl LB Alex Lyons chased UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers all over the backfield, forcing him to throw one away on third down.

Somehow that appeared to ignite Driphus Jackson, though, as he opened up the passing game and in succession found three receivers – Mario Hull, Zach Wright, and Jordan Taylor – en route to a 62-yard, 13-play drive that culminated in a 32-yard James Hairston field goal to break the scoreless deadlock with nine minutes left in the half.

The Miners, in response, finally managed to get a little offensive themselves. No, we’re not talking about the dead-ball cheap shots their defensive front repeatedly engaged in, but rather are referring to treachery of a different sort – a little trickery with the signal count.

“They are absolutely fabulous at hard-counting you,” Coach Bailiff explained. The result: four first-half offsides calls drawn by the Rice defensive front. “Obviously we should’ve worked on it a little bit more,” DB added. “If this game had been Saturday, instead of Friday, we’d have had that one more day...”

In no small part helped downfield by those offsides calls, in response Los Mineros managed a 62 yard scoring drive, their longest of the day, closed out by a 33 yard Jay Mattox field goal to tie the game at three with 4:26 to go in the half.

From there, Rice offense began to click

The Rice offense once again stretched the field, as, after Driphus nearly connected on the long bomb to Dennis Parks on the first play of its ensuing drive, he did find Mario Hull for 12 yards and a first down on the next snap. That opened up the running game a bit, as Jowan Davis managed eight and nine yards on consecutive carries.

Now in UTEP territory, DJ spotted Dennis Parks once again streaking 31 yards down the visitors’ sideline, where he made a circus catch to set up the Owls at the UTEP 13.

Jowan Davis got 7 yards on first down, and then on third and two from the five, Driphus pitched to Darik Dillard for the sweep, and he outran several UTEP defenders to the pylon, giving the Owls a 10-3 lead to take into the halftime locker room.

“With all the blitzing that they do, we knew we were going to have to take some shots down the field,” Coach Bailiff explained afterwards. “We knew that we were going to have a hard time establishing the running game.”

Continuing to employ the throttle-open strategery, the Rice offense came out smoking at the start of the third quarter, stretching the playing field in each instance. Taking the second-half kickoff, Driphus first hit Mario Hull for 28 yards down the home sideline. He came right back next play and connected with Mario once more for 38 yards to the UTEP 24.

And the play after that, DJ found Jordan Taylor momentarily open, streaking toward the goal line, hitting him at the 5 yard line, where he twisted and turned into the end zone.

“Driphus took some shots tonight. They were bringing more than we could pick up, at times. But he also got (the ball) down the field,” DB said.

That quick succession of downfield tosses gave Rice a 17-3 lead two minutes deep into the third quarter. But the Miners appeared to be on their way right back into the game, thanks to a 33-yard LaQuintus Dowell kickoff return, followed by a personal foul call against the Owls on third and 11 at the Rice 48. (It was one of those cases where the guy who retaliates is the one who gets nailed.)

The penalty gave the Miners field position at the Rice 33 yard line while having produced a total of minus-one yards total offense on the drive to get there. That total was increased to a negative eight yards on the next play, as Brian Nordstrom blew in to tackle UTEP’s Autrey Golden on the reverse for a loss of seven.

After Ryan Pollard broke up Showers’ pass attempt on third and 22, UTEP was forced to punt, which Jay Mattox shanked 10 yards downfield to the Rice 35, where Bryce Callahan grabbed the pill and picked up a quick five to the 40.

Thus, with 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, the Owls had a 17-3 lead, and were sitting pretty with field position at their 40 yard line – so things looked just hunky-dory.

It was at that point, however, that the Texas A&M transfer Showers, frustrated by the lack of running success, turned in a series of thread-the-needle passing attempts, completing successive passes to Ian Hamilton for 30, Eric Tomlinson for seven, and Hamilton again for 32 more yards to the Rice 10, despite tight tight coverage by Owl defensive backs.

But when UTEP went back to the rushing game from there, Aaron Jones was nailed for no gain on Bryce Callahan’s run blitz. Then on third and goal, Showers was forced to dump the ball by a hard-charging Brian Nordstrom, and once again, the Miners had to settle for a chip-shot Jay Mattox field goal to make it 17-6, Rice.

Things got a bit nerve-wracking before Owl offense quickly righted ship

The plot thickened considerably, however, when moments later UTEP’s Devon Cockrell stepped underneath to pick off a Driphus Jackson sideline pass at the Rice 38. Showers quickly hit Katrae Ford for 12 yards to the 26, followed on third and seven by an 18 yarder to Aaron Jones coming out of the backfield.

When Showers scrambled in from 5 yards out on the next play, the Miners had just picked up their only touchdown of the contest, and suddenly it was a new ball game at 17-13 with three minutes to go in the third.

“I had a turnover today, which is uncharacteristic,” Driphus said afterwards. “’s a part of the game. I appreciate the coaches for believing in me going forward from there; letting me take a few shots throwing the ball. And we scored a touchdown right after that.”

Indeed the Owls did, getting up off the mat quickly after the forced error. Driphus first loosened up the Miner rush by scrambling from the dropback position for a first down on third and four. Next play, perhaps the play of the game, DJ tossed a high arching pass to Mario Hull, who hauled in the pigskin 55 yards downfield at the UTEP 17.

Once again, Rice’s red zone specialist took over, as Darik Dillard found a small hole and dashed through for 14 yards to the three, only a shoelace tackle away from going the distance. No problem, however, as on the next play, same call, he scored standing up. So the Owls had extended their cushion back to 24-13 with only a few ticks left in the third quarter.

In response, although Showers found his man on a couple of deep balls, the Miners were unable to establish any kind of sustained offense, and after Alex Lyons jumped on a live ball when it bounced off the shin of UTEP’s Jamil Irving on yet another well- placed James Farrimond punt, Rice was in business at the UTEP 22 with nine minutes left in the game.

After Dillard picked up five, the Owls rather bizarrely were flagged for three straight penalties, illegal procedure, false start, and then holding. That gave the Flock first and goal at the UTEP 24, but darned if they didn’t capitalize, Driphus scrambling for 17 yards on the first play; then finding Mario Hull on the end-zone fade on third down and goal from the five.

That was Mario’s sixth reception of the day, giving him 150 yards receiving total, as it capped off a career performance for the Eagle Lake senior.

After one long Showers-to-Hamilton pass that carried 38 yards to the Rice 38, the Owl defense went into shutdown mode, Dylan Klare hurrying Showers into a throwaway on first down, Brian Womac following with a nine-yard sack, and Zach Patt barging in rudely to force another Showers misfire.

With all the defensive pressure having been applied, leave it, nonetheless, up to a couple of greenhorn secondary-men, frosh Cole Thomas and soph J. T. Blasingame, to lead the team in tackles with four and five, respectively. It was a statement as to the game plan devised by Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond and his cohorts. Simply put, Chris just did one hell of a job, maybe his best yet.

"I was really pleased  by the defensive game plan, and any time you see the young men execute it like that, you know that they're really believing in it," Coach Bailiff said.

So, the Owls were able to take over on downs with just over four minutes to go in the game, went into Davis-up-the-middle mode, and ran out the clock.

But not without just a bit of last-minute mini-drama. As the clock ticked down to zero, both teams appeared to rush the middle of the field as a minor fracas broke out in the interior line when a UTEP defensive lineman took a dive onto Matt Simonette’s back. Folks in the stands couldn’t quite tell what was going on, so let’s close by having Driphus tell the story.

“I was telling Simonette, the defense was talking, jawing at us a little bit. I was saying, ‘calm down, just don’t get into a shouting match, fighting match with this guy. Everything’s going to work out. At the end of the game, we’ll just be able to point to the scoreboard, and let that be enough talk for us.’

"Ultimately, at the end, we all got a little heated. From my side, I see somebody land on my center. Me being how I am, I’m just not going to let that happen. It wasn’t handled properly. I had to protect my teammate, and I did what I had to do.”

DJ didn’t explain just exactly what that was. Didn’t need to. One look at the scoreboard told the tale: “Pendejos, vayanse!”


HOUSTON (Nov. 19) -- Another week, just another ball game, right? Wrong.

The Rice Owls close out their home dance card with a Friday evening game, a 7:00 p.m. kickoff against the UT-El Paso Miners. Count it, if you will, a function of that home opener loss to Old Dominion, but if the Feathered Flock is to be considered for any but the dregs of bowl games, they need to win seven, preferably eight -- and if so, that leaves virtually zero margin for error come this Friday night.

UTEP has precisely similar designs, arriving on a Chisos Mountains high, the result of winning four out of its last five in rolling to an unexpectedly sunny 6-4 record thus far this season. Most recently, Los Mineros dismantled North Texas in the Sun Bowl last Saturday, 35-17.

To ascertain what kind of a challenge the El Pasoans present come Friday night, one need look only as far back as that UNT game.

The Miners’ Nathan Jeffery rushed for three first-half touchdowns, as UTEP took a 28-0 lead into the halftime locker room against the Mean Grean. By comparison, recall that Rice trailed UNT 21-14 at halftime in their game in Houston.

UTEP’s other first-half score was tallied by a chap by the name of Aaron Jones, who proves to be the Miners’ biggest offensive weapon thus far this season. Jones added a 42-yard TD run to Jeffreys’ three tallies to round out the four-touchdown Miner cushion.

In that first half, UTEP outgained UNT 288 yards to 53, 218 of those picked up on the ground.

In the third quarter, Jones added another long TD run, this one for 54 yards, as the Miners coasted to a 35-17 win. Jones wound up with 177 yards on the night in only 16 carries; do the math; it’s better than ten yards a shot.

UTEP finished the UNT game with a season-best 351 yards rushing, its most in a contest since 1983 versus Weber State (358) and most in a conference game since 1982 versus Wyoming (404). Yeow.

Meanwhile, the UTEP defense was every bit as effective against the Eagles as were the Owls three weeks ago at Rice Stadium, holding the visitors to 201 yards total offense, the Miners’ second-fewest allowed this season. The Mean Green had only 13 first downs as they were quarterbacked by Andrew McNulty, who completed 15-of-27 passes for 101 yards.

Recall that the Miners, in turn, are led by quarterback Jameill Showers, a former Texas Aggie who transferred to UTEP with two years of eligibility beginning with the 2013 season. Jameill once was considered the Quarterback of the Future for the Farmers, where in his two years of eligibility he appeared in 11 games, completing 31 of 49 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns, and running 18 times for 72 yards. In a game against Auburn his sophomore year, the Killeen native went eight for eight passing with one TD.

Jameill underwhelmed in the Miners’ 45-7 loss to the Owls in Rice Stadium last year (due to scheduling peculiarities, UTEP is coming to Rice two years in a row). But he’s been a solid performer during the Miners’ most recent succesful run.

With UTEP’s recent success on the ground, Showers hasn’t been called upon to put the ball in the air all that much. Against UNT, he was 8-of-11 for 87 yards in the win. On the season thus far, he has 1,417 yards and 11 passing touchdowns this season while tossing only five interceptions.

But the Owls can’t ignore the UTEP receiving corps, either, which is led by veteran Autrey Golden, who bedeviled the Owls in El Paso season before last. Golden has a team-high 245 receiving yards with two touchdowns. Jones and Ian Hamilton match Golden on that account, also with two TD receptions apiece.

Defensively, the Miners started out horribly in early-season games, giving up 58 points in a loss to Kansas State and 55 points to Louisiana Tech in consecutive weeks. The tally gradually has improved, but the UTEP ‘D’ has given up an average, to date, of just a smidgen under 30 points per game.

Wesley Miller leads the Miners this season with 53 tackles. Alvin Jones and Roy Robertson-Harris have each recorded a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss, while Cooper Brock has a UTEP-best three sacks on the season. The Miners have forced eight interceptions and recovered nine fumbles in 10 games.

Can you say “ball security”?