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UTEP 24, Rice 21

NOT THIS ONE -- Rice WR Trevor Long gets downfield in a hurry to nail UTEP punt returner, pinning Miners deep in their own territory (PTH photo)

EL PASO (Nov. 7) – For decades, dating back to the Jess Neely days, the Rice football team has been known for coming together and playing its best ball in the month of November when the chips are down. If these Owls are to live up to their predecessors’ reputation as the Boys of November, somebody needs to tip them off – they’re running a week behind.

In a game that went down to the wire, but shouldn’t have, these Rice Owls coughed up a pair of leads, then came back to tie and seize the momentum late in the game, only to falter and fall, 24-21, to an aroused UTEP squad fighting for bowl eligibility.

Wait – aren’t these Owls fighting for bowl eligibility as well? At times Friday night, they seemed more like a team  going through the motions.

Well, wait again – that’s being overly critical. The team exhibited good and sufficient effort to pull out the win against UTEP, but somehow just lacked a certain something. What was it? “Verve?” Yeah, that’s it – this bunch of young men played the game with a noticeable paucity of verve.*

Rice senior quarterback and team leader Driphus Jackson has said repeatedly he wanted to go out this, his final season as an Owl, in a blaze of joy, just having fun playing the game. One was tempted to query him at his postgame press availability whether he was having any fun Friday night. But there was no need to ask– unndoubtedly he wasn’t, nor, it seemed, were any other of his teammates.

Just for starters, the Owls’ first two possesions went nowhere, a three-and-out after receiving the opening kickoff, and a sputtering effort after being backed up to their own two yard line after UTEP punted out on the Miner’s initial possession.

Nonetheless, Rice played even-steven on the early field position game, thanks to a couple of booming punts by James Farrimond, the first sailing for 55 yards and the second for 59.

When frosh defenseman Zach Abercrumbia blew up an attempted Mack Leftwich handoff, the resulting fumble was recovered by the Owls’ J P Thompson at the UTEP 33.  With the short field, Rice was on its way to the end zone, breaking the ice at 7-0 when Luke Turner bulled over untouched from three yards out after Connor Cella set the table with an 18-yard catch-and-run down the sideline.

True to recent pattern, however, the Rice defense was unable to sustain any momentum generated by the Owls’ early lead when, on UTEP’s next possession, Miner quarterback Leftwich found his receiver Jaquan White several yards behind Owl defensive coverage. White’s 58-yard pass reception tied the game at seven two minutes deep in the second quarter.

The two teams traded possessions then as the Owl offense sputtered while the defense rose to the occasion to force two consecutive UTEP three-and-outs. So with 8:26 left in the half, the Owls embarked on a seven-play, 78-yard drive that was capped emphatically by Zach Wright who broke open on third and 16 at the UTEP 36, caught Driphus Jackson’s pass in stride and loped into the end zone.

A stop, even a forced field goal on the Miners’ next possession would have meant the Owls could take a lead into the halftime locker room. But not only did they fail to protect their second-quarter scoreboard edge, they compounded the matter by allowing UTEP to accept the second-half kickoff and drive the ball right down the Owly Birds' gullets.

UTEP's second-quarter game-tying drive was sustained with the help of a little trickerooski.

With the clock ticking down, and facing a first and ten at the Rice 44, Miner quarterback Leftwich was quickly flushed out of the pocket whereupon he sought the safety of the sideline. V J Banks was clearly inbounds and so was Leftwich when the Owl defender bumped him out.

The prissy UTEP quarterback proceeded to put on a flopping act that belonged in the annals of WWF wrestling, and Mister Magoo bought it hook, line and sinker. The additional 15 yard personal foul call set up Los Mineros at the Rice 29.

From there, UTEP tied the game at 14 with 29 seconds left in the half after Leftwich threw four staight completions to cover the final 29 yards of his drive, the score coming on a quick pass to Jaquan White on second and goal at the Rice two.

The Miners picked up right where they’d left off on the first possession of the second half, embarkng on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that consumed virtually half of the third quarter. The key play was a successful try on fourth and one at the UTEP 44, when Darrin Lafausa avoided the scrum and dashed for 19 yards and an easy first down.

Now down 21-14, the Owls momentarily failed to wrest back momentum on their next possession, after three plunges into the line failed to net a first down.

Tabari McGaskey and Zach Espinosa made key stops on the Miners’ ensuing gambit, however, and so the Owls got themselves another shot with just over four minutes left in the third.

The offense was hardly a juggernaut on this possession but Driphus Jackson managed a couple of key completions, first on third and ten when he hit Dennis Parks for  just enough first-down yardage, and the second on third and 24 at midfield, when DJ avoided a heavy rush and found Zach Wright downfield for 23 yards.

Darik Dillard sustained the drive by diving for the first down on fourth and one, and two plays later, Driphus found Luke Turner in the end zone, where the Owls’ all-purpose man made a leaping catch to tie the score at 21.

Derek Brown, Brian Womac and Alex Lyons combined to stuff the UTEP attack on the next possession, and the resulting punt gave the Owls the ball at their own 27 with 13:22 left on the scoreboard clock.

Immediately the Rice offense began to grind it out, as the  UTEP fans sat on their hands. Four first downs later, Rice had the ball first and ten at the UTEP 25. Thirty yards of that drive was attained by a key Zach Wright reception, one of six catches on the day by Zach for 116 yards, a career high for him. Looking good, Billy Ray, looking good.

From there, on first down, Driphus scrambled for a couple, avoiding the rush. Next call was a rather pedestrian dive play as Jowan Davis netted three more. The third down try was a crossing pattern in the direction of Connor Cella, but the ball was thrown behind the big Rice tight end, and the Flock had to settle for what would’a, should’a, could’a been a very makeable field goal.

The mechanics were all good on the field goal try, but the kick sailed low into the the UTEP line, where it was forcefully blocked by the Miners’ Nick Usher.

It was if the air had gone out of the Owl tires at that point. The block aroused the home crowd, naturally, and the pumped UTEP offense came onto the field with 8:21 to go, for was what a crushing 73 yard, 16-play drive that consumed all but 48 seconds remaining in the ball game.

The Miners’ Darrin Laufasa toted the mail on ten of those 16 plays, including seven carries in a row -- the exact same play, a little trap job that the Owl defenders seemed helpless to counter. That seven-play skein by Laufasa covered 51 yards, from the UTEP 21 to the Rice 28.

Did Owl mentors call a timeout to recconnoiter during that little seven-play run of Chinese water torture? No, although UTEP finally called timeout after play six to rest its steed.

Did any adjustment command come from the press box or the sideline? Apparently not. Maybe the phone lines suddently went dead.

As it was, Jay Mattox’ 24-yard chip shot field goal with 48 seconds remaining was a foregone conclusion. And the Owls would get the ball back with zero timeouts, having eventually called all three of theirs once the Miners encroached upon the Rice red zone.

Still, the Owls came just that far from a miracle finish, as Driphus Jackson’s last-gasp hail mary pass from the UTEP 45 narrowly missed the grasp of a leaping Zach Wright in the UTEP end zone.

Give or take an inch or two, one way or the other, and it would’ve been hauled in by the ever-dependable Rice receiver. Of course, the ball game should’ve never come down to that.

But it did....but, alas,  it did.

*Verve:  (Syn.) enthusiasm, vigor, energy, pep, dynamism, elan, vitality, vivacity, buoyancy, liveliness, animation, zest, sparkle, charisma, spirit, ebullience, exuberance, life, brio, gusto, eagerness, keenness, passion, zeal, relish, feeling, ardor, fire; informal: zing, zip, vim, pizzazz, oomph, get-up-and-go  


HOUSTON (Nov. 4) -- The Rice Owls return to their "must-win"-ing ways as they travel to El Paso to take on the UTEP Miners in another Friday evening game this week, coming out of last Friday’s semi-beatdown at the hands of Louisiana Tech with a 2-2 league record, 4-4 on the season overall.

Win over the Miners, and the Owls and their adherents can start thinking about taking three out of their last four games, perhaps even sweeping them all, would the Flock be able to get past a tough Southern Miss team on Homecoming Weekend one week hence.

But first comes the task at hand, and it's far from a foregone conclusion. The tale of the tape favors the Owls in this one, but the Miners have been tough to beat at home, even during their thus-far benighted 2015 season.

For the year, the Miners stand at 3-5, 1-3 in league play, after dropping a 34-13 road loss at Southern Mississippi last week. But after its 27-17 win over Florida Atlantic on Oct. 24, UTEP is 8-2 in the Sun Bowl dating back to a 33-10 victory over Florida International in November of 2013.

Good news: While the Owls leave much to be desired in the defensive department, the Miners rank among the worst in the country in total defense, like 115th out of 128 teams, and allowing 482.5 yards per game.

Los Mineros have been outscored by an average of 46-11 in their five losses, while.their three wins have been by a total of 23 points, against teams with a combined record of 7-17, including FCS entrant Incarnate Word. Kind of like the Owls’ wins, in other words.

Going down the list of standout players for the UTEPsans, one can’t help but notice the Miners' leading rusher, LaQuintus Dowell. He started the season as a defensive back, assuming the lead in rushing yards just this past week. Bottom line: the rushing attack is less than fearsome, and their main offensive threat comes via the air.

Perhaps the Miners’ most prolific big-play man is senior Autrey Golden, who’s been an occasional pest to the Owls during his career. The 5-11, 180-pounder from Willis has six kickoff return touchdowns in his career, making him the active FBS leader in the category.

Golden can find the end zone in multiple ways, as he scored his 12th career touchdown at home on Sept. 26 against juggernaut Incarnate Word (thought that was a girls’ school). Autrey has six kickoff returns for touchdowns, four receiving and two rushing scores.

Not so good news: Miner starting QB Mack Leftwich is back from injury, having made his second consecutive start at Southern Miss since coming off the walking wounded list. Leftwich sustained a concussion at New Mexico State that kept him sidelined for the better part of a month.

The 5-10, 190-pounder hales from Joe Namath-land, having played his high school ball in Pennsylvania, at North Allegheny High School, where his senior year he was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year and was an All-State selection.

So how did he make it down to the arid climes of Old El Paso? Well, it seems that his father is UTEP's assistant head coach and offensive line coach. Package deal, apparently.

The soph completed 16 passes for 197 yards against USM, but played the best game of his career against Florida Atlantic on Oct. 24, setting career highs in passing yards (271), completions (20), attempts (39) and touchdown passes (three). Leftwich also connected on a career-long 76-yard touchdown throw to Tyler Batson. On the season, Leftwich has thrown for 804 yards on 66-of-118 passing, four scores and only one interception

If one digs farther, another matter for concern is the UTEP offensive line, which didn't allow any sacks at Southern Miss and has surrendered only eight sacks in eight games thus far in 2015. UTEP is ranked first in Conference USA in fewest sacks allowed and tied for 13th nationally.
Dating back to last season, the Miners' offensive line has allowed only 21 sacks in 21 games.

On the defensive side, linebacker Alvin Jones leads UTEP in tackles (56), solo stops (29), sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (11.0) in only his second season.

The UTEP kicking game is strong, with punter Alan Luna having recorded 10 punts inside the 20-yard line and two inside the 10 thus far this season, while averaging in excess of 45 yards per punt.

At the same time, Los Mineros rank number one in C-USA in punt return average, at 11.5 yards per game. Jaquan White is the main man here, with one punt return of 64 yards and a TD against NMSU. On the season, Jaquan is averaging 15.5 yards on eight returns for 124 yards.

UTEP head coach Sean Kugler was quoted earlier this week having contended that the kicking game may be the deciding factor in this contest, what with field position being at a premium. Too, he pointed to the Owls’ middling field goal experience this season. “We need to keep them in field goal range when we get down in the red zone rather than give up touchdowns,” he said. “It’s going to be key in the game.”

Coach Kugler naturally had laudatory words for the Owls, but the way they were phrased, one must assume he was speaking before he saw game videos of Rice’s loss to LA Tech last week.

“They’re always in the hunt. They compete,” he said. “They play smart football. I just admire their program and their kids. They’re classy. They don’t do the crazy stuff that has nothing to do with football. They just play football and they try to win football games, and that’s what I want this football program to be and that’s what we aspire to be.”

One must interject: Co-aach, if you aspire to be the team that the Owls were against Louisiana Tech, that’s good news for Owl fans.