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2015 UNCC game page

Rice 27, UNC-Charlotte 7

-- Rice junior running back Darik Dillard eschews his usual scholarly mien as he smells the goal line on a sideline-threading third-quarter run against Charlotte  (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Nov. 29) -- When Rice's game-opening drive against UNC-Charlotte bogged down in the rain here Saturday, the resulting field goal attempt went awry when the snap was high and the kick slammed smack into the left goalpost and back onto the field, no good.

That had to be the low point within a season of lows for this 2015 version of Owl football -- a flat tire backing out of the driveway against an opponent who'd never, ever won a BCS conference game, with the distinct possibility looming of a fifth straight flameout loss to end the season.

But right, justice and virtue occasionally do triumph, especially when playing against a weak schedule. In the event, Owl seniors dialed up a halftime wakeup call and came back to lead a second-half surge which served to shunt aside the cellar-dwelling visitors, 27-7, to preserve a semblance of pride and momentum to end the season, in a campaign arguably short on both commodities.

The game was a tale of two halves, the first of them being scarcely fit to retell. The 49ers trumped the Owls’ missed field goal attempt with three of their own – count ‘em – in the first half. The Owls and their visitors misfired passes, lapsed on defensive and special teams play, jumped offside as if it were spring drills. These were two gangs that couldn't shoot straight.

Actually, the Rice defense should be accorded a bit more respect than that for their first half efforts. UNCC's first two offensive possessions were quickly snuffed, three-and-outs on third-and-longs.

In between was Rice's unsuccessful opening drive,  which at first gamely ground downfield under the running of Austin Walter and Darik Dillard. On a key third-and-long, Darik got 23 down the visitors’ sideline to the UNCC 22. Two plays later, Driphus found Zach Wright for ten more and a first and goal at the Charlotte nine.

But from there, not much. First came a couple of predictable Sam Stewart plunges into the line, which together picked up four yards. Then Driphus misfired on a third and goal pass atempt to Zach Wright. And then the abortive field goal attempt.

Is this Ground Hog Day?

It became evident, early on, that Driphus Jackson was bravely manning up, play after play, but there was some physical deficit which the redshirt senior and team captain insisted upon playing through.

It was clear that his legs still were bothering him on the run – just as they have been, in retrospect, since the first half of the Baylor game. Quarterback scrambles once again were kept to an absolute minimum. The quarterback zone read was not evident in the playbook. When there was some semblance of an option play, it was a short step by the QB, then a kick-out pitch wide to the circling running back – not much deception in that.

In other words, same old same old as in the past seven or eight games.

“Driphus' leg was really sore,” Coach Bailiff said afterwards. “Driphus is a very tough young man. It was something he wanted to do, and he continued to play with it, and he was our best option. I’m very proud of Driphus and the season that he had.”

So the rushing offense was left to the running backs and Luke Turner in the Wild Owl. Meanwhile, sometimes Driphus’ passes were on target, sometimes they were way, way off. The unavoidable conclusion: that young man has been ‘playing with pain’ and, more precisely, throwing with pain ever since the third or fourth game of the season.

But we digress. Suffice it to say that the Owl offense lacked scoring punch in the first half, witness their failure to get points out of a first and goal from the eight on that opening possession.

In the first half, offense didn't show up and do a whole lot; we were out of rhythm," the (now world-famous) Luke Turner said afterwards. "It was the last game, and I think some nerves starting getting to some older guys. The defense really helped us out in that first half. We came in and said, 'Guys, we just gotta play.' We ended up playing really well in the second half and produced 27 points and got the win."

As the rain decreased to a steady mist, redshirt frosh Austin Walter took the second-half kickoff and returned to the 33 yard line, almost breaking it for much more.

Six plays later, Jackson found Nate German deep down the middle on a 34-yard pass play to set the Owls up the 49er three. But then Luke Turner came in to run the Wild Owl and plied the middle of the line three times for a grand total of one yard. So on came the Bohemian Boot, frosh place-kicker Hayden Tobola, who this time collected easily on a 19-yard field goal attempt to break the scoreless tie.

The Owls defense came back to force yet another quick three and out, and in came Bob. He and Darik Dillard took turns plying the Charlotte line for steady yardage. This time, on first and goal from the four, after Darik pounded for zero yards, Bob/Luke rose up and tossed an old-timey jump pass to a wide open Cole Hunt for the first touchdown of the dame, and, in fact, the first TD of the former El Campo Ricebird's career.

Next Charlotte possession, V. J. Banks made two consecutive open-field tackles in a row on second and nine and third and 13 to force the punt, which put the Owls in business for a second touchdown drive.

The first of several 49er unsportsmanlike conduct penalties extended this drive when it began to be clear to the visitors that the South Main Boys had this game under control. That gave the Owls a first and goal at the Charlotte six and from there Driphus took it in himself on the sweep from three yards out – DJ’s last touchdown as a collegian – and the Owls had themselves a 17-0 lead.

It was do or die for the UNCC offense on the next series, and the verdict was "death." The 49ers gambled on a fourth-down punting situation when a pair of Rice seniors, Chandler Watkins and Garrett Fuhrman were johnny on the spot to nail Arthur Hart’s rushing attempt at the UNCC 31.

First play, Luke Turner pounded for 16 yards to the Charleston, er Charlotte,  15. But from there, the old kryptonite bugaboo set in. With a reasonably commanding lead, the Owl offense tried to pound it in, but was rebuffed at every attempt.

Fortunately at the same time, the 49er defense starting throwing punches right and left and were flagged for a succession of personal fouls – and still the Owls couldn’t drive the ball over the goal line.

Hayden Tobola hit another chip shot to make it 20-0, but boy, was that an unsatisfying turn of events. When thugs get flagged for slugs, you wanna cram the ball right back down their throats, but this time the Owls weren’t able to do so. No poetic justice there.

Still, Rice had one more scoring jaunt left in its rucksack, mainly featuring the running of Jowan Davis – which begs the question: what kind of enhanced rushing attack would the Owls have had this year if Jowan had been healthy?

The Sealy Man had a slashing 29 yard run from midfield, and followed it with an 11-yard sweep into the end zone to make it 27-0, Rice with 3:31 to go in the game.

In all, for the contest, the Rice offense picked up 433 yards of total offense to 285 for Charlotte, including 307 on the ground.

Now, attention turned to the possibility of a goose-egg. The opportunity was there. And it has been a year of Sundays since the Feathered Flock last turned in a shutout. Specifically, it was a 38-0 victory over UNLV to open the 1995 season.

But the chance for a shutout was squandered when 49er QB Matt Johnson threw a soft toss over the middle to his Trent Bostick. The receiver was well covered for but a 10 or 15 yard gain, but the Owls exhibited another of their season-long bad habits when standout defender Alex Lyons popped the receiver without wrapping up.

Bostick bounced off the glancing blow and recovered for a 56-yard touchdown sprint, outrunning the remaining Owl defenders (and bouncing off a couple of other poorly-techniqued tackle attempts – gawd, is this junior high?) to break the ice with 2:16 remaining in the game.

Man, that could’ve been Rice’s first shoutout in 250 games! The junior linebacker said the loss of the shutout was his fault.

"That was me being boneheaded," he said. "I didn't wrap up and the guy broke it. But I'm very proud of those guys who stepped up and sent those seniors home with a win."

Before that last-gasp scoring drive, the Owls defense had held Charlotte to just 35 yards in 14 second half plays.

"I'm really proud of this football team -- the way the defense played the entire game well," Coach Bailiff concluded in his post-game mortem. "I was really pleased with how the defense came out in the second half and dominated.

"We have a lot to build on -- it's what we'll talk to the juniors about, and we'll go back to work Monday and get this football team better."