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Old Dominion 24, Rice 21

Owl defenders here are shown in hot pursuit of ODU quarterback Stevens  (PTH photo)

NORFOLK, Va. (Nov. 18) – When Rice quarterback Miklo Smalls plunged into the end zone from three yards out to give his Owls a 21-17 edge over Old Dominion with 2:05 left to play here Saturday, this’n looked to be all but in the bag.

With that play, the burly freshman signal-caller completed his team's second consecutive time-consuming touchdown drive, one of 75 yards, the other 80, each consuming 10 plays. The Flock owned the clock, and they certainly had the momentum.

This was a game in which the beleaguered Owl defense had made stops; had risen to the occasion; and had, unlike in previous contests, acted downright stingy when backed up.

So it was that ODU needed a 7, not a 3, to pull it out. Seemed like time to crank up those engines on the team buses, 'cause this Owl contingent looked like it was coming home with a win. Finally.

But the Monarchs took the ensuing kickoff and responded with a furious 75-yard drive that took eight plays and less than 90 seconds to complete.

The key was ODU quarterback Steven Williams’ accurate passing, as he hit his receivers Ray Lawry and Marques Little between the seams of the Rice secondary for consecutive receptions of 15 and 24 yards, setting up ODU at the Rice 22 with just over a minute left.

Well, count on the football gods for a little ODU help there, too. Williams’ pass to his ace running back Lawry was muffed, popped into the air, but settled right back down in the prolific back’s hands.

After Little was stuffed for no gain by the middle of the Rice defense, ODU’s frosh signal-caller took to the air again, with quick-drop, quick-toss completions to his Melvin Vaughn and Travis Fulgham that carried to the Owl six yard line.

Still there was hope, as the Owl defense had held within field goal range on more than one occasion earlier in the game.

But Williams decided to run for the pylon himself, and made it on first and goal as an Owl defender narrowly missed busting the play before the ball carrier turned the corner.

“The offensive gave us every opportunity to win that game; they put us in position,” Rice senior linebacker and de facto defensive leader Emmanuel Ellerbee said afterwards. “As a defensive player, and as a competitor, you want to be able to deal with the final drive."

"We had missed opportunities," he continued.  "Everybody played hard; but a lot of people didn’t do their jobs, ued and we didn’t execute that two-minute to the best of our ability. We’re really going to have to look at that. I thought we were the better team out there today.”

The last-gasp ODU drive produced a bitter ending to a game that had started so promisingly for the Owls.

Rice defense showed up looking ready to play

Like they’ve never done thus far this season, the Rice defense came out like a house afire, shutting down the strong ODU rushing attack and causing passing misfires under a hard rush for two straight three-and-outs to begin the game.

Meanwhile, the Miklo Smalls-led offense appeared to pick up where they left off in last week’s narrow home loss to Southern Miss, rambling 53 yards in six plays to take the early lead after a shanked punt set them up with good field position.

Miklo’s first effort out of the box resulted in a 14-yard completion to Austin Walter coming out of the backfield, and it was immediately followed by Miklo’s scramble for 14 more.

From there, the Owls kept it on the ground, reaching paydirt on Austin Walter’s seven-yard twist-and-turn up the middle.

After ODU’s second consecutive three-and-out, the Owl offense got cranking again, as on second and three Miklo hit Austin Walter with a perfectly-thrown bomb arcing over the middle on a post pattern, which would’ve set up the Owls with first down at the ODU 13 with an early opportunity to deliver a dagger-thrust to their opponent’s gut.

But, one knows only well, “they can call holding on every play,” and in this case the gendarmes decided to pin such an infraction on an experienced Owl offensive lineman. But the Owls shrugged it off, as Miklo hit Parker Smith for an 11-yard completion to the ODU 48.

But alas, the young quarterback next bobbled the snap on third and short, and the decision was made to punt out and pin the Monarch offense deep, and play a little field position.

Jack Fox’s booming punt carried into the end zone, though, and the local bunch immediately sprang to life offensively, using a pattern that Southern Miss established so successfully, making quick passes on the short drop for positive yardage, and then countering the outside game with trap plays to spring both running back Ray Lawry and quarterback Steven Williams up the middle.

Williams himself scored on a 24-yard run, dancing through the outstretched arms of a couple of Rice secondary men, and so, midway through the first quarter, in a game that the Owls had come out and dominated on both sides of the ball, the score was tied at 7-7.

The Rice offense once again responded, however, as Nahshon Ellerbe took the ensuing kickoff and rambled to midfield, whereupon Miklo immediately scooted for runs of 15 and 8 yards to have the Owls sitting pretty at the ODU 27.

It looked as if a track meet might be in the offing, but suddenly the air seemed to fizzle from Rice’s offensive tires. The Owls got a far as the ODU 15, but from there a normally very makeable Will Harrison field goal attempt was blocked in the line.

For want of a nail, three points were lost

It didn’t seem so at the time, but Owls sure could’ve used those three points in the waning moments of the game. Man, could they have.

Somebody didn’t do his job on that play, and that somebody, whoever it was, in the old days would have been out there running wind sprints Sunday until he upchucked.

Turned out that the only additional scoring of the first half came on ODU’s ensuing possession, when they ground out a 15-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a Nick Rice field goal from 32 yards out.

It could’ve turned out for the worse. After ODU went up 10-7 on the Rice field goal, no pun intended, on the Owls’ next possession the play call was for a fake punt on fourth and nine from the Rice 26.

Somebody must have been stealing signals, though, as two Monarch defenders were there to stop Jack Fox just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, as it if were a naked bootleg play that had been sniffed out.

The Rice defense could have folded then and there, but Roe Wilkins and Emmanuel Ellerbee sacked QB Williams for a loss of six, and then Zach Abercrumbia surged in and got a big mitt on the ensuing field goal attempt, swatting down as a tit-for-tat, one blocked field goal attempt per each side.

When the halftime stats were flashed on, the results were surprising, as ODU had doubled Rice’s offensive production in the first half, 214 to 108 – and the Owls had garnered only 28 net yards through the air.

Rice’s third-quarter performance was similarly undistinguished on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense had its moments until the very end of the game.

“The defense kept responding,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said postgame. “The fake punt deep in our own territory there, we kept rising up, we just ran a little out of gas toward the end there.”

Wind sprints, anybody?....Never mind.

“Coach Stu is doing an incredible job defensively, the way they scheme and the way they approach it,” DB continued. “It’s the depth, where we start to get a little fatigued, really, in the defensive line.”

“I’m proud of how those guys started out the year second and third team, they’ve played enough reps now, they’re getting better. They’re growing up.”

Owl defenders did allow an eight-play, 70-yard scoring drive on ODU’s second possession of the third quarter, but earlier they had bucked up and held tight after Miklo coughed up the pill on a dropback when ODU’s University of Mars transfer, Oshane Ximines, blind-sided him, giving the Monarchs great field position at the Rice 36 early in the stanza.

But from there, Emmanuel Ellerbee and Brian Womac took turns downing ODU ball carriers for a loss, and so the Monarchs punted out to the Rice 7 yard line.

The Owls managed to recover at least some field position, as, after Miklo scrambled eight yards for an initial first down, Nahshon Ellerbe burst down the sideline for 26 yards to near midfield. But the Rice drive stalled from there as on third and five, Miklo was sacked on a straight dropback by that Martian guy again.

Rice offense recovered mojo late in the third

Rice’s first comeback drive started at 2:21 of the third quarter, as Miklo hit Jordan Meyers and Austin Walter for completions of 21 and 10 yards, setting up the Flock at midfield as the third quarter ended.

The scoring drive continued after the teams switched ends, in no small part due to the catching-and-running heroics of Austin Trammell, who had the best peformance of his young career Saturday, as he nabbed first-down-producing catches of 17 and 10 yards in the event.

That set up Nahshon Ellerbe, who zipped wide on first and goal from the nine, diving and stretching to clip the pylon as teammate Austin Walter blew his defender out of the play.

The resulting 17-14 deficit looked quite surmountable at that point, and with an emphatic three-and-out thrown by the Owl defense on the next ODU possession, things were beginning to look up more than a bit.

That defensive shutdown was occasioned by key offensive stops from D. J. Green, Brian Womac, Destri White and Zach Abercrumbia. The entire Rice defensive unit, tired and undermanned as it obviously was at that point, looked as if it were having no truck with any more offensive production out of the home team this particular afternoon.

And so it was, when the Owls subsequently began their penultimate possession of the game at their own 20 yard line with 7:21 remaining, victory appeared well within reach. And Miklo Smalls looked well on his way to becoming the Owls’ hero of the game.

Despite a somewhat uneven performance, the young freshman quarterback continued to show improvement and increased command of the game. He was far from perfect, yet, one could see signs in his play that Miklo Smalls may just wind up proving to be the best Rice quarterback since, what, Tommy Kramer?

The young fellow’s got a huge burden to bear, but he’s holding up well. In his first collegiate postgame interview, he told us, “I feel every week that I’m ready to play as if we were undefeated. These coaches, honestly they do a great job of keeping our spirits up. I’ve always felt ready to play, no matter the record.”

Owls kept it on the ground, final scoring drive

Miklo fashioned Rice’s entire ensuing touchdown drive in grind-em-out, smash-mouth style, with zero passing attempts in ten plays from scrimmage. The frosh QB had a key run for 13 and a first down, followed by first-down earning rushes of ten yards apiece by Austin Trammell and Nahshon Ellerbe.

Then came Rice’s big pop of the afternoon, as Austin Walter burst up the middle, breaking several tackles en route for 51 yards to the ODU one yard line. At that point, the small Rice contingent in the south end zone was making a lot of noise, but the rest of crowd was silent, realizing that ODU’s chances for a bowl berth might just be in the process of going down the drain.

Two plays later, when Miklo Smalls burst over for the score, the Owls went up, 21-17, with 2:05 remaining on the scoreboard clock. Expectations were high on the Rice sideline, and the home crowd was quieted.

But you know what happened after that; no use re-recounting it here.

“We had opportunities,” Coach Bailiff concluded. “It didn’t have to come down to that at the end of the game. We had a field goal blocked. We had a long pass to the five where it got called back for holding. There were other events in that game where getting beat in the two-minute wouldn’t have been necessary.”

“You know I’m just proud of the ways these guys have worked, with the record that we have, to continue to fight and to continue to improve. That’s what’s keeping us in games. We’re not where we want to be but we’re getting better.”

“But that one was really hard on us, how that ended.”

“When we started this season, I really believe we were an eight win football team,” Coach Bailiff mused as he prepared to head out to the team bus. “It’s been one of those years where we just can’t keep people healthy. Why, I don’t know. I do know it’s been two years in a row.”

“We were a pretty elite team when this season started. Now we don’t have the numbers; we’re playing out a lot of youth, we have inconsistent lineups – and it’s hard to be consistent when your lineups continue to change.”


HOUSTON (Nov. 16) – All hands on deck, as the Rice Owls come ashore this weekend in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base, the hub of U.S. naval operations in the North and South Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

The Owls will have slightly less territory to cover in taking on the homestanding Old Dominion Monarchs, a relative PT boat among NCAA football dreadnoughts, but one with sufficient firepower to have humbled the Owls, 45-42, in the two teams’ first and only meeting three years ago in Houston.

The Owls and the Monarchs are on relatively equal footing, despite ODU’s relatively more lofty season record. The Tidewater contingent is 4-6 thus far on the year, opening with consecutive wins over juggernauts Albany and U Mass; then losing six games in a row before winning in their last two bouts, a 6-0 shutout of UNC-Charlotte two weeks ago and a 37-30 stemwinder over Florida International this past Saturday.

Take pause to take note of the teams in whose company the Rice University Owls are thus being mentioned: Old Dominion. Albany. UNC-Charlotte. Florida International.

How the once so lofty-perched have fallen.

Well, not much the peasantry can do about what goes on at the castle. Better to focus on the very real possibility the the Feathered Flock just might be in a good position to pad their 1-9 record with a win on Saturday.

Why? ODU is entering the game on a high, having posted its best team effort of the seaosn in last week’s win over FIU.

In that contest, true freshman quarterback Steven Williams won his first career game as a starting quarterback and threw for a career-best 240-yards, pitching a pair of touchdown passes.

Senior Monarch running back Ray Lawry carried 19 times for 168 yards and had two rushing touchdowns, a one-yarder and one from 40yards out. He also had three catches for 14-yards, including an 11-yard touchdown reception.

On the defensive side, Jordan Young led ODU with nine tackles and added a forced fumble, while Brandon Addison had eight tackles and Joe Joe Headen added seven stops and a fumble recovery. For the first time this season, ODU was a plus-two in the turnover battle and for the second-straight game did not turn the ball over.

ODU has had at least one sack in each game thus far on the season, totaling 27 overall. That figure leads Conference USA and ranks 23rd in the FBS Division.

Meanwhile, we know about the Owls’ pains and tribulations, with mutiple veterans out with injury, especially on the defensive side; with a depleted backfield, a green backup-laden defensive secondary and a frosh quarterback that only now is beginning to find his sea legs.

Add it all up, and, even with the battle casualties and walking wounded, the Rice squad chalks up as superior in physicality and talent over the four teams ODU defeated, FIU included. Old Dominion is cruising in fair winds and seas abeam. Could that be an upset one can smell in the sea breezes wafting off the Lower Chesapeake?

Rice head coach David Bailiff took measure of the opposition in his Tuesday press briefing.

"ODU is getting some guys back,” he noted. “They have a running back, Lawry who’s eighth in Conference USA in rushing. He's had four 200-yard games in his career. They have a nice offensive line. They're a lot like us earlier in the year, trying different quarterbacks. They settled in with a freshman, Williams who is really a big lefty. He has a lot of velocity on the ball. He can make plays with his feet. He seems to be really moving their offense better.”

"Defensively, it will be the first time that we'll see four-down in a while. They are big up front and have a great defensive end, Oshane Ximines.” A University of Mars transfer?

No, “he's a fabulous player,” Coach insisted. “And their corner, Brandon Addison is a great player also. They lead Conference USA with 27 sacks. They are very aggressive defensively. They have solid special teams. The job Bobby Wilder has done, taking the ODU program and moving them from FCS to FBS, has really been amazing. They're doing a good job there.”

"We're looking forward to getting on the plane and going to Norfolk and hopefully playing our best football game."

And pirate away a win, perhaps?