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USM 43, Rice 34

HOUSTON (Nov. 12) – One turnover. Just one punt. Only a single, solitary key third-down-stop.

The Rice Owl defenders were as men dying of thirst in the desert, desperately crawling on all fours looking for a simple drink of water.

They didn’t find one.

On a day when the Rice offense suddenly seemed to discover itself against one of the stouter defensive units in Conference USA, the Owl defense, battered, beaten and bandaged as it was, surrendered 517 yards total offense to a Southern Mississippi team that, on the other hand, wasn’t at all one of the more prolific yardage-producers in the league.

In the event, Rice  failed to force a punt, failed to force a turnover, failed even to force one, single, desperately needed third- down stop when the game was on the line and the momentum lay with a suddenly relentless Rice offensive attack.

The result was yet another loss, the Owls’ eighth straight, this time spelled out in front of a handful of current students and an assemblage of at least several dozen alumni among the motley crowd present in Rice Stadium this Homecoming weekend.

Southern Miss scored on eight consecutive possessions in its 43-34 victory. The only thing that stopped the Golden Eagle offense was the scoreboard clock via victory formation at the end of the game.

USM scored on 51- and 47-yard touchdown pass-and-runs off the arm of newly-mended QB Kwadra Griggs. The Southern Miss samba went field goal touchdown field goal touchdown field goal touchdown touchdown touchdown cha-cha-cha.

Eagle scoring drives went 54 yards, 61, 71, 63, 44, 75, 75 and 67 yards. USM started the game as if they were heading toward another blowout of the Owls, moving the ball with ease until shooting themselves in the foot to bog down drives. In the event, sure-footed place kicker Parker Shoenfield was three-for-three from the free throw line, resulting in a somewhat subdued 22-14 halftime lead for USM.

Rice’s two first-down touchdown drives were aided and abetted by dumb USM penalties, including multiple personal foul infractions, not a mention an uncalled gaffe when one of the Southern Miss assistant coaches lost it and ran onto the field chasing an Owl player, or an official or both.

That seemed to steam the refs good and proper, and they immediately assessed a double unsportsmanlike penalty for perceived in-play shenanigans, eventually tagging the Eagles 10 times for 84 yards in penalties.

That double PF infraction set up the Owls with first and goal at the USM seven yards line, and next play, Nahshon Ellerbe ran in for his first of four scores. That made it 19-14 with 1:28 left in the half, but the Owl defense could not sufficiently slow down the quick-release, short-passing attack of USM, as the Eagles' 22-14 halftime margin came via a 51-yard Parker Shaunfield three-pointer as the second quarter clock expired.

USM quarterback Griggs was 22-for-31 through the air on the day, averaging 15 yards per completion, a telling statistic given the fact the most of his tosses came after a short drop and a quick release. In fact, much of the Eagles’ 331 passing yards came with the pitter-patter of little feet, as USM receivers bobbed and weaved over and around Rice secondary men for big-time yardage-after-completion.

Owl linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee finished with 17 tackles on the day, though, while all-purpose defender Houston Robert added 15 more to head the overall exercise in defensive futility.

"The big thing today that we were talking about as a defense was that we need to go in there and get a turnover, we needed to make a game-changing play," Houston said post-game. "Unfortunately, we never did make that big turnover or game-changing play."

True frosh quarterback Miklo Smalls did indeed draw the start for the Owls, and played every offensive down. He was rough as a cobb at the start, coughing up the pill a couple of times under pressure – fumbles that the football gods deigned this day would be recovered by his own guys, not the other ones.

For the record, Miklo was also sacked thrice and only four-for-ten passing for 10 total yards in the first half. The slack was picked up primarily by junior slot Austin Walter and soph running back Nahshon Ellerbe who had a career day toting the ball for 153 yards and those four, count ‘tem, rushing touchdowns.

The frosh quarterback came on strong in the second half, however, upping his passing stats on the day to 10-of-15 for 127 yards, including a couple of big-time contested receptions by Aaron Cephus, who continuted to show flashes of incipient stardom for the Flock.

The Owls also posted their season high in rushing yardage, gathering up 254 yards on the ground, which is more than twice the season average per-game yards allowed rushing by USM.

The second half of the game was all offense as the two teams traded blows in fashioning three touchdown drives apiece. Rice did punt two times in the first half, and on the Owls’ last possession Miklo was finally stopped on a fourth-and-nine sack as he vainly attempted to push his team across the pay station for a sixth time on the day. But that was it, as far as defense was concerned.

Southern Miss achieved bowl eligibility with the win, upping its record to 6-4, while the Owls fell to 1-9 on the season.. Rice will return to the road next week for the final time in 2017, traveling to Norfolk, Virginia to take on Old Dominion at 1 p.m. (central).


HOUSTON (Nov. 9) – Amid the halls of ivy bedecking the oak-strewn acreage of one of America’s most storied universities, Rice graduates young and old will gather this weekend in a quest for comfort within once-familiar surroundings.

A number of them will even gather at Historic Rice Stadium come Saturday, in hopes of a pleasant fall football afternoon, buoyed, one would hope, but a pre-game wine tasting, which, perhaps, ought to become a regular feature of Rice home gridiron tilts.

An extended vertical tasting might be advisable for alums planning to spend the day at the football field, for the bout on the card features a 1-8 Owl team against a 5-4 Southern Mississippi contingent still in the conference race and vying for bowl eligibility.

Two years ago, in a similar situation, and on Homecoming as well, this same USM bunch humbled the Feathered Flock 65-10, in a game which sent alumni promptly scattering toward the main quad seeking out reunion gatherings with plenty of wine, or something stronger, to taste.

Rice was once The Boys of November, during the quarter-century reign of the Honorable Jess Neely. It was a tradition that even occasionally was reclaimed during the lean, bowl-less years of Rice football, 1962 through 2005. But in the last few seasons, November results have been mixed.

Nonetheless, Rice head coach David Bailiff was uncharacteristically relaxed and upbeat about his team’s chances at Tuesday’s media briefing.

“I think a lot of times, you get beat up early in the year and you start to get some guys back,” he noted. “As you get people back, usually you get better in the month of November. We’re sure hoping that’s what happens this year. These guys came here to win. We all came here to win. Every coach, every player. Nobody like losing.”

“They come over here with high energy every week. They’re pain after the game and an emotional letdown. But, they come back over here and they’re ready to go to work to try to get a win. They’re doing everything that we ask them,” said the veteran Rice coach, now in his 12th year at the helm on South Main.

What will Coach Bailiff’s crew be going up against when they line up on the turf of HRS against USM?

After an initial 43-28 loss to North Texas, the Golden Eagles went on a tear in conference play, winning three straight over UTSA (31-29), UTEP (24-0) and Louisiana Tech (34-27, in two overtimes). But in consecutive weeks now, they’ve dropped two straight, including a C-USA loss to UAB(30-12) followed by a 24-10 road loss to Tennessee last Saturday.

The USM defense was impressive against a somewhat sub-par Tennessee team, holding the Vols to 210 yards total offense and only 2-of-13 on third down attempts.

But the Mississippians were undone by a couple of lost fumbles in the third quarter which led two a pair of cheap Tennessee touchdowns.

The goat in that loss was USM quarterback Keon Howard, who was responsible for both of those key, third-quarter turnovers So the word is that his counterpart, Kwadra Griggs, will draw the starting nod at man under against the Owls.

Griggs spelled Howard late in the UT game, moving his team on a 95-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown drive, operating with a cast on his left hand which hindered his ball handling and snap takes. But he had that cast removed this week, and will be not so diminished in whatever role he takes on Saturday.

The fortunes of the Owls, defensively, seem to rise and fall materially with the relative performance of the enemy quarterback. Griggs was 6 of 11 for 61 yards passing and scored USM’s late touchdown himself last week. If he picks up where he left off, the Owl defense likely will be in for a tough go against the Eagles.

Tuesday, Coach Bailiff revealed that his true freshman, Miklo Smalls, will draw the start at quarterback for the Owls on Homecoming.

Miklo had the best outing of his fledgling career in the Owls’ 52-21 loss to UAB Saturday, and his trend line is most definitely moving to the positivve, DB intimated.

“I thought Miklo really sparked us against UAB,” he said. “We had 236 yards rushing and 227 passing. Miklo was very accurate in his throwing, but he also had an interception that was a pick-six. That’s been an Achilles heel for us. It’s hard when you’re a young freshman to make all of the right decisions.”

As a team, the Owls sport a grand total of 26 turnovers on the season thus far, good for second worst in the FBS. Against that, the Flock defense has produced only six takeaways on the season. That’s a trend line that’s definitely in the dumps.

It’ll take a major reversal in the turnover game for the Owls to have a decent chance on Saturday. But stranger turns of fate have occurred in old Rice Stadium.

Especially come the month of November.