LA Tech 23, Rice 20 (OT)

Rice linebacker Anthony Ekpe attacks UAB quarterback Smith, forces fumble (PTH photo)
HOUSTON (Sept. 28) – There were so many ways the Rice Owls could have won this game. Instead, it turned into just another loss, this time in overtime.

It was a barn-burner of a game – must’ve been a fun one to watch for the two or three thousand LA Tech fans in attendance, who saw their heroes trail the whole night, but then win it with a walkoff. But it was an excru- ciatingly narrow loss for Rice loyalists to have to digest.

“It’s so frustrating to say that we’re close, but we’re close,” a glum Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said afterwards. “I really believe with all my heart, when we break through, when we find a way to get these wins, we’re gonna be a tough team to deal with.”

But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the 23-20 setback the Feathered Flock suffered at the hands of a veteran Lousiana Tech team just goes down in the record book as a loss to a middling team in a lower-rung league, not to mention dropping the Owls to 0-5 on the season.

It was a game in which Rice fairly well dominated in the first half, with a big-play defense and an offense finally humming along as one would hope, behind a now-comfortable Wiley Green at the helm. At least it was that way before, in a predetermined move, the Rice coaching staff sat him on the bench in order to give grad senior transfer Tom Stewart his reps.

Rice’s first two possessions resulted in impressive touchdown-capped scoring drives, surging 46 yards in six plays, and 65 yards in ten plays, both resulting in touchdowns at the hands of Wiley Green who at the time seemed on fire.. But when his Harvard grad compadre came in to pitch, it was as if he’d taken the mound without tossing any warmups. Usually reliable and always determined, Tom Stewart just had an off day. One senses that, with the way Wiley was clicking, Tom himself probably down deep felt misgivings about coming in to spell a pitcher who didn’t need to be relieved.

The result was a 14-7 Rice halftime lead that easily could have been more, 21, 24 or even 28 to 7.

When the Owls took the field in the second half, that early mojo was gone. LA Tech’s defensive geniuses saw that no Rice passing attempt had winged it more than 12 or 15 years past the line of scrimmage.. So they crept up. And they still crept up some more.

The Bulldog defensive front soon was stacked like a stone wall, and the Owl running game, so potent in the first half, went away.

Meanwhile, the Rice defensive front held up staunchly for almost three quarters, holding the hottest offense in C-USA to a season low in yardage. But by late in the third, the Louisianans were able to mount a 76-yard scoring drive to tie the score at 14.

As the scoreboard clock ticked down, the teams’ offenses were sufficiently capable, and the defenses sufficiently stout, to produce/allow a field goal apiece. It appears that Rice punter Chris Barnes has won the place-kicking job as he nailed a 36-yarder with 2:51 to play. It was the culmination of a 14-play, 53-yard drive that stalled at the Tech 19, after Charlie Booker had toted the mail eight times on that possession. Hmmm, fancy.

So it could be suggested that, with under three minutes to play, it was time for the Rice defense to get down, get funky, and simply deny LA Tech a chance to get into the end zone or tie the game with a field goal. They tried. They came close.

Treshawn Chamberlain made an acrobatic breakup of a J’Mar Smith pass on second and ten. In fact the Rice defense stood tall by thrice denying Smith’s passing attempts into the end zone.

But naturally the Bulldogs were able wrest a tie on the heels of a 31-yard, Bailey Hale field goal.

So the Owls had 1:31 left on the clock to get back into field goal range and have a chance to win the game right then and there. But on the next Rice possession, it was three and out after an illegal procedure penalty started them on a first and 15.

Now it was on to the overtime, which, by all measures, turned out to be brief and anticlimactical.

Rice wound up taking the first possession and the offense ran a play series that can only be described as “let the defense win this one for us.” Three plunges into the lline by Aston Walter yielded eight yards, and on fourth and two the decision was to go for three points. Chris Barnes came in and nailed his second field goal of the day, a 36-yarder, and the Owls led, 20-17.

“With the way our kids had played and the way our defense had played all game, you gotta keep a game like that going,” Coach Bloom explained about his decision to prolong the game.. “4th-and-2 is not difficult. It’s not that I didn’t believe in us to get it. I believe our team played too well not to kick that field goal.”

Hey, so maybe finally we’ve got ourselves a field goal kicker.

LA Tech played it conservatively, too, on its ensuing possession, First, quarterback Smith kept for nine yards to the sixteen. The Rice defense next stood tall in repulsing three Justin Hernderson plunges into the line. But the line to gain was earned.

And so on second and 10 at the Rice twelve, J’Mar Smith took what appeared to be a designed quarterback draw, hesitated, waited for his seam to develop, and dived into the end zone unmolested. Game over.

In 1966, Jess Neely’s penultimate team came out and beat LSU in the opener, then lost a narrow one at Rice Stadium to number two-ranked UCLA, 27-24, after playing them off their feet. Every game that season was close; the Owls had a chance to win each of them, but finished 2-and-8.

In its season ending NCAA football wrap, Playboy Magazine declared the Owls “the best two-and-eight team in the nation.”

Well, right now, the Institue Boys certainly must be th best 0-and-5 team in the nation.