Gridiron gang nearly defeats SMU in windy road game
The 2011 football season ended with just as many questions as it started with, as the mediocre 4-8 season did little to prove to die-hard fans that Head Coach David Bailiff is the future of the program. With the disappearance of junior running back Sam McGuffie, another mid-season quarterback change, and a still struggling defense, it's hard to find silver lining in the campaign that yielded little more to celebrate than wins against three bottom-tier Conference USA teams and against a Purdue University team on a miraculous blocked kick.
This weekend, the Owls finished up the season against conference opponent Southern Methodist University (7-5), which needed the win to lock up a more desirable bowl appearance. The game mattered little for the Owls, who had been knocked from bowl contention weeks before, but the Rice-SMU has turned into a rivalry game over the last few seasons.
"If you talk to the other guys they'll say this is a big game," Rice senior defensive end Scott Solomon said. "It's a game we looked at at the beginning of the season, before the season too. It's a big one."
SMU has a top-notch defense which played much better as the season progressed. Bailiff knew SMU would be a tough matchup heading into the game.
"I think we are working on a good gameplan right now but they are probably the most solid defense right now in [C-USA]," he said.
That plan did not work out so well, as Southern Methodist stormed out to a 14-0 lead before the Owls had a first down. The Owls looked terrible on offense, with senior punter Kyle Martens receiving plenty of chances to show off his punting skills for a possible future professional career.
Finally, in the last five minutes of the second quarter, Rice showed life, with senior free safety Xavier Webb picking off an SMU pass and returning it to the SMU 13-yard line. Senior quarterback Nick Fanuzzi would capitalize on the play, finding sophomore wide receiver Donte Moore in the end zone for a touchdown and cutting the SMU lead in half in 30 seconds.
The teams would trade possessions in the closing minutes of the second half, with little changing as the teams headed into the locker room.
Bailiff said something to his team at halftime, because the defense stormed out, holding a good SMU offense to little ball movement.
Sophomore linebacker Cameron Nwosu would register a game changing plan, running the ball back on a forced SMU fumble from the SMU 21 yard line. The ensuing extra point from sophomore kicker Chris Boswell would tie the game, making the score 14-14.
A botched punt at the end of the third would give Rice excellent field position, leaving the ball on the SMU 35-yard line. Rice would not capitalize, forcing Boswell to kick a 49-yard field goal. The converted kick put the Owls up three, heading into the fourth quarter.
The Rice defense simply could not continue to hold, as SMU eventually found their way into the end zone again, forcing the ball down the field on a long, time absorbing drive. A missed extra-point left the score at 20-17, meaning a field goal would tie the game.
SMU scored again, on a 40-yard touchdown pass, making it a two possession game. In the last ticks of the second half, Rice finally put together a decent drive, their first score of the game from the other side of the fifty, and put the ball in the end zone, bringing the difference to just three points.
With minutes left, Bailiff was left to opt for an onside kick, which Rice recovered and had a glimpse of hope. With minutes left, they had the ball and were driving, with the possibility of putting one more win on the board this season and provide themselves some momentum heading into next year.
After one fourth-down conversion in the drive, Rice simply could not dig a second one out on the net set of possessions, turning the ball over on downs and effectively ending their season.
Fanuzzi threw for only 158 yards and led the team in rushing – a recipe for any team to lose. When the quarterback leads the team with 53 net rushing yards, it's simply hard to score enough point to win a football game.
The defense, who had struggled all season long, was the bright spot of the game with their turnovers. While giving up 27 points is not the best performance, in light of the offensive struggles, the defense gave the team an opportunity to win.
The team begins the off-season with questions at every key position (except maybe kicker). Director of Athletics Rick Greenspan has stated that Bailiff will return for the 2012 season, with Bailiff's current contract expiring after the 2013 season.
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