Led by senior quarterback Driphus Jackson and junior running back Darik Dillard, the Rice University football team defeated Wagner University 56-16 to give them their first opening game victory since 2008.
Despite losing junior starting running back Jowan Davis to injury on the opening drive of the game, the Owls were able to gain 401 yards rushing and gave up only 86. Rice also outgained Wagner on the day, 543 yards to 285, while also picking up 28 first downs to Wagner’s 13. The Owls took a 35-3 lead into halftime, after which several starters were pulled.
Senior safety Zach Espinosa, who had Rice’s only interception in the game, said he was pleased with his team’s effort.
“It was a great all-around team game,” Espinosa said. “The offense played well and we won the special teams battle. We were able to rotate a lot of young guys in, get the starters some rest, which we’ll need.”
According to Bailiff, it was a performance that had coaches and players very satisfied.
“It was a great way to start the season,” Bailiff said. “I thought [Jackson] really led our way through the football game. I was pleased with how our tight ends blocked, I thought [redshirt junior] Zach Wright was very physical with his blocking. [Redshirt junior] Alex Lyons was all over the field, he was our leading tackler. I was really pleased with our freshman [kicker] Jack Fox.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the game was Rice’s use of senior Luke Turner in a sub package at quarterback. Turner, who was a high school quarterback, is capable of playing quarterback, tight end, receiver, halfback and special teams. Against Wagner, he had six carries for 21 yards and two touchdowns, while also completing an eight-yard pass.
Bailiff said Turner is a critical component of the team’s offense.
“[Turner] is the best pure athlete on this team,” Bailiff said. “He very rarely makes mental mistakes and we count on him to do a lot of things.”
Turner fully embraces all of the roles in which the coaching staff puts him, including his quarterback package.
“It’s fun to catch a snap and be the QB when you’re not always the QB,” Turner said. “We said it was a pretty good formation to run out of.”
As Rice’s lead grew, fans were able to get a glimpse of the depth that this team possesses, and some of the players that make for a very exciting future such as redshirt freshman Austin Walter. In his first collegiate game, Walter entered the game as a reserve, yet still eclipsed 100 yards rushing, picking up 107 yards on 12 carries. Among those carries was a 32-yard touchdown scamper, which Bailiff said was “electric.”
“Those Walter twins are going to be exciting for Rice fans for the next four years,” Bailiff said. “Our future with [redshirt freshman Samuel] Stewart and the Walter twins, we’re going to have some dynamic people back there. We haven’t had a lot of guys like those.”
Jackson previously described this year’s schedule as being “a better layout” for the team, given the caliber of the opening opponent. According to Bailiff, the Wagner game provided the Owls with much to learn heading into the week two matchup against the University of Texas, Austin.
“We learned a lot from Wagner,” Bailiff said. “We learned about the running backs, who can play on third and long. We’ve got to figure out our protections, figure out the passing game. We just worry about trying to go 1-0 every week and get ready for Conference USA. That’s all these games are for.”
Heading into what many consider to be the biggest game of the year against the University of Texas, Austin, two things are certain: The Owls will be ready, and they will be tested. Bailiff tends to recruit more students from the state of Texas than elsewhere and as such, many Owls have personal ties to the University of Texas. Texas will be very motivated by their 38-3 opening game loss to Notre Dame and are led by Head Coach Charlie Strong, a coach that Bailiff said he deeply respects.
“Charlie [Strong] will have them ready, we all know what he did at Louisville,” Bailiff said. “We don’t really have to worry about them, we have to worry about being the best team we can be this week.”
The Owls will look to push their record to 2-0 on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.