Redshirt junior linebacker Alex Lyons’ sealed a comeback win over Florida Atlantic University by sacking redshirt senior quarterback Jaquez Johnson on the fourth down, giving his team an inspirational win in what has been an uneven season.
It was the type of exciting, uplifting victory that can change Rice’s season, according to Head Coach David Bailiff.
“I just don’t know if I’ve ever had a sweeter win at Rice,” Bailiff said. “It was just an incredible experience to see the guys’ faces in that locker room and to know how hard we worked at the end to make that happen.”
In many ways, the win over Florida Atlantic was a microcosm of Rice’s 2015 season. There were flashes of brilliance, such as the fourth quarter of the FAU game that Bailiff described as the “best quarter of football we played this year” and the touchdowns Rice scored on their first two drives of the game. There were long stretches of impressive ball control but an inability to put points on the board, as the Owls had a stretch of five drives in which they did not score, despite two of those drives lasting 16 and 11 plays. The defense showed a propensity to give up big plays, as they did in the second quarter with a 94-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to sophomore Kamrin Solomon. Yet amid considerable adversity, Bailiff said there was a team that showed belief in itself and their ability to win games.
“We kept our focus,” Bailiff said. “We kept our attitude, and I’m proud of this team and proud of this coaching staff. Nobody gave up. It’s incredible.”
Heading into the season, the question for Rice was how the team would replace considerable losses on both sides of the ball. The team had lost three starters on the offensive line, their top two receivers in Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull, as well as defensive tackle Christian Covington, defensive end Brian Nordstrom and cornerback Bryce Callahan. Yet despite these losses, the Owls retained their entire coaching staff, and perhaps more importantly, had stability at the quarterback position, with Jackson returning for his final season. Rice was viewed as one of the favorites to win Conference USA, along with Western Kentucky University and Louisiana Tech University. Given these expectations, results to this point have been mixed.
Offensively, the Owls have seen several weapons emerge. Junior running back Jowan Davis and redshirt junior running back Darik Dillard were the established running backs heading into the season, with Davis having run for 956 yards in 2014 and Dillard having averaged 4.9 yards per carry a season ago. In addition to these two players, redshirt freshman running back Samuel Stewart has become a dynamic weapon out of the backfield, with a breakout performance against the University of Texas, Austin where he eclipsed 100 yards rushing. The losses of Taylor and Hull to the NFL figured to be big losses for the team, but redshirt senior Dennis Parks and redshirt junior Zach Wright have been effective in replacing them, with Parks accumulating 381 receiving yards to date and Wright having eight catches for 77 yards and a touchdown in the comeback win over Florida Atlantic.
Despite these weapons, the Achilles heel of the Owls has been turnovers: They have lost nine fumbles and have thrown six interceptions to this point. As a result, Rice ranks No. 116 in the NCAA with an average turnover margin per game of -1.33. Though the offense has established an offensive identity of controlling the ball and methodically moving upfield, their self-inflicted wounds have cost them in some games.
Defensively, results have also been mixed. The team was able to make the key stops against Florida Atlantic, and played strong games against Wagner College and the University of North Texas according to Bailiff, Jackson and defensive end Brian Womac. That said, the Owls lost considerable depth in their secondary from a year ago, and that has shown at times this season. In games against Baylor, Texas, and Western Kentucky, Rice has been burned repeatedly by long passing plays, giving Rice the No. 102 pass defense in the country. They have also been unable to generate a consistent pass rush and force turnovers this season, ranking last in Conference USA in sacks and second to last in turnovers forced.
Despite the mixed results on offense and defense, Bailiff said he is confident that his team will get on track and put together the complete football game that they searching for the entire season.
“When we can stay on track as a football team and keep ourselves out of third and longs, we are pretty effective,” Bailiff said. “We were staying on track [against Florida Atlantic], and we will continue to do so.“
By defeating Florida Atlantic, the Owls put themselves in strong position in the Conference USA West division. With a 2-1 Conference USA record, they are tied with Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi for the best record in the division. They control their own fate for the remainder of the season, and with a 3-3 overall record, require three more wins to qualify for a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.
In celebration of a comeback victory over Florida Atlantic, Lyons and his team let out the frustration that came with two consecutive blowout losses, and as the postgame press conference showed, were inspired by a renewed sense of optimism for the rest of the season. Whether the Owls can embark on a winning streak that will turn an up-and-down season into a successful one remains to be seen, but the team is confident in their ability to do so.
The Owls return from a bye week and will look for their fourth win of the season in a home matchup against the United States Military Academy on Oct. 24 at 11 a.m. at Rice Stadium.