Football jump-starts excitement with dramatic win
It all played out like a movie script on Saturday. A battered football team, struggling through their season, comes face-to-face with their much more talented rival on homecoming weekend. Their embattled quarterback, who had seen the bench only a few games before, storms forward to take control of the team along with the emergence of the running game that had been hiding all season. A third-quarter blowup, a perfectly choreographed go-ahead touchdown, a defensive stand on fourth down, fans storming the field; basically everything college football is meant to be. The Owls were struggling after their game over fall break at the University of Texas-El Paso (5-2, 2-2 C-USA), in which they fell to the Miners by a final score of 44-24. The final score ended up being closer than the game actually was, as the Owls were dominated from the start and were held hostage by the Miners' passing attack. Miners quarterback Trevor Vittatoe broke three career passing records in the game, moving into first place on the Miners' all-time list for touchdowns, passing yards and total offensive yards.
The game was a setback for the Owls, who had lost four straight - three of those by more than two touchdowns. The University of Houston (3-3, 2-1 C-USA), who, despite losing Heisman hopeful quarterback Case Keenum in the third game of the season, still had an explosive offense and one of the best defenses inside Conference USA.
The Owls stormed out of the gate in the first quarter in the quest for the Bayou Bucket, scoring on their first possession of the game off of a one-yard run by freshman running back Jeremy Eddington, making his appearance as a quarterback in the "Wild Owl" formation. Redshirt freshman kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra point, leaving the Owls with a 6-0 lead.
Rice forced another punt, and junior quarterback Nick Fanuzzi found redshirt sophomore tight end Luke Willson on a 29-yard pass over the middle, moving the score to 13-0 in the middle of the first. However, Houston punched in a touchdown in the closing minutes of the quarter, pushing the score to 13-7.
Rice drove 75 yards the next time it touched the ball, capping it off with a one-yard touchdown run from redshirt freshman running back Turner Petersen to put the score at 20-7. The defense got another crucial stop, setting up a 59-yard pass from Fanuzzi to redshirt junior wide receiver Randy Kitchens, Rice's longest touchdown of the year. The pass put the Owls up 20 points, their largest lead of the season.
UH scored one more touchdown before the half, keeping the game within reach for the Cougars as both teams headed into the locker room. UH quarterback David Piland threw a 38-yard touchdown pass into the corner of the end zone leaving the score at 27-14.
Rice started the second half off with the ball, but were forced to punt it away. Junior punter Kyle Martens, who was be named the Conference USA special teams player of the week for his efforts, boomed a punt that was downed at the Houston one-yard line. Houston worked its way out of the end-zone, only for Piland to gash the Owls' secondary again, connecting with his receiver for a 49-yard touchdown pass.
Rice was forced to punt again and let Houston march down the field, where they then punched the ball in from the one-yard line. After the completed extra point, the score was 28-27, the first Houston lead of the game.
Houston drove to start the fourth quarter and made a field goal, putting Rice down four points. With a little under nine minutes remaining, Rice regained possession and marched down the field off of a combination of Fanuzzi passes and rushes by redshirt sophomore running back Sam McGuffie. Fanuzzi then found sophomore tight end Vance McDonald in the endzone for the go-ahead touchdown, leaving the Owls clinging to a three-point advantage with Houston regaining possession.
Houston worked into Rice territory on the next possession, reaching as far as the 37-yard line. On third down, junior strong safety Xavier Webb made a big tackle in the backfield on a Houston running play, setting up a crucial fourth down. Houston fumbled the snap on the fourth down play, resulting in a turnover on downs - and a Rice victory.
"It's amazing what that beat-up old trophy represents, and we're proud to have it back," Head Coach David Bailiff said. "It was a great football game. Offensively, we thought we had to keep the ball out of their hands as much as we could. We had no turnovers for the second week, and that was key. Defensively was I proud of those guys. That's still a very explosive offense."
The Bayou Bucket Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the game between Rice and UH, will be displayed at a few locations across campus, including Academic Advising and the athletic director's office, before making its way back to the locker room.
Redshirt junior free safety Travis Bradshaw knew what the win could do the for the Owls' confidence.
"It was huge for us," he said. "It was clear out there on the field. No one even wanted to go into the locker room. Hopefully we can use this as a spark and finish off the season on a good note."
This weekend, the Owls hope to continue the momentum against the University of Central Florida (4-2, 2-0 C-USA), which is ranked eighth in the country in total defense, led by senior defensive end Bruce Miller, who was named C-USA defensive player of the year in 2009. The Owls will need to continue their progress in the running game if they have any hope of escaping Orlando, Fla. with a victory.
Martens thinks that the team will be ready to play next week.
"Winning helps everyone out," he said. "It riles everyone up. Practices are more exciting, and everyone is ready to go.
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