Owls' secondary torched by SMU air attack
If football games only consisted of the first and fourth quarters, Rice would have tied or won every game this year. For some reason, the football team has not come up with the same sterling results in the second and third quarters of their contests, including last weekend's game against Southern Methodist University (3-2, 2-0 C-USA), which the Owls lost 42-31. Whether it is conditioning, coaching or something else, Rice simply cannot continue to be so soundly defeated on the bookends of halftime if the team hopes to win games. With the predictability of the rhythm of the games, this season almost seems scripted. Rice plays great in the first quarter, giving up an average of 4.8 points - a pretty respectable number with its difficult schedule.
On the other hand, in the second quarter, Rice has been outscored 68-20, essentially putting the game out of reach by halftime.
The third quarter is more of the same, as the Owls have been outscored 49-16 this year. More often than not this brings the game completely out of reach, as there has only been one game where the Owls have been down heading into the fourth by fewer than 10 points and only one more where they have been down by fewer than 20.
The fourth is where the Owls reappear, almost doubling their opponents' average of five points in the quarter. However, it is far too little, too late, gives the fans only fleeting hopes and is very difficult to gain any momentum from. It makes the games look closer than they were, but a loss is a loss in every player's eyes, be it by 10 or 20points.
The Owls followed their formula last weekend, starting off fairly strong by allowing only seven points in the first half off of a 31-yard return of an interception thrown by redshirt junior quarterback Nick Fanuzzi. Fanuzzi was then pulled in favor of freshman Taylor McHargue, only for McHargue to be re-injured in the quarter, putting Fanuzzi back in the game.
The Owls drove and redshirt freshman kicker Chris Boswell connected on a 42-yard field goal in the second, leaving the score 7-3. SMU regained the ball with a little more than one minute left in the half and moved the ball 80 yards to score just before the half. Two long passes by SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, one for 51 yards and another for 23 yards, burned the Owls and put the score at 14-3. Junior defensive tackle Michael Smith talked about Rice's failure to maintain focus at the end of the half.
"We said on the sideline that we needed to finish off the half and they just made a good play," Smith said. "They finished it out and we didn't."
Rice scrambled in the remaining seconds to put itself in field goal position, only to have Boswell miss from 58 yards, which would have been the longest field goal in Rice history.
Coming out of the half, the Owls scored a fluke touchdown on a muffed punt, all of a sudden putting themselves in the game. Senior strong safety Chris Jones forced a fumble on the return, which was returned to the endzone on the recovery by sophomore cornerback Phillip Gaines.
SMU scored two more touchdowns in the third, one off of a blocked field goal, to go up 28-10. The teams traded touchdown blows in the fourth quarter without Rice ever coming within 10 points, making the final score 42-31 in favor of SMU.
Redshirt sophomore running back Sam McGuffie had a big game for the Owls, with 96 rushing yards and 45 passing yards, providing a good chunk of the Owls' offense. Fanuzzi ended up with 276 passing yards, but two interceptions, bringing his season total to six compared to only one passing touchdown.
Freshman wide receiver Klein Kubiak, son of Houston Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak, had a breakout game with four catches for 57 yards to lead the team. Senior Patrick Randolph also had four catches for 57 yards.
Head Coach David Bailiff is pleased with the play of his receiving corps but sees room for improvement.
"Receivers are really starting to make some plays," Bailiff said. "But we need some big plays. We need to get some people missing so we can pick up more yards."
This weekend, the Owls travel to the University of Texas-El Paso, the team's first road game in a month. UTEP, typically a weak team in C-USA, looks strong this year with a 4-1 record. Star running back Donald Buckram, who rushed for 1,594 yards in 2009, is expected to suit up against Rice despite dealing with a knee injury this season.
Rice has won the last four meetings between the teams and holds an 8-5 advantage in the series. The last time the Owls had a winning streak of more than four games against an opponent was when they won eight straight against SMU in the early '90s.
If the Owls hope to win this weekend, they will have to play the middle two quarters and limit the big plays. UTEP has one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference in senior Trevor Vittatoe, who has started every game for the Miners in the last three years. He will surely be able to find any weaknesses in the Owls' secondary and exploit them.
Bailiff knows what his team is up against this week.
"They're sitting there at 4-1 and they're hard to gauge because their only loss is [the University of] Houston in a great game," Bailiff said. "I'm sure they'll be ready to play. They're much improved defensively; they're not making the mistakes they've made in the past.
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