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Victories in its final two games give football hope

By Teddy Grodek     12/2/10 6:00pm

2010 certainly did not end up being the football season that Rice had in mind. 4-8 and a November end to the season left many on the team disappointed, but the final two weeks will make the early offseason much easier to stomach. The Owls played their first home game since October on Nov. 20, welcoming East Carolina University (6-6, 4-4 C-USA), who will be playing in the Military Bowl later this month, into Rice Stadium, looking for a spark of confidence after losing three-straight games on the road.

Head Coach David Bailiff had hinted in the week before that redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor McHargue was cleared to play but surprised everyone by actually giving him the start, a move that clearly ignited the Rice offense.

McHargue led the Owls with 220 passing yards and three touchdowns, going 11-15 with no interceptions. Capped off with four rushing touchdowns by freshman phenom running back Jeremy Eddington, the Owls' offense soared to 62 points, ending the game with a final of 62-38.

Bailiff was pleased with the return of McHargue.

"I am very proud of Taylor McHargue coming in," Bailiff said. "He played two snaps at SMU before reinjuring that shoulder, but the way he responded was very nice," Bailiff said. "When there wasn't somebody open, it was good to see him scramble and pick up some yards. That is a trait that we have to have for a quarterback to be successful and I think he did a great job operating the offense tonight."

Rice got off to a quick start, scoring on its first possession, only to give seven points back to ECU. Rice then scored the next three touchdowns in the first half, moving them up 20 and putting the game effectively out of reach.

Sophomore tight end Vance McDonald hoped that this win would give the team confidence for both the next week and next season.

"Last week was tough, but we did a lot of good things," McDonald said. "Especially on offense. Our job is to score more points than them. I feel like we came out last week and we had that momentum coming in to this week."

McDonald commented further on the offense's improvement over the course of the year.

"We ran a great offense in this game," McDonald said. "We have gotten to that point where we know that we can move the ball against anyone. We can execute and we can only beat ourselves. The confidence we have built is a great thing to carry into next year."

Last Saturday, the Owls hosted the University of Alabama at Birmingham (4-8, 3-5 C-USA), another Conference USA team with an explosive offense.

It was the defense that really came out to play this game, holding UAB to a measly 23 points, the lowest total of the season.

Rice was once again the first team on the board, going up 7-0 on a rushing touchdown by redshirt sophomore running back Sam McGuffie. UAB scored on the next possession, however, sending the score to 7-7 at the end of the quarter.

The teams traded blows once again in the second half, leaving the score at 14-14 going into the halftime.

UAB made a field goal in the opening minutes of the second half, only to be answered by an 83 yard, 19-play Rice drive that ended in McHargue hitting McDonald with a pass in the endzone, giving him his eighth touchdown of the year and leaving the score at 21-17.

UAB answered with another touchdown but missed the extra point, making a score of 23-21 in favor of the Blazers.

Once again though, with the game on the line, McHargue led the team down the field, capped off by a 22-yard Eddington touchdown run.

UAB got the ball back with five minutes, but the Owls' defense came up with a huge stop, forcing UAB to turn the ball over on downs with 16 seconds left

The end of this game is probably the happiest that David Bailiff has been all season.

"I am proud of this football team," Bailiff said. "I am proud of the seniors. We hung together to win our last two conference games in a row. Our last two at home was fitting for this senior class. It gives us a lot of hope for the future if you look at the young men and their ages that are making plays."

Headed into the offseason, it's clear the Owls learned a lot about themselves this year, and definitely have some pieces that will be integral to a stronger 2011. Of course, the tandem of Eddington and McHargue will certainly be the focal point, along with McGuffie of the offense next season.

The defense has played better the last two weeks, giving hope to Owls' fans everywhere. The secondary, which had been in question all season, played well, including the huge stop at the end of the UAB game, to give the team the victory.

While the 2009 Owls were one of the youngest teams in college football, this season's edition was even more youthful. Should current redshirt juniors decide to call Rice Stadium home for yet another year, the Owls will return each of their three quarterbacks, as well as players that accounted for all but 44 of their 1,913 rushing yards.

Senior wide receiver Patrick Randolph's 332 receiving yards and two touchdowns will be missed, but it is clear that the receiving corps did not rely on senior leadership for the vast majority of their production.

On the defensive side of the ball, senior defensive ends Kramer Lucio and Cheta Ozougwu combined for 75 tackles and seven sacks, so redshirt junior defensive tackle Scott Solomon will need to return to his pre-injury form to help avoid a setback for the defensive line. Justin Hill provided great senior leadership at the linebacker position, but junior Matt Nordstrom saw valuable action in all 12 games this season, so Rice can feel somewhat comforted by their youth at the position. The secondary returns all players save for strong safety Chris Jones, but the unit must learn to work together in a better fashion if they want to post more than six interceptions in 2011.

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