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Tulsa squeaks past floundering Owls, 28-24

By Teddy Grodek     10/24/12 7:00pm

Last season, the University of Southern Mississippi football program was the only thing that stood between the University of Houston and a BCS bowl. With 11 wins and a conference title, the 2011 season surpassed everyone in Hattiesburg's wildest dreams. With 18 consecutive winning seasons under their belt, it seemed that Southern Miss was a storybook mid-major program - and then 2012 struck.

With a coaching change and a brutal non-conference schedule that has to be considered one of the hardest in the nation, the Golden Eagles find themselves seven games into the season without a win. 

Seemingly everything that could go wrong has, with injured quarterbacks, a defense that cannot stop anyone and one of the worst turnover ratios in the nation.

And yet, this team still has some fight. With a few games that have only been decided by one possession, a running attack that still can be dangerous and special teams that have been playing well, Rice cannot simply look at this team as an easy victory, especially with the team's recent performances.

"We're very close, but we're very close to the season being over," Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "You can only be close for so long and then you are out of chances."

Last weekend, Rice lost another heartbreaker on the road against the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. Tulsa, tied for the C-USA lead with five straight conference wins, was heavily favored against the Owls.

Rice got on the scoreboard first with a huge special teams play, as wide receiver Sam McGuffie blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Rice and Tulsa traded touchdowns for the rest of the half (two short touchdowns from McHargue), sending Rice into the locker room 21-14, having never trailed the conference leader.

Both defenses came out to play in the second half, with the first 14 minutes of the third quarter going scoreless. But a Rice interception led to great Tulsa field position, and one good throw from Tulsa quarterback Kalen Henderson tied the game back up at 21-21.

Rice put together a strong drive in the fourth, leading to a 35-yard field goal from kicker Chris Boswell. Boswell, the best kicker in the C-USA, had previously missed from 47 yards in the third and would miss from 36 in the closing minutes of the fourth.

Tulsa, down three with only three minutes to play, knew they needed to put together a full-field drive to have a chance at winning the game. The big play struck the Owls, with running back Jaterian Douglas snapping off a 75-yard run, setting Tulsa up at the five-yard line. A one-yard run was be the nail in the coffin for the Owls, falling 28-24.

The most impressive performance of the evening came from freshman running back Luke Turner, with 102 yards, mostly out of the Wild Owl formation, all coming in the second half. He provided a needed spark to the Owls' offense and seemingly fooled the Golden Hurricanes, giving them one more thing to worry about.

McHargue played well, with one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown, but struggled at times against a great Tulsa defense. The sudden revelation of Luke Turner really helped open up the field for him, providing a much needed lift for the recently-struggling quarterback.

With the season-ending injury to cornerback Bryce Callahan the week before, Head Coach David Bailiff was forced to slide safety Malcolm Hill to corner, starting sophomore Gabe Baker at strong safety. The move appeared to work well, with Baker recording seven tackles. Baker had seen a lot of repetitions over the season in second-string duty, so he was prepared to play a bigger role.

The game was Rice's 14th consecutive C-USA loss on the road. Despite the progress of some players, the entire Rice team was still upset with losing another close game.  

"It was a heartbreaking game," Bailiff said. "This team played well, and we led the whole game except the last minute and 30 seconds. It was one where we had some opportunities out there, and we have to take advantage of those opportunities when you play a team like Tulsa. They were there, but we didn't finish."

Hopefully, having beat UTSA their last game at home and playing well against a good Tulsa team will provide a needed boost for the Owls in their return to Rice Stadium against Southern Miss.

The offensive look with Luke Turner (who played quarterback in high school and can also throw the ball) out of the Wild Owl really changes the game plan for those playing Rice. Now, with a mobile quarterback, a successful history of running the option and the Wild Owl, there is no shortage of gadgets in Bailiff's arsenal.

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