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Owls' expectations rise as they prepare for Johnny Football

By Daniel Elledge     8/28/13 7:00pm

Rice students returned to the classroom this week, but the football team has been on campus since Aug. 5 preparing for the upcoming season. The Owls open their season this Saturday at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, where they take on an old rival, Texas A&M University and its Heisman-winning quarterback, sophomore Johnny Manziel.

Head Coach David Bailiff said expectations are high for the Owls this season because of the strong finish of their 2012 campaign. After starting last season at 1-5, the Owls won six of their final seven games, including a win at the Armed Forces Bowl against the U.S. Air Force Academy. 

Bailiff said the Owls need to follow up their successful season with another one, something that is unprecedented for Rice. He also said that with the talent on this team, the Owls should be competing for more than just finishing above .500.

"With the expectations [we have after last season], we expect to go to bowl games now," Bailiff said. "We expect to go to conference championships. It's just not something that you look out and think they are not achievable. Our goal is to be 1-0 each week and work hard at the end and see how it all falls out."

One major factor playing into these expectations is Bailiff's belief in the leadership among his players. From its 7-6 team last year, Rice is bringing back 23 seniors, including 19 in their fifth year. Bailiff said he enjoys the level of maturity and the sense of pride and dedication he sees in his players.

"We have 23 seniors," Bailiff said. "Nineteen of them are fifth-year players, so they are invested in this program and invested in this university, and they have provided tremendous leadership, the things you hope for as a coach as seniors take over."

Redshirt junior safety Gabe Baker agreed with Bailiff. Baker said this year feels different and that he and the team fully believe they are ready to take the next step.

"I kind of have the mentality that I am going all in," Baker said. " You have to come with that mindset every year, but we kind of have this different atmosphere, this different feeling as a team that it's been unique from all the years I have been here so far. It just creates that much more excitement and higher expectations for what we can accomplish."

Bailiff and Baker said there are plenty of signs of optimism heading into the Texas A&M game but that it will be a struggle. Texas A&M is ranked in the top 10 in both the USA Today coaches' and Associated Press polls and has not lost a home game to a non-conference foe in five years. Bailiff said that to get prepared for the game, the team has practiced with loud music all week to get the players accustomed to using nonverbal signals for audibles.

"You can't communicate," Bailiff said. "You have to communicate nonverbally in those environments, so we have been piping in the music so we know we got our hand signals down."

Baker said containing Manziel is going to be a difficult task, especially with the loss of senior linebacker Cam Nwosu and cornerback Phillip Gaines. However, Baker said that with the surplus of seniors, there is still enough depth to help keep Manziel in check.

"We have enough experience on the back end and the front end where we can still play with that intensity," Baker said. "I think we will be able to deliver out there. We have some great linebackers that can play, so we are still all the more confident."

Bailiff said the odds are not ideal but that there are many positives to take away from this game. He said he hopes he can look back and see this game as a launching pad for what he hopes to be an amazing season.

"We want to win this football game," Bailiff said. "Bottom line, we need to get better at what Rice does, and that is what the non-conference games are all about, so when we walk off that football field, we need to be a better football team."














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