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Wagner presents unique challenge

By Evan Neustater     9/1/15 2:32pm

When Rice University takes the field for the first time this season, it will be against a very unfamiliar opponent.

Wagner College, a liberal arts school in Staten Island, New York, will make a trip to Houston on Sept. 5. With an undergraduate population of under 2,000, Wagner is the seventh-smallest school at the Division 1-AA level, the second-highest division of collegiate football and a tier below Rice’s Division 1-A status.

Wagner College first began competing in football in 1927, where today they compete in the Northeast Conference. The Seahawks’ home field is Hameline Field at Wagner College Stadium, named in honor of Walt Hameline, the current athletic director who just resigned as head football coach after the 2014 season. Hameline, the 49th-winningest head coach in college football history, compiled 223 wins in 34 seasons as head coach, including winning the 1987 NCAA Division III National Football Championship. Wagner made the move to Division I in 1992.

Wagner will now begin its first season since 1981 without Hameline leading the team. First-year Head Coach Jason Houghtaling will take the helm of the program where he previously served as offensive coordinator. Houghtaling has spent seven seasons at Wagner, serving as offensive coordinator during Wagner’s 2012 and 2014 Northeast Conference title runs.

During the 2014 season, the Seahawks posted a 7-4 season record including 4-1 in conference play, which placed them in a tie for first, but did not earn a trip to the FCS playoffs. Among their four losses was a 34-3 road defeat at the hands of Conference USA first-year member Florida International University. Rice defeated FIU last season 31-17. 

Offensively, Wagner returns seven starters from a squad that averaged 20.7 points per game in 2014. Senior quarterback Chris Andrews will lead the offense after throwing for 657 yards and three touchdowns on 42 percent completion percentage. Andrews also possesses dual-threat ability, adding 468 yards and four touchdowns through the ground. Additionally, leading rusher Otis Wright returns after rushing for 598 yards and six touchdowns last season. 

Wagner was more effective rushing the ball than passing last season, as the rushing attack outgained the passing game 1,767 yards to 1,484. Conversely, Rice rushed for 2,181 yards and passed for 3,009 last season.

Defensively, Wagner only returned five of 11 starters from last year’s team which sacrificed 18 points per game. Wagner gave up only 914 yards on the ground last season but allowed 2,180 yards passing. With a defensive unit returning only one defensive back, Rice redshirt senior quarterback Driphus Jackson and the offense may look to capitalize on Wagner’s rebuilding defense.

According to Head Coach David Bailiff, Rice cannot overlook Wagner despite their lower-division status.

“All we’ve talked about since January is Wagner,” Bailiff said. “We’ve been telling them that it’s the most important game on the schedule and that you can’t overlook them. ... But you listen to the seniors talk and the theme is pretty consistent that we’re not going to overlook these guys.”

Bailiff also said he knows Wagner will give their best effort to try and upset a bigger-name program.

“This is the first time in 100 straight games that we’re playing a [Division 1-AA] team,” Bailiff said. “That’s one where we know that we’re going to get their best. I used to coach at that level. We used to play the [Texas] A&M’s and I remember how motivated our guys were to make a point. We know that Wagner is going to be challenging for us.”

Rice is 7-3 all-time against Division 1-AA opponents. The Owls last played such an opponent in 2007, a 14-16 loss which came at the hands of Nicholls State University. Rice will open its season against Wagner on Saturday, Sept. 5 at 2:30 p.m.  at Rice Stadium.

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