The Rice Owls hosted the Memphis Tigers on Saturday afternoon. The Houston Cougars hosted the East Carolina Pirates on Saturday night. It was a doubleheader of football action that saw the Houston Cougars play perhaps their best all-around football game since the Jack Pardee era while the Owls got a win playing in a game that probably helped to set football back to the age of leather helmets and no passing game.
First came the Owls against the Tigers. Memphis (1-5) is not only the worst team in C-USA, but they've got to be among the worst teams in college football. So this was a game the Owls (2-3) should have won easily. And the final score of 28-6 appears to show that Rice had the easy win. But the game was ugly. Beyond ugly. Featuring malfunctioning offenses and inept play-calling from both teams.
Like the Cougars, the Owls run a no-huddle offense that resembles a spread formation. But the Owls stress the running aspect of the offense. They can't settle on a primary running back, however. They switch from shotgun to wildcat, and they often seem to negate the advantage of the no-huddle by taking up most of the play clock before snapping the ball -- the time often spent with the entire team looking over to the sideline as the play comes in and is then changed and changed again. It's no wonder the Owls have trouble getting into an offensive rhythm, and it's no wonder that the Owls may again be looking at a losing record.
"We still, offensively, though, have got to figure out a way to get in more of a rhythm," head coach David Bailiff said. "We have a lot of talent over there. We're five games into the season."
Perhaps the problem is that they're five games into the season and still can't figure out how to use that talent. They now primarily use Sam McGuffie as a slot receiver as the staff tries to find a way to get him to go north-south down the field instead of east-west. Tyler Smith had a break-out game, netting 97 yards on 14 rushes. But whenever he started to get into a rhythm, the team would substitute in Tyler Peterson or go to the wildcat which was being quarterbacked by Peterson.
Coming into the game, Memphis was allowing 38.4 points per game while surrendering, on average, 524 yards a game. Yet Rice struggled to score 28 points -- seven points coming when the defense got an interception and returned it for a touchdown -- and was able to gain only 350 yards. And while it can be argued that Rice had a good defensive game, it should be noted that Memphis gained 305 yards on offense and possessed the ball nearly as long as the Owls. Still, the defense held Memphis to no touchdowns, which was something a Rice defense hadn't been able to do since 1995.
"It was a lot of fun to win a conference game," Bailiff said. "To make it four in a row at home, and to watch the defense. I don't know when the last time was that the defense didn't give up a touchdown in a game. I'm proud of the defensive coaches, proud of the execution and how hard those kids played."
Contrast the Owls to the Cougars (6-0, 2-0 in conference), who played as close to a perfect game as is possible in defeating ECU (1-4) by a score of 56-3. The Cougars ran their no-huddle offense to perfection -- perhaps Rice should watch some UH game film for a clue as to the effectiveness of a properly run, quick-paced, in-rhythm no-huddle offense.
Case Keenum, playing just a little over three quarters, threw for three touchdowns and 304 yards while completing 30 of 37 passes. But as fun as it was watching Keenum operate the offense to a degree of perfection not seen since the 2009 season, the fun came from the trio of running backs that comprise the UH backfield. Rice talks about the talent of their running-back corps, but they're nothing when compared to what the combo of Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and Charles Sims toss out from game to game. And on this game, they netted 215 rushing yards on 37 rushes, and star of the trio was Sims, who netted 84 rushing yards and two TDs on nine rushes.
"It's just more like a three-headed monster," Sims said. "We're all playmakers. We're all able to make plays."
And that ability to make plays is very appreciated by one Case Keenum. "I can't say enough about all of those guys," Keenum said of the trio. "Catching the ball out of the backfield. Being my check-down, my safety net there as far as pass plays go. And then running the ball. That opens up the passing game."
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But the truly exceptional part of Saturday's game was the play of the much-maligned UH defense. This same defense, which was torched for 42 points by an awful UTEP offense just a week before, shut down the ECU offense, limiting the Pirates to 284 yards, including just 21 rushing yards.
"We executed in all phases," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We had a missed field goal, but it was 54 yards, but even the execution to get to that point, right before the half, was I thought good (kicker Matt Hogan was just short from 54 yards as the first half ended). We made plays when we needed to offensively. We got everybody involved. I thought we were able to run the ball extremely effectively early in the game, and get into a rhythm offensively. And also, defensively, I thought we had a good plan and were able to pressure the quarterback...I thought all in all it was a great team effort."
This was the game that Cougar fans had been waiting for this season. The game where the Cougars put it all together. That game where the offense and defense played flawless football and didn't make stupid mistakes, didn't allow the opposition to take charge and dictate the flow of the game.
The Cougars get a week to rest on the glory of the ECU game as they now have their one open week for the season. They're six games in and halfway through the season, and if they can continue to perform as they did against ECU, the rest of this season should be pretty easy. As for the Owls, well, they got the win. An ugly win. But still a win. Yet nothing to match the perfection that was the UH victory on Saturday night, for that, truly, was a thing of long-yearned-for beauty.