It was one of those perfect November afternoons that can make Houstonians forget the existence of August. For the Rice Owls, it was the most perfect afternoon for the team this season, one of those days of dominating football leading to a 44-24 victory over UTEP.
Saturday’s game featured a 34-3 Rice halftime lead. It saw the Owls gain a total of 482 yards on offense, including 236 yards on the ground, which was supposed to be Rice’s strength coming into the season. The loss of starting quarterback Tyler Stehling on the first drive of the game did not slow the Owls as redshirt freshman Jackson Tyner came off the bench to throw two TD passes while catching another off of a pass thrown by receiver Temi Alaka off of a reverse.
“It was a lot of fun,” Tyner said. “O-line did amazing. It felt like I had all day to throw. Our backs had huge holes to go through.”
The defense put together its best game of the year, holding UTEP to only 232 yards, including a total of just 42 yards on in the first half. The Owls went four-for-five in the red zone, won the time of possession battle, and committed just three penalties.
“I thought our defense was as solid... and really played solid all afternoon,” head coach David Bailiff said. “I thought we tackled well together. Thought our field distribution defensively was good. I thought we challenged every route….But overall, we knew going into the game that we were going to have to stop the run and tackle [UTEP running back Aaron Jones] and we did that.”
Such days have been few and far between for Rice this season. Or last season, for what it matters. The win gives the Owls a record of 3-8 with only a game at Stanford on Saturday left this season. It’s another season without a bowl game for Rice, the second in a row, and the sixth in the 10 years that David Bailiff has been around as head coach. Which leads to the question: will David Bailiff be coaching the Rice Owls next year?
Seemingly every conversation about Bailiff around Rice starts like this: “I love David, but…” The "but" being that maybe the team has plateaued under his leadership. That he’s done all that he can do, taken the team as far as it can go, and if the Owls are going to prevent a return to the very darkest days of the 1970s and 1980s, then maybe somebody new needs to be running the program.
Bailiff’s record at Rice is 56-68 over 10 seasons, with one game left. If he were coaching the Texans, this record would get him a contract for life. But he’s had only four winning seasons, and his teams have lost at least eight games in five seasons. There are some alumni and fans of Rice, however, who desire more than just mediocrity.
Bailiff has run into a bit of bad luck with injuries this season. The offensive line was decimated by injuries — having the original starters available for the third straight game on Saturday showed just how good it can be when all of them are healthy. But then again, injuries are always an excuse with the Owls, like last season when the team went 5-7, missing out on a bowl for the first time in three seasons, and the discussion was all about the young kids who were having to play before they were ready to play because of all of the injuries to the expected starters.
Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard has stated in interviews that Bailiff could return should the team show signs of hope and optimism as the season ends. Two straight wins, improved play on offense and defense and a squad of young players who have been learning as they go along seem to point to just that right amount of hope and optimism that could guarantee Bailiff an 11th season as head coach.
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But what of the alumni, like those donors who have chipped in to provide massive facility upgrades? What if they’re tired of losing? What if they’ve had enough of hope and optimism at the end of a season that has, once again, been decimated by injuries and inexperience? And how much longer can the talk of injuries and inexperience be used to excuse losing records, especially if attendance, always low at Rice Stadium, continues to drop?
David Bailiff has done an admirable job at an institution where the football program was for too long an afterthought. He graduates his players, and has been pumping out multiple players into the NFL for the past several years. He has recognized that he can’t get the best, most physical, most athletic players. And he’s learned to adjust to Rice rules where classes and labs take precedent over practice.
So that also enters into the equation: finding a person that’s not only a good football coach, but also gets what being a student at Rice is all about. Who’s to say that that hot coordinator or FCS-level coach would want to deal with the Rice restrictions and would instead just head off to a college where the only worry is coaching football?
But this all a decision that’s likely still to be made. One that won’t be known until after Saturday’s game at Stanford brings an end to what should be considered another disappointing season of Rice football.