The Rice Owls did not play a perfect game this weekend. There were the ubiquitous missed tackles, the killer turnovers, the head-scratching plays. But none of that mattered this weekend because despite the rain and the wind and the occasional sloppiness on the field, the Owls defeated Army for the 38-31 win to go to 4-3 for the season.
The Owls led for most of the game playing what was probably the best all-around Rice game this season. The Owls rushed for 165 yards and passed for another 267. The defense did about as well as could be expected against Army’s triple option run offense, an offense which very few college teams run. And while Army did accumulate 389 yards on offense (378 by rush), the scores came off poor tackling, not from blown assignments.
Rice Head coach David Bailiff made it clear that there still might be some personnel changes coming because he’s seeing too many of the same players making too many of the same mistakes and penalties on the field. Still, he said he was very pleased with how his team played the game, especially with how Jackson operated the offense.
“We have to start improving,” Bailiff said. “We’ve been known for being the smartest, hardest working team in Conference USA, that doesn’t beat itself. Some of those penalties we’re getting, we’re going to have to figure out why those are happening. It’s getting to where it’s the same number it’s happening with, so we’re going to have make some personnel decisions if they continue. Those have to be a thing of the past for us to achieve our goals.”
It was just three weeks ago that the Owls season appeared to be over. The team had suffered two straight embarrassing losses and a discouraged Bailiff was talking about hitting the reset button. Then came the FAU game where the Owls had to use a miracle comeback to pull off the win. The Owls were a better team than how they’d been playing, especially seeing as how they were doing more to beat themselves than the opposition was.
Jackson said that, during the bye week after the FAU win, he set about reminding his teammates that football was supposed to be fun. That he wanted them to go out of the field and remember what it was to like to play football in high school. And whether it was the result of Bailiff hitting a reset button or simplifying things a bit, or whether it was just the players doing Jackson’s bidding and having fun on the field, the Owls looked different against Army.
They leaped out to a quick 14-0 and were up 24-14 at the half, paced by the running game which scored three touchdown and a defense which forced some turnovers. Darik Dillard got Rice’s first touchdown on a 34-yard win. And that run, put Dillard at the top of the NCAA record book as, along with his brother (and Rice Athletic Hall of Fame inductee) Jarrett, has combined for 81 NCAA touchdowns, a number that ties them with Jacquizz and James Rodgers for most ever NCAA touchdowns by brothers.
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But after leading for most of the game, Army took advantage of Jackson losing the grip on a very slippery football to tie up the game, kicking a game-tying field goal with 2:13 left. But instead of playing for overtime, the Owls went for the win. Instead the Owls drove 75 yards in seven plays with Jackson finding Zach Wright in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard TD pass with just 24 seconds left on the clock.
“I’m excited. I’m happy with the way that we played,” Jackson said afterwards. “Like coach said, the small things are something are something we that we focused on this week, but I think it showed today, especially when things got kind of hectic, we were able to kind of focus in and get ourselves together.”
The Owls preseason goals of winning the conference and going to a bowl game are still there for the taking. With games against UTEP, UTSA, and Charlotte still on the schedule, the 4-3 Owls should have no problem with getting enough wins for the bowl bid. But Rice faces Louisiana Tech on Friday night, and Louisiana Tech is currently on top of Rice’s division in C-USA, so for Rice to hit that goal, it’s going to have to win Friday.
The Army win was a good way to restart the season. Now let’s see what Rice has in store for the remaining five games.