So close yet so far away. Nobody beats Rice but Rice. There they go again. Playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Just a few of the thoughts going through the head of Rice Owls fans as the Purdue Boilermakers sent the kicking team out for what would be a game-winning 31-yard field goal off of the foot of senior Carson Wiggs, a kicker known for splitting the uprights from much longer distances.
But Purdue was out of timeouts. The clock was quick approaching zero. Purdue was rushing players on and off the field. And Rice linebacker Justin Allen spotted something the fans didn't see. Something the Purdue linemen didn't see. He saw a chance. He saw a gap. A space he could get through and get to the kicker.
"The biggest thing, and you're talking about in a rush, they didn't get proper splits," Allen said. "I saw the A-gap in front of me a little more open than I thought it would be, and I took full advantage and got skinny. We're always taught three steps and get your hand up, and things just went right for us today."
The kicked ball went off of Allen's right forearm and fell far short of the goal posts, giving the Owls the 24-22 win, the perfect gift for Allen, whose birthday was on Friday. The win was also a gift for the Owls and their fans in that it was their first win against a BCS conference school since December 2001, a 15-13 win over Duke, a streak of 22 games.
"You know what? I've been responsible for five years of [that streak]," head coach David Bailiff said. "Some of these players have been responsible for six weeks of it. But it's nice to have it over because I've found more people talked about it than we did. But it's nice to have that behind us. It's nice not to worry about it. I think, and I've always believed since I got here, we're in the process of building a real fine program. It was a win over a Big 10 opponent. I know that's the first time in my fifth season that we've been able to go into a BCS conference and come out with a win. I'm excited. I think it does show that we are building, and getting better, and the kids believe."
The win was big for the Owls, and it was dramatic. And for a lot of people, it might cover up a lot of problems. Problems like the consistently inconsistent offense that looked fantastic on three offensive drives -- three drives ending in touchdowns -- and looked pathetic the rest of the time. Problems like some offensive bizarre play-calling at the end of the game that kept allowing Purdue to get the ball in great field position. Problems like a somewhat undersized defense being stretched to the limit yet again by an offense that kept putting them into bad spots. Problems like bad penalties. Turnovers. Muffed punts.
But while the Owls defense bent often in the second half, giving up long drives and letting the Purdue offense stay on the field, it never broke. The defense stayed together for the entire game, finding ways to make the big stops when needed, and despite all of the yardage gained by Purdue in the second half, they gave up only three points in the second half.
"It's just frustrating because it seems like the last couple of years here, we're just a play away and one step short," Allen said. "And today we weren't. Today we made that last step. And we believed in ourselves. That's one of the biggest things we said all summer. We've got to believe in ourselves before we can see anything reflected on the field. Just had to believe that. And the game wasn't over even though they were a short field goal -- a field goal that most kickers make without even blinking -- we just got in there and disrupted it and turned the tide."
The Owls celebrated this weekend because the Owls getting a win over a school from the Big 10 is a reason to celebrate. But the celebration can only go so long. They've got this week off, then they play Baylor in Waco next week, facing off against Robert Griffin III, one of the most dynamic QBs, one of the most dynamic players, in college football. And despite the win over Purdue, the Owls have another goal.
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The win "feels like a huge monkey just got off our back," Allen said. "It's huge for our program. It's just one game. Winning today isn't going to make us bowl-eligible. We've still got five more to go. Until we get there -- that's where we need to be. We need to be bowl-eligible every year. That's something we strive for. We strive to win the conference. We strive to do great things. It's not about one game."
Coach Bailiff wants the team improving from practice to practice, game to game, play to play. The Owls played far from a perfect game on Saturday and got the win. They need to work on the offense. They need to make it work all of the time like it did at the end of the first half and the start of the second when Purdue had zero answers.
But now they know. Now they know they can beat a team from a major conference. Now they know they can win even when they don't play a perfect game.
HOUSTON-NORTH TEXAS NOTES: The upset alert had to be going through the mind of every Houston Cougars fan on Saturday night as North Texas took the early lead. And the Cougars were only up 20-17 at the half. But then came the third quarter when the Cougars rolled up 21 points, and just like that, the Cougars were 2-0 on the season after beating North Texas by a score of 48-23. Case Keenum threw for 458 yards and 5 TDs. It was his 28th career multiple-TD game, and he moved into fourth on the all-time NCAA passing yards list with 14,354. The Cougar offense rolled up 690 yards. Patrick Edwards had a touchdown and 187 receiving yards and Michael Hayes ran for a touchdown and 78 yards. The Cougars will play at Louisiana Tech next week before returning to Houston to host Georgia State on September 24.