The Rice Owls and Baylor Bears used to play each other every season. Then the Southwest Conference imploded. The Bears used some political clout to get into the Big 12, a conference where they've been outclassed every season. The Owls have bounced around a bit, playing first in the WAC and now in Conference USA. And the Owls, much like Baylor, have been outclassed and out-manned despite their conference affiliation.
The Owls have suffered a bit of a rebirth in this last half of the decade. They've made two bowl games, winning once, and though they still tend to lose more games than they win, they're no longer the pushover they were for many, many years.
The Baylor Bears hired Houston Cougar head coach Art Briles after the 2007 season, and while the Bears have yet to have a wining season under Briles, they've become slightly more competitive, especially when dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin III is healthy. And unfortunately for the Owls, Griffin is healthy heading into this weekend's match-up of former Southwest Conference foes.
"Art's done a great job," Rice head coach David Bailiff said on Monday. "Baylor has a lot better team speed than they've had in the past. Griffin, at quarterback, he's somebody you'll see play on Monday Night Football. e's a great player. They're offensive line is massive. Art's doing what he did at Houston. He's building a great program. He's doing it around team speed. Defensively they base out of the 4-3. They're blitzing a little bit more than we've seen out of our first three opponents. But he's recruiting nice, and he's building a nice program."
The key for the Owls is to hope that the Bears (2-1) aren't that nice program yet -- and last week's defeat against TCU shows that they're a long way from being competitive against good teams -- while fixing the things that have been going wrong for the 1-2 Owls this season.
"We're a pretty good football team, but we don't have a large margin for error," Bailiff said. "We can't overcome the errors that we make....we have to eliminate those."
The Owls this season have, for the most part, been competitive against bigger, stronger competition. But while they're improving as a team, they're not a team that is so talented that they can make stupid mistake after stupid mistake and still hope to win a football game. And making stupid mistake after stupid mistake is something the Owls have been doing a bit too much this season. Like holding calls negating long runs. Or false starts. Or interceptions ruining long possessions. Or the continued inability to effectively run the offense from the red zone, thus costing the team points.
"There's no doubt....we're not getting a lot of them," Bailiff said of the mistakes. "But we're getting them at the wrong time, when we're in critical situations. We have to eliminate those mistakes. We can't continue to have self-inflicted loss of downs when it's something we can control."
The Owls defense has shown the most promise so far. Despite having to spend lots of time on the field, they've been able to keep the team in most games. One quarter doomed them to losses against Texas and Northwestern, and those bad quarters wouldn't have been so dooming if the offense had been able to get everything together at the right time.
"Offensively, we're doing some nice things," Bailiff said. "Still, when we get in the red zone, we're kicking way too many field goals. We need touchdowns when we get down there. That's going to be a point of emphasis. This week in practice is just getting a lot more red zone work. When it gets condensed down there, we still have to make plays."
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Bailiff admits the coaches are still trying to devise ways to get their most dynamic offensive players involved all of the time, and one thing they've been trying more of is putting running back Sam McGuffie in the slot while fellow back Tyler Smith stays in the backfield. That way, the both of them are on the field at the same time, and hopefully, from this, the Owls can generate more yards and more points.
But the focus of this game is once again going to fall on the Rice defense which is going to be called on to shut down Griffin, one of the more dynamic offensive players in the country. Griffin has thrown for 703 yards this season, but he's also averaging 4.3 yards whenever he rushes with the football while he has become the first-ever Baylor QB to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his career.
If the Owls can find a way to keep Griffin shut down while keeping the errors to a minimum, then they might be able to win this game and go 2-2 on the season. But if they fail at one or both, then they're probably looking at another loss and another weekend of what-ifs and what-shoud-have-beens.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: The Bears have won the last four contests between the two schools, including a 42-17 pounding of Rice in 2007. But the Bears are only 2-11 on the road under Art Briles, including 1-2 in non-conference games....The Owls are playing their fourth of seven straight games in the state of Texas. They don't venture outside of the state until October 23 when they head to Orlando for a game with UCF....This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Rice Stadium....The game kicks off at 7 p.m. and will be televised on CBS College Sports.