Before the season began, the Rice Owls were confident that they would get the six wins needed to qualify for a bowl game. Five games into the season, with the Owls record at 1-4, the question isn't so much whether the Owls will get to the six wins but whether the Owls will get another win.
Especially coming off Saturday's 42-31 defeat to SMU (3-2) at Rice Stadium.
The Owls were competitive for about a half against the Mustangs. With a little over a minute remaining in the first half, the Mustangs were only up 7-3, and they had the ball at their 20. But a mere three plays later the Ponies were up 14-3 after a 51-yard Kyle Padron bomb down the middle of the field to Aldrick Robinson, a Zach Line rush for 6 yards, and Padron's 23-yard pass to Robinson in the end zone.
"That was a big play," SMU coach June Jones said of the Padron-to-Robinson bomb. "We had maybe a minute-twenty and we were going to take a shot on the first play and if we hit, then I was going to try to score. If we didn't hit it then I was going to run out the clock."
Even though the Owls were able to get the score to 14-10 after recovering a muffed punt return in the end zone early in the third quarter, they never really were close to getting back into the football game. Especially after SMU marched 68 yards on the ensuing drive and scored on another Padron-to-Robinson touchdown pass to make it 21-10.
Drive after drive for Rice was ruined by little things: by a sack, by an interception, by a penalty. Rice's best offensive weapon, kicker Chris Boswell, was even rendered ineffective at one point as a 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned by SMU for a touchdown -- this came after one of those little Rice mistakes that inevitably kill when Boswell's 30-yard field goal attempt right before the blocked kick was nullified by a Rice false start penalty.
"SMU did some good things," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "But once again it's what we didn't do. That blocked field goal was a 10-point swing. The interception returned for a touchdown [Rice QB Nick Fanuzzi was picked off in the first quarter and the pass was returned by SMU for the game's first touchdown.]....You take those two mistakes and it was a winnable football game."
And while there may be some truth to this having been a winnable football game for Rice - as, in many ways have all of their games this year -- the truth of the matter is it what was more than just those two mistakes that kept this from being a winnable football game for Rice.
The Owls were running a no-huddle offense all night, but the wisdom of the no-huddle was questionable in that often they didn't get the play off until right before the play clock expired as Fanuzzi, his backfield, and the receivers were looking over at the bench as a play was being called, thus negating the supposed benefit of the no-huddle helping to speed up the offense.
Conversely, Rice's offense worked the best for the night when they actually went into a no-huddle two-minute hurry-up offense. Fanuzzi credited the success of the offense at those times to the fact that the players weren't thinking at the moment, they were just playing.
"There's no reason why we couldn't have done that in the first quarter," Fanuzzi said of the team's late-game offensive success. "I don't think anything changed. At that point we were much more calm [late in the game]. We went out there and executed. There's no reason why we can't do that in the first quarter. There was no change in what we did. It's on us as players and I know it's going to come."
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But why the offense didn't work the rest of the night - except for running back Sam McGuffie who gained 99 yards on 20 rushes and 45 yards on five receptions - was the question nobody could answer.
"We just have to watch the video," Bailiff said. "We've seen it every game when we get that rhythm. All I know is to get with Nick and figure out how to duplicate the success we've had. Once we've established it, we've got to make it a habit. We've got to make the rhythm a habit."
And after Fanuzzi's first quarter interception was taken back for the touchdown, Bailiff did try switching things up by going back to freshman Taylor McHargue, who had missed the last several games because of an injury to his throwing shoulder. However, on his second play, there was a bad snap. McHargue was able to fall on the ball and recover it, but SMU's Ja'Gared Davis dove into McHargue's shoulder and knocked him back out of the game.
But Fanuzzi or McHargue, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Until Rice learns not to make the little mistakes early in the game or late in the game, then the good times aren't going to happen. And until those good times start to happen, there's just no way the Owls are going win six games this season and make that promised bowl game.