The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers couldn’t have asked for a better, more gracious host than the Rice Owls on Saturday afternoon. Rice gave the Hilltoppers the run of Rice Stadium, letting the team go wherever it wanted, whenever it wanted, unimpeded, without need of escort, for the entire day. And Western Kentucky (4-1) took full advantage of that access, demolishing Rice (2-3) by a score of 49-10 before an alleged crowd of 20,124.
Worse than the loss, worse than the final score, is the simple fact this game was never competitive (for what it’s worth, the score could have been much, much worse, too). Western Kentucky was up 35-10 at the half, and the Rice defense has absolutely no clue as to how to defend the Hilltoppers' passing game. But instead of doing its best Baylor impersonation and running up the score on Rice, Western Kentucky took its foot off the gas, going to the rushing game knowing full well that Rice’s offense was operating in full-on Texans-offensive-incompetence mode.
Yet there’s still a big question from this game: How much was this the result of Western Kentucky being a good football team, and how much was the loss the result of the Owls playing the worst game of football the team has played since the glory days of the Southwest Conference? Because here’s the deal: The Owls weren’t even able to execute the simplest, most fundamental aspects of football on Saturday.
The team look unprepared. The team looked unmotivated. The team looked outclassed and out-coached. The Owls couldn’t cover receivers. The Owls couldn’t tackle runners. Rice couldn’t execute the simple pitch as part of the option play. Receivers couldn’t hold onto passes. Blocks were missed.
It was an all-around embarrassing effort from the Owls. The type of effort that Rice claimed to have forever put behind it. It was Rice beating Rice as much as it was Western Kentucky beating Rice.
“It’s my job to make sure the offense is ready, the defense is ready, the special teams is ready,” Owls head coach David Bailiff said after the loss. “I’m not getting it done. It was one of those games [where] after this one, we’ve got to evaluate what we’re doing offensively. Are we trying to do too much? Do we have to get rid of some things? Are there too many formations? We have to look at everything. Same defensively. Are we using too many personnel groups? Just not confident in what we’re doing? This was on me.”
That still doesn’t let Bailiff’s players off the hook. There appeared to be no sense of urgency. Quarterback Driphus Jackson was replaced early in the second quarter for the simple reason that he was having a really bad football game and Bailiff wanted to try to get some urgency in the team. Jackson wasn’t the sole reason the offense turned the ball over six times, but Rice has been running the QB option for years with Jackson the focus of the play, yet on Saturday it looked like even executing a simple pitch to a running back was something he’s never before attempted.
“We work the option all of the time. That’s something that’s like breathing to us,” Bailiff said. “We just didn’t have it today. [Western Kentucky] slow-played them a little bit, and the pitches weren’t where they normally are.”
Jackson is still the team’s starting quarterback, and Bailiff assures everyone that there is no QB controversy on the team and that Jackson will start on Saturday against Florida Atlantic. But Tom Brady could’ve been behind center for the Owls against Western Kentucky and it wouldn't have made a difference because no matter what problems Jackson had, the rest of the team played just as pitifully as he did.
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“Western Kentucky didn’t come in and beat Rice,” right guard Andre Reue said. “Rice came in and beat Rice.”
Reue then proceeded to blame himself and the seniors and the team’s effort during practice.
“We need to clean it up across the board,” Reue said. “We need more focus in practice. The seniors, we may have gotten a little lax at times. We’re going to clean that up and expect perfection on every play in practice, and it’ll bleed over into games.”
The Owls say their goals for the season are still intact, that they still can win their division, still play for the Conference USA title. But if they continue playing as they did Saturday, as they did last week against Baylor, the Owls can forget about any conference titles and bowl games. The Owls need to regain that focus, need to clean up the play. And more than anything else, the Owls can’t afford to let it go back to the days in the not-so-distant past when it was Rice beating Rice on a consistent basis.