The Rice Owls on Saturday went out and did to the UTEP Miners what other teams for years did to the Rice Owls. The Owls beat the crap out of UTEP, winning the game by a 45-7 score that was nowhere near as close as that score indicated. The Owls threw the football with the ease. The Owls ran the football with ease. The Owls tackled. The Owls recovered fumbles and got spectacular interceptions.
Rice started slow, punting on their first two drives and settling for the 3-0 lead after one quarter. Then they hit the after-burners and never looked back. They were up 24-7 at the half with Charles Ross leading the way on the ground with 130 rushing yards and a touchdown. The other two touchdowns came by way of Taylor McHargue passes to Jordan Taylor (for 60 yards) and Dennis Parks (for 17 yards). The Owls added another seven points in the third quarter when McHargue and Taylor hooked up for 72 yards, then added the final 14 points in the fourth when McHargue found Taylor for 23 yards and Jawon Davis ran it in from the ten yard line.
The Owls record improved to 6-2 with the win, earning the team bowl eligibility for the second year in a row, something that in the past could never be contemplated. With the win the Owls are 4-0 in C-USA play, sitting atop the West Division standings and angling for the C-USA title and the trip to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl.
THE TURNING POINT
UTEP's Aaron Jones busted a huge run late in the second quarter, going 81 yards before Rice's Julius White made the diving stop to knock him out at the three-yard line. Rice was up 17-7 at the time, and UTEP was in prime position to put up at least three points to keep the score close. But two plays later Jones fumbled at the one-yard line. The Rice offense then trotted out onto the field and ran off an 11-play drive mixing rushes and passes that ended when Ross took the handoff from at the one-yard line and bulled in to the end zone just as the first half ended.
"Julius White makes the tackle," Rice head coach David Bailif said. "Julius White through unbelievable effort makes this tackle that gets that sequence going. That was nothing but sure effort on his part to keep that young man out of the end zone. Julius White sparked it. Then the whole defense gets that ball out...but that was Julius' unbelievable play. You say you never know, that's why you've got to play with great effort, and that's what Julius proved on that play."
It's kind of easy to say that UTEP never recovered following that sequence of events. But it's also important to note that from that point onward, the Owls played with a level of confidence that they've not often displayed.
FAMINE, FAMINE, FEAST
UTEP's defensive strategy was much like that employed by Florida Atlantic the last time Rice played a game at home. They stacked the line, knowing Rice was going to run, and dared the Owls to throw the football. Even with that, Ross busted off several long runs in the first half, which caused UTEP to continue to focus on stopping the running game. But then Rice took advantage of that with McHargue hooking up with Taylor behind the UTEP secondary, McHargue often hitting Taylor in stride for big gains. These were the same plays Rice tried against Florida Atlantic, but this time the execution was perfect.
"They were in man coverage just like Florida Atlantic was," Bailiff said. "We only completed eight balls, but it was for 259 yards. That's what you have to do when they're in the press-man coverage. It's going to be where's it famine, famine, feast. And unlike FAU, tonight we had some feast."
Taylor's final stat line was four receptions for 185 yards and three touchdowns. McHargue was only eight for 19, but he threw for 259 yards on those passes, and four of them were for touchdowns. The Owls passing game feasted when needed.
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BOWL ELIGIBLE NOT ENOUGH
The Owls are now bowl eligible for the second time in two seasons. And this year, the Owls haven't needed to go on a miracle run to make that happen. Instead the Owls have played some decent football - decent but not great as they have yet to play a good four quarters in any game - and now, not only has the team qualified for a bowl, the Owls are now in a position to move up in the quality of bowls. The team's major goal now is winning the conference and getting a shot at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
"I really am so proud of this football team," Bailiff said. "We're sitting here at eight after eight games 6-2, bowl eligible, and I think we continue to improve as a football team. I think the best is still yet to come."
The next chance for the Owls to improve comes Thursday night when Rice travels to Denton to face conference rival North Texas.